October 21st, 2017
posted by [syndicated profile] dg_weblog_feed at 07:00am on 21/10/2017

Posted by diamond geezer

It's not every day that 500 acres of private land becomes publicly accessible for the first time. In north London, yesterday was such a day.



The Walthamstow Wetlands are a cluster of reservoirs in the Lea Valley, built between 1853 and 1904 to provide drinking water for the metropolis.

Now owned by Thames Water they remain operational, but now fulfil an additional purpose as a nature reserve, especially for birdlife. Until now only those with a permit have been allowed inside, generally anglers and ornithologists, but the entire complex is now open daily, free of charge, and we've a whole new world to explore.



There are ten reservoirs in total, each with a perimeter path to follow, plus a couple of historic buildings with internal attractions of their own. The overall site lies between Tottenham Hale and Blackhorse Road stations, with the main entrance about ten minutes walk from each. Come on foot, or by bike, or leave your car in the car park and expect to pay for the privilege. Dogs are not permitted, apart from the usual exceptions.

The first place to visit is probably the Thames Water Marine Engine House, now converted to a visitor centre and cafe, complete with lightly-stocked shop. Head upstairs to enjoy the viewing platform, which involves stepping out onto a balcony, providing a broad overview of this rather flat area. Also up here are some touchscreen displays (which refused to react to my touch) and a rather wonderful installation of artistic jars, filled by schoolchildren, dangling down through a hole above the cafe. The cafe serves morning breakfast, afternoon lunch and (expensive) cake, and was particularly well frequented yesterday. The toilets are under the stairs. Be sure to collect a foldable map before you venture off.



The map is essential not only because the wetlands are unsigned, but because some of these reservoirs are really rather large, so if you head off the wrong way it could be 20 minutes before you finally link up with another path. To get your bearings, three of the reservoirs lie north of the main road, accessed via a separate entrance, while the majority are to the south. A single cycle path threads across the site, almost two miles from one end to the other, with local access points for residents in Higham Hill or from Coppermill Lane. Other paths aren't necessarily so solid - but a pair of trainers will see you round, it's not currently walking boot consistency underfoot. Certain paths may be closed at certain times of the year, for example to assist breeding.

There are no hides, this isn't that kind of bird reserve, but the paths track the edges of the reservoirs so sightlines are generally clear. Bring some binoculars, because the majority of the wildlife action is small and distant, although you can expect to meet several geese (and their deposits) on the banks. Cormorants and herons are particularly dominant in their island fiefdoms, while overwintering fowl are expected to be abundant over the coming months. Personally I loved the opportunity to walk and walk and walk, with the landscape of the Lea Valley spread out across diverse watery vistas.



It's a wonderful space to explore, and will merit repeated visits, not just to watch the changing of the seasons but because it's pretty much impossible to trek the whole thing in one go. I'm particularly impressed that entrance is free, thanks to a unique partnership between Waltham Forest Council, the lottery, the London Wildlife Trust and Thames Water. I wonder how long they're going to be able to maintain a volunteer presence at each of the four entrances, and I also wonder how they'll ensure everyone's cleared out at the end of the day before they lock the gates.

The Walthamstow Wetlands open to visitors at 9.30am, and close at 5pm in summer and 4pm in winter (that's October to March). Best of all the Walthamstow Wetlands open daily, not just this weekend but henceforth, for a bracing day out whenever. Come twitch, angle or hike, and enjoy.



Some tips (southeast):
» The five reservoirs clustered closest to the visitor centre aren't named, they're numbered, specifically 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
» A good short walk is to circulate around reservoirs 2 and 3, along thin banks with water to either side. The path along the western edge, alongside reservoir 1, is the only wooded zone, hence rather pretty.
» A lot of these paths have reedy spaces for fisherfolk to cast their lines. I saw one particularly large carp gleaming in a net on the bank.
» At the point where reservoirs 2, 3, 4 and 5 meet is a small shelter for trout fishers. I hope all the screwed up tinfoil at the back is evidence of eaten lunches rather than anything less legal.
» The island within reservoir 1 is the largest heronry in the UK. One of the two islands within reservoir 5 is known for its cormorants.
» There's a very useful additional bridge, not shown on the map, approximately between points 6 and 7. Elsewhere, if there isn't a link on the map, there isn't a path.

Some tips (southwest):
» The West Warwick and East Warwick reservoirs have high raised banks, each allowing a lengthy stroll around the rim. Narrow steps, infrequently located, provide access from down below to up top.
» These reservoirs are more functional, and less landscaped, and run either side of the main railway line.
» The West Warwick reservoir is only accessible via a single low tunnel beneath the railway, and feels particularly cut off on the far side. I got followed through by a fox (whoa!) which eyed me suspiciously, then thankfully retreated.
» The Coppermill Tower, on the Coppermill Stream near Coppermill Lane, is a former pumphouse, and will one day provide a viewing platform and exhibition space. It looks great, but as yet it's not quite open.

Some tips (north):
» It's much quieter on this side of the wetlands, because most visitors don't think to cross the road.
» The architectural treat on this side is the Lockwood Reservoir, a vast trough with steep sides and a water tower at either end. The path along the western edge is closed until the end of the year so that a stone road can be laid around the perimeter, and the only way up to the eastern edge is currently to climb the grassy banks, which may or may not be permitted. Best views on the entire site from up top, though.
» The other two reservoirs are shallower, and geesier.
» I think the path round the eastern side of High Maynard reservoir is closed for seasonal reasons, because its gate was shut, but if so the signage wasn't authoritative enough and I could easily have walked through.
» Whoever knew all this was sitting on top of the Victoria line?

Posted by cks

For a long time, the Unix environments that I existed in had a lot of diversity. There was a diversity of versions of Unix and with them a diversity of architectures (and sometimes a single vendor had multiple architectures). This was most pronounced in a number of places here that used NFS heavily, where your $HOME could be shared between several different Unixes and architectures, but even with an unshared $HOME I did things like try to keep common dotfiles. And that era left its mark on Unix itself, for example in what is now the more or less standard split between /usr/share and /usr/lib and friends. Distinguishing between 'shared between architectures' and 'specific to a single architecture' only makes sense when you might have more than one in the same large-scale environment, and this is what /usr/share is about.

As you may have noticed, such Unix environments are increasingly uncommon now, for a number of reasons. For a start, the number of interesting computer architectures for Unix has shrunk dramatically; almost no one cares about anything other than 64-bit x86 now (although ARM is still waiting in the wings). This spills through to Unix versions, since generally all 64-bit x86 hardware will run your choice of Unix. The days when you might have bought a fire-breathing MIPS SMP server for compute work and got SGI Irix with it are long over.

(Buying either the cheapest Unix servers or the fastest affordable ones was one of the ways that multiple Unixes tended to show up around here, at least, because which Unix vendor was on top in either category tended to keep changing over the years.)

With no hardware to force you to pick some specific Unix, there's a strong motivation to standardize on one Unix that runs on all of your general-usage hardware, whatever that is. Even if you have a NFS-mounted $HOME, this means you only deal with one set of personal binaries and so on in a homogenous environment. Different versions of the same Unix count as a 'big difference' these days.

Beyond that, the fact is that Unixes are pretty similar from a user perspective these days. There once was a day when Unixes were very different, which meant that you might need to do a lot of work to deal with those differences. These days most Unixes feels more or less the same once you have your $PATH set up, partly because in many cases they're using the same shells and other programs (Bash, for example, as a user shell). The exceptions tend to make people grumpy and often to cause heartburn (and people avoid heartburn). The result may technically be a multi-Unix environment, but it doesn't feel like it and you might not really notice it.

(With all of this said, I'm sure that there are still multi-Unix environments out there, and some of them are probably still big. There's also the somewhat tricky issue of people who work with Macs as their developer machines and deploy to non-MacOS Unix servers. My impression as a distant bystander is that MacOS takes a fair amount of work to get set up with a productive and modern set of Unix tools, and you have to resort to some third party setup to do it; the result is inevitably a different feel than you get on a non-MacOS server.)

posted by [syndicated profile] crpgaddict_feed at 12:00am on 21/10/2017

Posted by CRPG Addict

I'm not sure there's anywhere in the game that you encounter a dude of this description. I wonder if it's supposed to be Sheltem.
      
Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra
United States
New World (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS; 1992 for Amiga, FM Towns, and PC-98; 1993 for Macintosh, SEGA CD, and TurboGrafx CD; 1995 for SNES
Date Started: 27 August 2017
Date Ended: 12 October 2017
Total Hours: 68
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Might and Magic III is a good entry in a superior lineage. It moves the game from "Wizardry done better" (which characterized the first two titles) to its own category, with an engine that is still turn-based but seems somehow action-oriented. In doing so, it preserves most of the best parts of the earlier games, including an open world, nonlinear gameplay, a hidden-but-interesting plot, and copious special encounters and side quests. There are many absurd moments in the game, but never a boring moment.

It does, unfortunately, introduce a couple of problems. The 1990s start to present an issue that is going to remain relevant all the way through the modern era: as the level of graphical detail of a game increases, we expect an equal increase in the level of content detail, and it becomes jarring when it doesn't appear.
      
Are we supposed to be envisioning hundreds of residents milling about this town square? It's hard to force yourself use your imagination to fill in the details when the water is animated and the ground tiles are cut into irregular rectangles.
      
When I say "content detail," I'm talking about the realism of the world and the way the character interacts with it. Maybe "realism" is the better term overall. I'm making this up as I go along, so forgive me if this theory isn't 100% polished, but I think it generally works, and it explains some of the problems people have with modern AAA titles like Skyrim. When developers were only capable of showing us wireframe graphics, we understood that everything was an abstraction. We didn't complain about lack of realistic layouts or an absence of obvious NPCs because we understood that we were meant to fill in those details with our minds the same way we fill in the very walls of the dungeon. But as graphics improve to show us individual bricks, we start to question the plausibility of the dungeon's very existence, how lighting and sanitation work, and so forth. This is part of the reason that Ultima Underworld will be such a breakthrough in 1992, presenting for the first time a dungeon as a (semi-) realistic ecosystem.

No one makes fun of the food systems of games like Ultima where you have an enormous feedbag with thousands of meals that deplete at a regular basis, but we do make fun of a game like Skyrim, where you can stop combat to ingest 30 cabbages. Once you get to the point that a game can graphically depict individual cabbages, you expect it to treat them like real cabbages. (In fact, let's call this whole thing my "Cabbage Theory.") Abstract hit points? No problem. But you build an engine in which you can graphically make "headshots," to the point where the arrow remains sticking out of the enemy's head? You'd better believe that I expect it to cause more damage than a torso shot. NPCs are little white icons that run around the screen? Sure, I can imagine that they only represent a fraction of who's supposed to live in this town. But when you get to the point where I can see and talk to every NPC in voiced dialogue and they all have individual homes in the city, I'm going to start to question why the capital of the entire country only has 20 people living in it.
       
Walking across an ocean that feels nothing like an ocean towards mountains that feel nothing like mountains.
      
Note that we don't seem to care the other way. Roguelikes often offer absurd content detail in the way that individual objects react with living things (and each other) but only the most abstract graphics. Thus, my theory is that you want your game to remain at or above the line in the graph below. If it is, players aren't draw out of the game by its lack of "realism." If not, the resulting dissonance will probably damage the game for some players and completely break it for others.
        
       
Thus we return to Might and Magic III, where the added detail in graphics and sound raise issues that you'd rather not think about. Why, for instance, can I see all the monsters in each city but not the residents who presumably inhabit them? Terra seems hauntingly empty of people, aside from a handful of NPCs you encounter behind desks plus the people who staff the stores. When the statues in Castle Dragontooth talk about armies of thousands clashing in the northern islands, you can't help but laugh. Individual enemies are as tall as mountains; you could fit maybe six of them on the island that the stories say held 6,000.

Look at the world size. You can walk from the top row to the bottom row in 10.5 game hours and in the process pass from icy tundra to parched desert. (And this isn't an artificial world like VARN or CRON.) The 16 x 16 standard for Might and Magic's game maps is far too small for this more detailed world. The developers took pains to try to give each map its own character and backstory, but you really can't make "Serpent's Wood" or "Enchanted Meadow" all that memorable when they consist of only 8 tiles each.
       
"Do you remember the Crystal Mountains of Might and Magic III?" -- No one.
      
Because of these issues, it's all the more disappointing that the game doesn't take itself seriously in terms of story and quest. Most of the limited NPC dialogue and quest paths that you receive are nonsensical at best and outright comedic at worst. Take the three kings, each wanting the Ultimate Power Orbs to conquer the others. You could have made a truly compelling plot out of this, with the "good" king envisioning a land of order and harmony, the "evil" king pushing for a world in which individual strength and will are paramount, and the "neutral" king looking for balance. Instead, each one is a ranting caricature of his alignment, and you end up siding with any of them only to move the plot forward, with essentially no consequences.

This lack of seriousness was present in Might and Magic II as well, and I guess it's just something we have to live with from this developer. My more important criticism of Might and Magic III is that the game went backwards in its magic and combat systems. I missed fighting battles against dozens of enemies. I missed carefully plotting battles against tough foes that would go for a dozen rounds or more. I missed launching powerful spells against wave after wave of enemies, and adventures in which I had to cast every last healing spell to keep the party on its feet. In Might and Magic III, the average offensive spell so under-performs physical attacks that you really have no reason to cast them. The developers had to make some enemies immune to physical attacks just to justify having a mage class. Mass damage spells are hardly necessary because the screen won't accommodate more than three enemies at a time--less for larger enemies against whom you'd really need those spells. Most of the spells in the game are the same as in its predecessor, when it perhaps needed a new approach to magic to go with its new engine.
      
There isn't a single enemy in this game that "Sun Ray" doesn't feel like overkill against.
      
I didn't like other aspects of combat, including the fact that all characters are in melee range and that archery--absolutely deadly in the hands of the right character in I and II--is relegated here to a "bonus" you get against approaching foes. After the first quarter of the game, it's mostly a waste of time.

Combat overall is too easy. Most foes are temporary annoyances to be brushed aside rather than true obstacles requiring just the right tactics. All the teleportation spells contribute to this lack of difficulty. If you get into a tough scrape, you just need to drop a "Lloyd's Beacon" and "Town Portal" to safety. The game isn't so big that it can easily justify these spells. Their absence, plus perhaps some nerfing of the fountains, plus perhaps an inability to save in dungeons, would have made more balanced gameplay.
     
As I often do, I've spent more time complaining about a good game than talking about its strengths. The paradox here is that a game must offer a certain level of complexity before you can complain about it in detail. Of course, the good points outweigh the bad. Might and Magic III kicks things to the next level in graphics, sound, and mechanics; it feels like a true 1990s game instead of a remnant from the 1980s like so many of its contemporaries. It's enormously addictive. I had to force myself to stop and write. The sense of character development is absolutely constant, the interface so intuitive that you could play in your sleep. It's the type of game for which you find yourself saying "just 10 more minutes" over and over again until suddenly it's 04:00 on a weeknight.
     
Nonetheless, I think the GIMLET is going to disappoint some fans. It will rank high, probably in my top 20, but I suspect it will rank a little lower than its predecessors, which in their more primitive graphics and sound offered better combat and more challenging overall games.

1. Game World. A strength that may seem like a weakness if you're not paying attention. Might and Magic III not only tells its own story but clarifies what was happening in the previous two titles. The manual's backstory and lore are well-written and complement the gameplay well, and I loved the "Corak's notes" feature that offered a little background on every map, outdoor and indoor. The party's cluelessness as to their ultimate goal is part of the charm of the series, so I won't dock any points for that. The game world could have been a little more responsive to the player's actions, but beyond that I don't have a lot of complaints. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. Someone unversed in Might and Magic could be forgiven for thinking that it draws directly from Dungeons and Dragons. During character creation, after all, you get a list of D&D-style races and classes, as well as a list of suspiciously similar attributes. But in character development, the series offers much more rapid and continual development than the typical RPG. A character might start with a might of 15 and end the game with 75. Nearly every dungeon provides a couple of character levels. The skills, while still binary (except for thievery), offer an additional means of development that most RPGs of the time didn't feature.
      
In fact, it's a little too much. I don't think I've ever complained about too much character growth before, but Might and Magic III skirts that edge if any game does. As I played, I routinely delayed training (after the first few hours) because it just didn't matter. If the developers had made Level 100 a distant maximum (instead of the actual Level 200) and essentially halved the game's experience point rewards, it would have resulted in better balance. Casses, races, and alignments still don't matter in any role-playing sense. Score: 4.
       
My ninja's final character sheet.
      
3. NPC Interaction. As with many first-person titles, what you get in Might and Magic is not so much "NPCs" as "encounters during which someone talks." Most of the NPCs are goofy, one-note characters who offer no role-playing options or dialogue choices. You don't even really learn much about the game world from them, with a couple of exceptions. I do like the NPCs who can join the party, but they're not really necessary and if I played the game again, I'd do without them. Score: 3.
   
4. Encounter and foes. Might and Magic offers a satisfying bestiary, with associated strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. Its frequent non-combat encounters with quasi-NPCs, statues, fountains, talking heads, and so forth are a highlight of the game. The riddles and puzzles are a little easy, but at least they're not frustrating. I would dock points for offering a "closed" system--you can kill every enemy in the game and have nothing left to fight--except that it ultimately doesn't hurt character development. Score: 5.
      
I should have done more with the Arena.
     
5. Magic and Combat. Discussed extensively above. A good system, but not a great one. Combat is a little too easy, magic a bit unbalanced. Offensive spells tend to fall into two categories: those so under-powered that it's a waste of time to use them and those that level with the caster and thus cost so much that you can only cast 5 or 6 before having to rest again. At least combat isn't tedious, though: even the toughest battle is over in well under a minute. Score: 4.

6. Equipment. Both a strength and a weakness. I loved all of the different types of equipment and potential slots; every treasure chest seemed to bring an upgrade for one or two characters. The "breakage" system is a little annoying but one of the only consequences to a character getting knocked unconscious. I wasn't as in love with the random generation of item materials and enchantments, and I would have liked to see some unique "artifact" weapons and armor.
       
Things got a little formulaic by the end.
     
Although they exist, I barely explored the use of magic items. You can find items that duplicate almost every spell, along with other items that recharge them, but I mostly just sold them to save inventory space. If combats had been harder, I'd probably have made more use out of them. I also didn't really explore the "Enchant" spell, which adds an effect to unenchanted items, because it doesn't work with the game's better materials. Score: 6.

7. Economy. Useful but badly balanced. After the first few hours, you don't have to worry about money except in a general sense, as you watch training costs grow and wonder where the "tipping point" will be. After your initial purchases, you really don't need money for items. You spend it on spells, training, healing, and training, and it would be nice if the whole system were both more challenging and not closed. I offer a slight bonus for the interest-earning bank accounts and the "money sink" fountain. Score: 5.
       
There's not much logic to it, but it ensures that every gold piece is worth something.
      
8. Quests. The game's primary strength. "Side quests" have still not crept into the average developer's lexicon in 1991, not even with Might and Magic showing how it's done since 1986. Might and Magic III excels at them. Even the main quest has a couple of choices--though more would be welcome--including that final optional area. Score: 6.
      
My mage's final accomplishments. What are those two blank spots and what could I have improved on?
      
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I thought the monster graphics could have used a bit more realism, but they're certainly an upgrade from II. I was less enamored with the overall graphical quality than with the creative use of graphics as part of the interface. Consider how the character portraits change to match their conditions (diseased, curse, drunk, in love), the use of colored gems to depict the character's relative hit point total, the way the gargoyle waves to signal a secret or the bat opens and closes its mouth to show that enemies are near. In melee combat, you can tell how much damage you inflict from the size of the blood splatter that appears when you hit (and none appears at all when you miss). Lots of games have good graphics, but Might and Magic III is one of the few of this era to start incorporating true graphical feedback; to make graphics a key part of the interface rather than just something nice to look at.

Sound is sparse but effective and realistic where used; honestly, no game is going to do great in this category until we start hearing more ambient sounds. The interface is one of the best I've encountered, aside from casting spells, where it would have been nice to have a shortcut or a "favorites" list or something. Score: 7.
       
The well-detailed and animated shop images will continue for the rest of the series.
     
10. Gameplay. As you know, I use this category for considerations like linearity, pacing, difficulty, and replayability. It definitely gets points in the first two categories. I'm generally happy if the number of hours doesn't far exceed the final GIMLET, and here Might and Magic III does fairly well. I personally played it longer than was warranted, spending a lot of time experimenting and dithering around; it's easily winnable in 40-50 hours. And even though I didn't do much with it, the nonlinearity was welcome. On the other hand, balance issues made it a tad too easy (as did the ability to save everywhere), and it's hard to think of it as "replayable" except perhaps for a particular challenge. Score: 6.

This gives us a final score of 52, right about where I suspected it would fall. It ends up at the #19 spot and falls below both Might and Magic I (60) and II (58). Those who would give more weight to graphics and who prefer fast action combat to tactical combat will probably invert those scores across the three games. It is the fourth-highest rated game of 1991, and again I don't dispute the order. There are things I like better about the Might and Magic series than the Gold Box series, but when it comes down to the final assessment, I prefer the relatively more serious nature of Pools of Darkness and Death Knights of Krynn, the more tactical combat, and the greater challenge that they offer.

If I could play it again, I'd try something more challenging. Perhaps only four characters, or perhaps a party of nothing but knights, forcing me to make better use of special items with magic effects. I'd like to hear from someone who gave that a shot. I resisted the temptation to try a speedrun, mostly because I saw that it had already been done a few times. One guy did it in about 5 minutes, but he used cheat codes at the teleporter to get an Ultimate Power Orb and a ton of gold early in the game. A more honest one took about half an hour. He did what I would have done: got a little money early in the game, put it in the bank to earn interest for about 10 years, collected it, and donated so much to the fountain in Fountain Head that he was able to take characters to Level 150 all at once. He then bought the necessary teleport and damage spells and a ton of might potions for smashing doors and getting the pyramid key card, visited the central pyramid for the teleportation box, and used it to zip to each dungeon to collect orbs and hologram cards.

I did spend some time trying to raise my high score, fighting about 10 arena battles and donating a few million to the experience fountain before returning to the endgame. I went from 1.1 billion points to 1.2 billion.
      
I'm sure much higher scores are possible.
      
Computer Gaming World featured Might and Magic III on the cover of the May 1991 issue, and a review by Johnny L. Wilson is all positive, focusing primarily on graphical details. It was a nominee for "Game of the Year" in the magazine's November 1992 issue, which makes no sense, but lost out to Ultima Underworld, which is hard to dispute. If it had been evaluated in its actual year, it's hard to see how it wouldn't have beaten Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (which itself was being evaluated a year too late, as it's a 1990 game). Dragon gave it 5/5, which for once I understand, but again I have to comment how a magazine dedicated primarily to tabletop role-playing never seems to focus on actual role-playing mechanics in its reviews of computer games. It's always about graphics, sound, music, interface . . . anything but combat rolls and attributes.
    
The copywriters fell down on this one. Is the title called Power and Magic? I don't think so.
     
Even Amiga magazines rated it well. Percentages range from 81% (Amiga Joker) to 93% (Amiga Action). To the extent that these reviews have complaints, it's primarily about frequency and speed of disk access on the Amiga specifically. I almost always find something that bothers me in an Amiga Action review, but here they were actually quite fair and thorough, calling it the "best role-playing adventure available on the Amiga."

In a 2012 RPG Codex interview, John Van Caneghem recalled that his team went "all out" on III, eager to meet expectations of gamers primed on two excellent predecessors. He notes that it was the "smallest seller" of all the titles, probably because many fans of the series hadn't upgraded to the 1990s platforms, but the best reviewed and highest-awarded.

To the best of my recollection, Might and Magic IV and V uses an update of the same engine, but perhaps with a better story? I honestly don't remember anything about it. It will unfortunately be the end of 1992 before I get to explore the pair, but the prospect of playing them is almost enough to get me through the rest of 1991. Before then, we'll be looking at another New World production: Planet's Edge (1992), which has a completely different interface but shows art director Louis Johnson's influence in the cut scene graphics. The title also shares several of the same programmers; I know virtually nothing about it but look forward to it.

For now, we have 13 more titles to finish in the interminable 1991. I want to do it by this blog's 8th anniversary in February.


posted by [syndicated profile] johndcook_feed at 12:00am on 21/10/2017

Posted by John

Time series analysis and digital signal processing are closely related. Unfortunately, the two fields use different terms to refer to the same things.

Suppose you have a sequence of inputs x[n] and a sequence of outputs y[n] for integers n.

Moving average / FIR

If each output depends on a linear combination of a finite number of previous inputs

y[n] = b0 x[n] + b1 x[n-1] + … + bq x[nq]

then time series analysis would call this a moving average (MA) model of order q, provided b0 = 1. Note that this might not really be an average, i.e. the b‘s are not necessarily positive and don’t necessarily sum to 1.

Digital signal processing would call this a finite impulse response (FIR) filter of order q.

Autoregressive / IIR

If each output depends on a linear combination of a finite number of previous outputs

y[n] = a1 y[n-1] + … + ap y[np]

then time series analysis would call this an autoregressive (AR) model of order p.

Digital signal processing would call this an infinite impulse response (IIR) filter of order p. However, according to DSP conventions the coefficients would be –a0 through –ap. That is, signal processing authors would write the equation above as

y[n] = – a1 y[n-1] – … – ap y[np]

ARMA / IIR

If each output depends on a linear combination of a finite number of previous inputs and outputs

y[n] = b0 x[n] + b1 x[n-1] + … + bq x[nq] + a1 y[n-1] + … + ap y[np]

then time series analysis would call this an autoregressive moving average (ARMA) model of order (pq), i.e. p AR terms and q MA terms.

Digital signal processing would call this an infinite impulse response (IIR) filter with q feedforward coefficients and p feedback coefficients. Also, as above, DSP has the opposite sign convention on the a‘s.

Related

DSP and time series consulting

 

posted by [syndicated profile] the_angriest_feed at 10:52am on 21/10/2017

Posted by Grant

An Artist is a new series of posts profiling a contemporary artist whose work I find interesting. I am a big fan of contemporary art, and was keen to step out from a usual diet of comic book and television reviews to provide something a bit different.

Takashi Murakami is a Japanese pop artist, best known for founding the so-called "superflat" movement of bright, colourful, anime-inspired paintings and sculptures. He has also expanded into film-making via his 2013 fantasy feature Jellyfish Eyes (which I reviewed here). Murakami is unapologetically a commercial artist: his stuff is widely merchandised and mass-produced, and he attracts a far wider audience and fan base than a typical fine artist might. More than one critic has compared his style and career to American pop artist Andy Warhol. Certainly he has followed Warhol's lead by establishing an entire factory-style studio where a team of assistants enable him to produce art works on an accelerated schedule.

I find myself attracted to Murakami's work because of the colour. The bright, bold colour schemes that dominate his work just jump right off the canvas, grabbing the attention in whatever room in which his works get exhibited. There's a childlike simplicity to most of his work, but there's something about some of his works that can be weirdly unsettling too.

I like how he has co-opted manga and anime art and separated it from its original narrative purpose to work on a purely aesthetic level; he is far from the only Japanese contemporary artist to do this, but he is absolutely one of the most significant. Of all the noted Japanese pop artists to have expanded internationally, Murakami is likely the most famous. He's a great starting point for exploring the Japanese contemporary art scene.

Takashi Murakami, Self-Portrait of the Manifold Worries of a Manifoldly
Distressed Artist
, 2012. (Acrylic on canvas.)
Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo Puking - a.k.a. Gero Tan, 2002. (Acrylic on
canvas, mounted on board.)
Takashi Murakami, Homage to Francis Bacon, 2016. (Acrylic on canvas.)
Takashi Murakami, Dragon Heads - Gold, 2015.
(Gold leaf on carbon fibre and glass fibre.)
Takashi Murakami, Peach Milk, 1998. (Acrylic on linen on board.)
Further reading
  • Takashi Murakami Wikipedia entry (link)
  • A 2003 profile of Murakami by Jeff Howe for Wired (link)
  • A 2010 interview with Murakami by Alison Gingeras for Interview (link)
  • A 2017 short video feature on Murakami by Derek Blasberg for CNN (link)
  • A good summary of Murakami's work and style at The Art Story (link)
October 20th, 2017

Posted by John

Authors will often say that “without loss of generality” they will assume that a differential equation has no first order derivative term. They’ll explain that there’s no need to consider

y'' + p(x) y' + q(x) y = 0

because a change of variables can turn the above equation into one of the form

y'' + q(x) y = 0

While this is true, the change of variables is seldom spelled out. I’ll give the change of variables explicitly here in case this is helpful to someone in the future. Define u(x) and r(x) by

u(x) = \exp\left( \frac{1}{2} \int^x p(t)\,dt\right ) y(x)

and

r(x) = q(x) - \frac{1}{2}p'(x) - \frac{1}{4}p(x)^2

With this change of variables

u'' + r(x) u = 0

Proof: Calculate u” + ru and use the fact that y satisfies the original differential equation. The calculation is tedious but routine.

Example: Suppose we start with

xy'' + y' + x^3 y = 0

Then dividing by x we get

y'' + \frac{1}{x}y' + x^2 y = 0

Now applying the change of variables above gives

u'' + \left(x^2 + \frac{1}{4x^2}\right)u = 0
and our original y is u / √ x.

Posted by Kate Sierzputowski

British artist Olivia Kemp creates large-scale drawings that combine observational studies made in Norway, Italy, and Scotland with fantastical places that exist only in her imagination. Her pen and ink works contain dense villages of twisting tree houses within forests and log cabins sprinkled through out private islands, each appearing isolated from modern civilization.

“I draw in order to make sense of landscape but also to construct and remodel it,” explains Kemp in her artist statement. “I build worlds and imaginary places that grow out of a need to interpret the sites that I have known, expanding and developing them across a page. This encompasses everything, from the visions of a grand landscape right down to the details of the land, the plants and creatures that may inhabit it.”

When creating her meticulous works Kemp notes that she often falls into a trance-like state, the final result surprising even herself. New works, including the 6-foot-long Archipelago, are currently on view in her solo exhibition at Browse&Darby in London through November 3, 2017. You can see more of the artist’s work on her website and Instagram. (via Hi Fructose)

posted by [syndicated profile] twentysidedtale_feed at 04:31pm on 20/10/2017

Posted by Rutskarn

As we complete the Braun chamber [3], we run into one of my trickier objections to Fallout 3’s story design: the part where we’re actually reunited with our father comes off awkward and not especially satisfying. Partially this is for emotional reasons, since the story’s kept our attitude towards our father more or less in limbo since his inexplicable and extremely irresponsible departure from Vault 101, but more practically it is because what we really need is a sequence where we hash things out with dad and it doesn’t fit into the established meter of this section.

Even story-first players such as myself will get impatient if too much time is spent frozen in conversation limbo right after a sequence that’s overly scripted or linear. It’s bad design to jump straight from the Braun chamber into our heart-to-heart dialogue with our father; we need a little time to roam around and stretch our legs with some unscripted mechanical engagement. Besides, it would feel weird to have a serious talk in the Stanford prison vault…although given that it seems perfectly safe and clean, and how emotionally urgent this scene is, it also feels weird not to unless there’s actually a good reason.

Because you know what else feels weird? Busting your dad loose, trading a few perfunctory pleasantries, then agreeing to defer conversation until you’ve both silently trekked across the wasteland, punching animals and putting the Project Purity band back together.

What would be natural would be to catch up with your father as you exit together, but the engine can’t handle that and it wouldn’t feel right even if we found a workable compromise–for example, breaking the conversation up between “nodes” along our trip. Our story demands a face-to-face comfortable dialogue the logistics of the scene isn’t disposed to give us.

There has to be a better way.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal, only this scene is kind of the emotional highlight of the whole arc. If it’s a little bit janky, that’s more than a little bit of a problem. Here are my best immediate fixes:

  1. Transition straight into another action beat. The player’s tripped the Vault’s security somehow and after only a few lines of dialogue, the player and father have to shoot their way out. Basically, remove the Vault itself as a safe quiet space for a conversation and we remove the player’s reasonable desire to have one there, even if it’s a little bit awkward.
  2. Once the players are outside the Vault in the wasteland, that’s clearly not the right place to have a heart-to-heart. However, James knows a good place nearby. We can take advantage of an already existing location (is that one fishing shack nearby? I forget) or posit our own—some wasteland diner selling dog meat and chips in discreet booths, maybe.
  3. Once the player reaches that place, and sits down with James, then they have their important discussion.

I’ve made no secret about my dislike for James as portrayed in the main game. I think he’s shortsighted, impulsive, unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, and a thousand times more boring than any of these qualities suggest because the game won’t acknowledge them. Occasionally the player can say something like “That was really stupid, dad,” and he’ll say, “You’re right,” and then everyone involved will smooth over it. His most dangerous mistakes aren’t treated as consequences of who he is or the logical products of his principles; they’re basically on the level of forgetting to buy orange juice at the grocery store.

This conversation has to have some passion to it, even if the player isn’t interested in picking a fight. I want to give Liam Neeson something to do. This is where that voice acting money’s gonna come in, because this conversation’s going to have an uncomfortably high number of branching permutations.

The talk will always start the same way: dad, who’s clearly been rehearsing this on the way over, says something to the effect of: “I appreciate your help, but I really didn’t want you to come after me, and while I respect your choices I think it would be best if you returned home until…”

At which point the player gets to tell him, with optional degrees of sass: “You know I got kicked out, right?”[4]

He’s going to react with anger and outrage—“I can’t believe the overseer would do that, he’s insane, what kind of blah blah”—and the player will have their first real choice in the discussion.

On the one hand, they can challenge this reaction. Not because he’s wrong, but because the intensity and duration of his anger is clearly a defense mechanism excusing himself of wrongdoing. It’s the emotional logic of guilty people everywhere: if the Overseer’s actions were irrational, delusional, unethical, maniacal, then James is absolved of any responsibility for jeopardizing his child with such an irresponsible and miscommunicated escape. Players may point out to James that while the Overseer is a tyrant, he should have taken that into account when deciding to run away. James will not react gracefully to this point; he’ll overflow with excuses. It’s not my fault. I thought he was reasonable. You’re a grown adult, you can take care of yourself. There’s more lives at stake than mine and yours. In the face of these rationalizations and dodges player will have options to let off the heat, to hold firm, or to fire back. Stepping off will return the conversation to the middle, and the already tense and charged conversation will continue as normal. Holding firm will make it clear that for one reason or another, James is barely holding it together and will probably have a breakdown if he lets himself realize he’s at fault. Firing back will get very, very ugly.

The other initial reaction available to the player is the comfortable one: to echo their father’s anger at the Overseer. By bonding over mutual indignation, the player offers James solidarity, relief, and absolution. The player gives themselves the gift of bonding positively with one’s father at the expense of an honest emotional accounting. People make choices very much like this with their families every day.

After the confrontation there is a chance to make James justify his actions, either by simply asking him to explain himself or by demanding he return home for your sake (a request he’ll hotly refuse). James expresses how deep a depression he’d fallen into; how useless and helpless he felt, how he couldn’t shake the feeling that all he was doing was make himself and his family comfortable at the expense of increasing human misery in 101. His dreams became haunted with his wife, the player’s mother, and the heartbreaking feeling she’d died for nothing. He kept his past from the player out of an earnest but misplaced desire not to inflict the burden of his choices and sacrifices on them. He explains that no good can be done without sacrifice. He will ask for forgiveness.

If things go well, the player is asked to join him at Project Purity. If things don’t, the conversation will probably end decidedly prematurely. He will leave somberly, telling you (with barely concealed anger) to return once you’ve both had time to think things through, and the quest will be marked resolved. Then, some time later, a new quest will emerge: Confront your father.

NEXT: THE ENCLAVE ARRIVES

Posted by Jimmy Maher

Over the course of six months in 1967, 50 million people visited Expo ’67 in Montreal, one of the most successful international exhibitions in the history of the world. Representatives from 62 nations set up pavilions there, showcasing the cutting edge in science, technology, and the arts. The Czechoslovakian pavilion was a surprisingly large one, with a “fairytale area” for children, a collection of blown Bohemian glassware, a “Symphony of Developed Industry,” and a snack bar offering “famous Pilsen beer.” But the hit of the pavilion — indeed, one of the sleeper hits of the Expo as a whole — was to be found inside a small, nondescript movie theater. It was called Kinoautomat, and it was the world’s first interactive movie.

Visitors who attended a screening found themselves ushered to seats that sported an unusual accessory: large green and red buttons mounted to the seat backs in front of them. The star of the film, a well-known Czech character actor named Miroslav Horníček, trotted onto the tiny stage in front of the screen to explain that the movie the visitors were about to see was unlike any they had ever seen before. From time to time, the action would stop and he would pop up again to let the audience decide what his character did next onscreen. Each audience member would register which of the two choices she preferred by pressing the appropriate button, the results would be tallied, and simple majority rule would decide the issue.

As a film, Kinoautomat is a slightly risque but otherwise harmless farce. The protagonist, a Mr. Novak, has just bought some flowers to give to his wife — it’s her birthday today — and is waiting at home for her to return to their apartment when his neighbor’s wife, an attractive young blonde, accidentally locks herself out of her own apartment with only a towel on. She frantically bangs on Mr. Novak’s door, putting him in an awkward position and presenting the audience with their first choice. Should he let her in and try to explain the presence of a naked woman in their apartment to his wife when she arrives, or should he refuse the poor girl, leaving her to shiver in the altogether in the hallway? After this first choice is made, another hour or so of escalating misunderstanding and mass confusion ensues, during which the audience is given another seven or so opportunities to vote on what happens next.

Kinoautomat played to packed houses throughout the Expo’s run, garnering heaps of press attention in the process. Radúz Činčera, the film’s director and the entire project’s mastermind, was lauded for creating what was called by some critics one of the boldest innovations in the history of cinema. After the Expo was over, Činčera’s interactive movie theater was set up several more times in several other cities, always with a positive response, and Hollywood tried to open a discussion about licensing the technology behind it. But in 1972 the whole thing came to an abrupt end when the film was banned by Czechoslovakia’s ruling Communist Party in one of their periodic crackdowns on “decadent” art. It was all but forgotten during the years that followed, to be rescued from obscurity only well into the 1990s, after the Iron Curtain had been thrown open, when it was stumbled upon once again by some of the first academics to study seriously the nature of interactivity in digital mediums.

Had Činčera’s experiment been better remembered at the beginning of the 1990s, it might have saved a lot of time for those game developers dreaming of making interactive movies on personal computers and CD-ROM-based set-top boxes. Sure, the technology Činčera had to work with was immeasurably more primitive; his branching narrative was accomplished by the simple expedient of setting up two film projectors at the back of the theater and having an attendant place a lens cap over whichever held the non-applicable reel. Yet the more fundamental issues he wrestled with — those of how to create a meaningfully interactive experience by splicing together chunks of non-interactive filmed content — remained unchanged more than two decades later.

The dirty little secret about Kinoautomat was that the interactivity in this first interactive film was a lie. Each branch the story took contrived only to give lip service to the audience’s choice, after which it found a way to loop back onto the film’s fixed narrative through-line. Whether the audience was full of conscientious empathizers endeavoring to make the wisest choices for Mr. Novak or crazed anarchists trying to incite as much chaos as possible — the latter approach, for what it’s worth, was by far the more common — the end result would be the same: poor Mr. Novak’s entire apartment complex would always wind up burning to the ground in the final scenes, thanks to a long chain of happenstance that began with that naked girl knocking on his door. Činčera had been able to get away with this trick thanks to the novelty of the experience and, most of all, thanks to the fact that his audience, unless they made the effort to come back more than once or to compare detailed notes with those who had attended other screenings, was never confronted with how meaningless their choices actually were.

While it had worked out okay for Kinoautomat, this sort of fake interactivity wasn’t, needless to say, a sustainable path for building the whole new interactive-movie industry — a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — which some of the most prominent names in the games industry were talking of circa 1990. At the same time, though, the hard reality was that to create an interactive movie out of filmed, real-world content that did offer genuinely meaningful, story-altering branches seemed for all practical purposes impossible. The conventional computer graphics that had heretofore been used in games, generated by the computer and drawn on the screen programmatically, were a completely different animal than the canned snippets of video which so many were now claiming would mark the proverbial Great Leap Forward. Conventional computer graphics could be instantly, subtly, and comprehensively responsive to the player’s actions. The snippets in what the industry would soon come to call a “full-motion-video” game could be mixed and matched and juggled, but only in comparatively enormous static chunks.

This might not sound like an impossible barrier in and of itself. Indeed, the medium of textual interactive fiction had already been confronted with seemingly similar contrasts in granularity between two disparate approaches which had both proved equally viable. As I’ve had occasion to discuss in an earlier article, a hypertext narrative built out of discrete hard branches is much more limiting in some ways than a parser-driven text adventure with its multitudinous options available at every turn — but, importantly, the opposite is also true. A parser-driven game that’s forever fussing over what room the player is standing in and what she’s carrying with her at any given instant is ill-suited to convey large sweeps of time and plot. Each approach, in other words, is best suited for a different kind of experience. A hypertext narrative can become a wide-angle exploration of life-changing choices and their consequences, while the zoomed-in perspective of the text adventure is better suited to puzzle-solving and geographical exploration — that is, to the exploration of a physical space rather than a story space.

And yet if we do attempt to extend a similar comparison to a full-motion-video adventure game versus one built out of conventional computer graphics, it may hold up in the abstract, but quickly falls apart in the realm of the practical and the specific. Although the projects exploring full-motion-video applications were among the most expensive the games industry of 1990 had ever funded, their budgets paled next to those of even a cheap Hollywood production. To produce full-motion-video games with meaningfully branching narratives would require their developers to stretch their already meager budgets far enough to shoot many, many non-interactive movies in order to create a single interactive movie, accepting that the player would see only a small percentage of all those hours of footage on any given play-through. And even assuming that the budget could somehow be stretched to allow such a thing, there were other practical concerns to reckon with; after all, even the wondrous new storage medium of CD-ROM had its limits in terms of capacity.

Faced with these issues, would-be designers of full-motion-video games did what all game designers do: they worked to find approaches that — since there was no way to bash through the barriers imposed on them — skirted around the problem.

They did have at least one example to follow or reject — one that, unlike Kinoautomat, virtually every working game designer knew well. Dragon’s Lair, the biggest arcade hit of 1983, had been built out of a chopped-up cartoon which un-spooled from a laser disc housed inside the machine. It replaced all of the complications of branching plots with a simple do-or-die approach. The player needed to guide the joystick through just the right pattern of rote movements — a pattern identifiable only through extensive trial and error — in time with the video playing on the screen. Failure meant death, success meant the cartoon continued to the next scene — no muss, no fuss. But, as the many arcade games that had tried to duplicate Dragon’s Lair‘s short-lived success had proved, it was hardly a recipe for a satisfying game once the novelty wore off.

Another option was to use full-motion video for cut scenes rather than as the real basis of a game, interspersing static video sequences used for purposes of exposition in between interactive sequences powered by conventional computer graphics. In time, this would become something of a default approach to the problem of full-motion video, showing up in games as diverse as the Wing Commander series of space-combat simulators, the Command & Conquer real-time strategy series, and even first-person shooters like Realms of the Haunting. But such juxtapositions would always be doomed to look a little jarring, the ludic equivalent of an animated film which from time to time switches to live action for no aesthetically valid reason. As such, this would largely become the industry’s fallback position, the way full-motion video wound up being deployed as a last resort after designers had failed to hit upon a less jarring formula. Certainly in the early days of full-motion video — the period we’re interested in right now — there still remained the hope that some better approach to the melding of computer game and film might be discovered.

The most promising approaches — the ones, that is, that came closest to working — often used full-motion video in the context of a computerized mystery. In itself, this is hardly surprising. Despite the well-known preference of gamers and game designers for science-fiction and fantasy scenarios, the genre of traditional fiction most obviously suited for ludic adaptation is in the fact the classic mystery novel, the only literary genre that actively casts itself as a sort of game between writer and reader. A mystery novel, one might say, is really two stories woven together. One is that of the crime itself, which is committed before the book proper really gets going. The other is that of the detective’s unraveling of the crime; it’s here, of course, that the ludic element comes in, as the reader too is challenged to assemble the clues alongside the detective and try to deduce the perpetrator, method, and motive before they are revealed to her.

For a game designer wrestling with the challenges inherent in working with full-motion video, the advantages of this structure count double. The crime itself is that most blessed of things for a designer cast adrift on a sea of interactivity: a fixed story, an unchanging piece of solid narrative ground. In the realm of interactivity, then, the designer is only forced to deal with the investigation, a relatively circumscribed story space that isn’t so much about making a story as uncovering one that already exists. The player/detective juggles pieces of that already extant story, trying to slot them together to make the full picture. In that context, the limitations of full-motion video — all those static chunks of film footage that must be mixed and matched — suddenly don’t sound quite so limiting. Full-motion video, an ill-fitting solution that has to be pounded into place with a sledgehammer in most interactive applications, suddenly starts seeming like an almost elegant fit.

The origin story of the most prominent of the early full-motion-video mysteries, a product at the bleeding edge of technology at the time it was introduced, ironically stretches back to a time before computers were even invented. In 1935, J.G. Links, a prominent London furrier, came up with an idea to take the game-like elements of the traditional mystery novel to the next level. What if a crime could be presented to the reader not as a story about its uncovering but in a more unprocessed form, as a “dossier” of clues, evidence, and suspects? The reader would be challenged to assemble this jigsaw into a coherent description of who, what, when, and where. Then, when she thought she was ready, she could open a sealed envelope containing the solution to find out if she had been correct. Links pitched the idea to a friend of his who was well-positioned to see it through with him: Dennis Wheatley, a very popular writer of crime and adventure novels. Together Links and Wheatley created four “Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers,” which enjoyed considerable success before the undertaking was stopped short by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, mysteries in game form drifted into the less verisimilitudinous but far more replayable likes of Cluedo, while non-digital interactive narratives moved into the medium of experiential wargames, which in turn led, in time, to the great tabletop-gaming revolution that was Dungeon & Dragons.

And that could very well have been the end of the story, leaving the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers as merely a road not taken in game history, works ahead of their time that wound up getting stranded there. But in 1979 Mayflower Books began republishing the dossiers, a complicated undertaking that involved recreating the various bits of “physical evidence” — including pills, fabric samples, cigarette butts, and even locks of hair — that had accompanied them. There is little indication that their efforts were rewarded with major sales. Yet, coming as they did at a fraught historical moment for interactive storytelling in general — the first Choose Your Own Adventure book was published that same year; the game Adventure had hit computers a couple of years before; Dungeons & Dragons was breaking into the mainstream media — the reprinted dossiers’ influence would prove surprisingly pervasive with innovators in the burgeoning field. They would, for instance, provide Marc Blank with the idea of making a sort of crime dossier of his own to accompany Infocom’s 1982 computerized mystery Deadline, thereby establishing the Infocom tradition of scene-setting “feelies” and elaborate packaging in general. And another important game whose existence is hard to imagine without the example provided by the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers appeared a year before Deadline.

Prior to the Mayflower reprints, the closest available alternative to the Crime Dossiers had been a 1975 Sherlock Holmes-starring board game called 221B Baker Street: The Master Detective Game. It plays like a more coherent version of Cluedo, thanks to its utilization of pre-crafted mysteries that are included in the box rather than a reliance on random combinations of suspects, locations, and weapons. Otherwise, however, the experience isn’t all that markedly different, with players rolling dice and moving their tokens around the game board, trying to complete their “solution checklists” before their rivals. The competitive element introduces a bit of cognitive dissonance that is never really resolved: this game of Sherlock Holmes actually features several versions of Holmes, all racing around London trying to solve each mystery before the others can. But more importantly, playing it still feels more like solving a crossword puzzle than solving a mystery.

Two of those frustrated by the limitations of 221B Baker Street were Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg, amateur scholars of Sherlock Holmes living in San Francisco. “A game like 221B Baker Street doesn’t give a player a choice,” Grady noted. “You have no control over the clue you’re going to get and there’s no relationship of the clues to the process of play. We wanted the idea of solving a mystery rather than a puzzle.” In 1979, with the negative example of 221B Baker Street and the positive example of the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers to light the way, the two started work on a mammoth undertaking that would come to be known as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective upon its publication two years later. Packaged and sold as a board game, it in truth had much less in common with the likes of Cluedo or 221B Baker Street than it did with the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers. Grady and Goldberg provided rules for playing competitively if you insisted, and a scoring system that challenged you to solve a case after collecting the least amount of evidence possible, but just about everyone who has played it agrees that the real joy of the game is simply in solving the ten labyrinthine cases, each worthy of an Arthur Conan Doyle story of its own, that are included in the box.

Each case is housed in a booklet of its own, whose first page or two sets up the mystery to be solved in rich prose that might indeed have been lifted right out of a vintage Holmes story. The rest of the booklet consists of more paragraphs to be read as you visit various locations around London, following the evidence trail wherever it leads. When you choose to visit someplace (or somebody), you look it up in the London directory that is included, which will give you a coded reference. If that code is included in the case’s booklet, eureka, you may just have stumbled upon more information to guide your investigation; at the very least, you’ve found something new to read. In addition to the case books, you have lovingly crafted editions of the London Times from the day of each case to scour for more clues; cleverly, the newspapers used for early cases can contain clues for later cases as well, meaning the haystack you’re searching for needles gets steadily bigger as you progress from case to case. You also have a map of London, which can become unexpectedly useful for tracing the movements of suspects. Indeed, each case forces you to apply a whole range of approaches and modes of thought to its solution. When you think you’re ready, you turn to the “quiz book” and answer the questions about the case therein, then turn the page to find out if you were correct.

If Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective presents a daunting challenge to its player, the same must go ten times over for its designers. The amount of effort that must have gone into creating, collating, intertwining, and typesetting such an intricate web of information fairly boggles the mind. The game is effectively ten Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers in one box, all cross-referencing one another, looping back on one another. That Grady and Goldberg, working in an era before computerized word processing was widespread, managed it at all is stunning.

Unable to interest any of the established makers of board games in such an odd product, the two published it themselves, forming a little company called Sleuth Publications for the purpose. A niche product if ever there was one, it did manage to attract a champion in Games magazine, who called it “the most ingenious and realistic detective game ever devised.” The same magazine did much to raise its profile when they added it to their mail-order store in 1983. A German translation won the hugely prestigious Spiel des Jahres in 1985, a very unusual selection for a competition that typically favored spare board games of abstract logic. Over the years, Sleuth published a number of additional case packs, along with another boxed game in the same style: Gumshoe, a noirish experience rooted in Raymond Chandler rather than Arthur Conan Doyle which was less successful, both creatively and commercially, than its predecessor.

And then these elaborate analog productions, almost defiantly old-fashioned in their reliance on paper and text and imagination, became the unlikely source material for the most high-profile computerized mysteries of the early CD-ROM era.

The transformation would be wrought by ICOM Simulations, a small developer who had always focused their efforts on emerging technology. They had first made their name with the release of Déjà Vu on the Macintosh in 1985, one of the first adventure games to replace the parser with a practical point-and-click interface; in its day, it was quite the technological marvel. Three more games built using the same engine had followed, along with ports to many, many platforms. But by the time Déjà Vu II hit the scene in 1988, the interface was starting to look a little clunky and dated next to the efforts of companies like Lucasfilm Games, and ICOM decided it was time to make a change — time to jump into the unexplored waters of CD-ROM and full-motion video. They had always been technophiles first, game designers second, as was demonstrated by the somewhat iffy designs of most of their extant games. It therefore made a degree of sense to adapt someone else’s work to CD-ROM. They decided that Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, that most coolly intellectual of mystery-solving board games, would counter-intuitively adapt very well to a medium that was supposed to allow hotter, more immersive computerized experiences than ever before.

As we’ve already seen, the limitations of working with chunks of static text are actually very similar in some ways to those of working with chunks of static video. ICOM thus decided that the board game’s methods for working around those limitations should work very well for the computer game as well. The little textual vignettes which filled the case booklets, to be read as the player moved about London trying to solve the case, could be recreated by live actors. There would be no complicated branching narrative, just a player moving about London, being fed video clips of her interviews with suspects. Because the tabletop game included no mechanism for tracking where the player had already been and what she had done, the text in the case booklets had been carefully written to make no such presumptions. Again, this was perfect for a full-motion-video adaptation.

Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg were happy to license their work; after laboring all these years on such a complicated niche product, the day on which ICOM knocked on their door must have been a big one indeed. Ken Tarolla, the man who took charge of the project for ICOM, chose three of the ten cases from the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective to serve as the basis of the computer game. He now had to reckon with the challenges of going from programming games to filming them. Undaunted, he had the vignettes from the case booklets turned into scripts by a professional screenwriter, hired 35 actors to cast in the 50 speaking parts, and rented a sound stage in Minneapolis — far from ICOM’s Chicago offices, but needs must — for the shoot. The production wound up requiring 70 costumes along with 25 separate sets, a huge investment for a small developer like ICOM. In spite of their small size, they evinced a commitment to production values few of their peers could match. Notably, they didn’t take the money-saving shortcut of replacing physical sets with computer-generated graphics spliced in behind the actors. For this reason, their work holds up much better today than that of most of their peers.

Indeed, as befits a developer of ICOM’s established technical excellence — even if they were working in an entirely new medium — the video sequences are surprisingly good, the acting and set design about up to the standard of a typical daytime-television soap opera. If that seems like damning with faint praise, know that the majority of similar productions come off far, far worse. Peter Farley, the actor hired to play Holmes, may not be a Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or Benedict Cumberbatch, but neither does he embarrass himself. The interface is decent, and the game opens with a video tutorial narrated by Holmes himself — a clear sign of how hard Consulting Detective is straining to be the more mainstream, more casual form of interactive entertainment that the CD-ROM was supposed to precipitate.

First announced in 1990 and planned as a cross-platform product from the beginning, spanning the many rival CD-ROM initiatives on personal computers, set-top boxes, and game consoles, ICOM’s various versions of Consulting Detective were all delayed for long stretches by a problem which dogged every developer working in the same space: the struggle to find a way of getting video from CD-ROM to the screen at a reasonable resolution, frame rate, and number of colors. The game debuted in mid-1991 on the NEC TurboGrafx-16, an also-ran in the console wars which happened to be the first such device to offer a CD-ROM drive as an accessory. In early 1992, it made its way to the Commodore CDTV, thanks to a code library for video playback devised by Carl Sassenrath, long a pivotal figure in Amiga circles. Then, and most importantly in commercial terms, the slow advance of computing hardware finally made it possible to port the game to Macintosh and MS-DOS desktop computers equipped with CD-ROM drives later in the same year.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective became a common sight in “multimedia upgrade kits” like this one from Creative Labs.

As one of the first and most audiovisually impressive products of its kind, Consulting Detective existed in an uneasy space somewhere between game and tech demo. It was hard for anyone who had never seen actual video featuring actual actors playing on a computer before to focus on much else when the game was shown to them. It was therefore frequently bundled with the “multimedia upgrade kits,” consisting of a sound card and CD-ROM drive, that were sold by companies like Creative Labs beginning in 1992. Thanks to these pack-in deals, it shipped in huge numbers by conventional games-industry terms. Thus encouraged, ICOM went back to the well for a Consulting Detective Volume II and Volume III, each with another three cases from the original board game. These releases, however, did predictably less well without the advantages of novelty and of being a common pack-in item.

As I’ve noted already, Consulting Detective looks surprisingly good on the surface even today, while at the time of its release it was nothing short of astonishing. Yet it doesn’t take much playing time before the flaws start to show through. Oddly given the great care that so clearly went into its surface production, many of its problems feel like failures of ambition. As I’ve also already noted, no real state whatsoever is tracked by the game; you just march around London watching videos until you think you’ve assembled a complete picture of the case, then march off to trial, which takes the form of a quiz on who did what and why. If you go back to a place you’ve already been, the game doesn’t remember it: the same video clip merely plays again. This statelessness turns out to be deeply damaging to the experience. I can perhaps best explain by taking as an example the first case in the first volume of the series. (Minor spoilers do follow in the next several paragraphs. Skip down to the penultimate paragraph — beginning with “To be fair…” — to avoid them entirely.)

“The Mummy’s Curse” concerns the murder on separate occasions of all three of the archaeologists who have recently led a high-profile expedition to Egypt. One of the murders took place aboard the ship on which the expedition was returning to London, laden with treasures taken — today, we would say “looted” — from a newly discovered tomb. We can presume that one of the other passengers most likely did the deed. So, we acquire the passenger manifest for the ship and proceed to visit each of the suspects in turn. Among them are Mr. and Mrs. Fenwick, two eccentric members of the leisured class. Each of them claims not to have seen, heard, or otherwise had anything to do with the murder. But Louise Fenwick has a little dog, a Yorkshire terrier of whom she is inordinately fond and who traveled with the couple on their voyage. (Don’t judge the game too harshly from the excerpt below; it features some of the hammiest acting of all, with a Mrs. Fenwick who seems to be channeling Miss Piggy — a Miss Piggy, that is, with a fake English accent as horrid as only an American can make it.)


The existence of Mrs. Fenwick’s dog is very interesting in that the Scotland Yard criminologist who handled the case found some dog hair on the victim’s body. Our next natural instinct would be to find out whether the hair could indeed have come from a Yorkshire terrier — but revisiting Scotland Yard will only cause the video from there which we’ve already seen to play again. Thus stymied on that front, we probe further into Mrs. Fenwick’s background. We learn that the victim once gave a lecture before the Royal Society where he talked about dissecting his own Yorkshire terrier after its death, provoking the ire of the Anti-Vivisection League, of which Louise Fenwick is a member. And it gets still better: she personally harassed the victim, threatening to dissect him herself. Now, it’s very possible that this is all coincidence and red herrings, but it’s certainly something worth following up on. So we visit the Fenwicks again to ask her about it — and get to watch the video we already saw play again. Stymied once more.

This example hopefully begins to illustrate how Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective breaks its promise to let you be the detective and solve the crime yourself in the way aficionados of mystery novels had been dreaming of doing for a century. Because the game never knows what you know, and because it only lets you decide where you go, nothing about what you do after you get there, playing it actually becomes much more difficult than being a “real” detective. You’re constantly being hobbled by all these artificial constraints. Again and again, you find yourself seething because you can’t ask the question Holmes would most certainly be asking in your situation. It’s a form of fake difficulty, caused by the constraints of the game engine rather than the nature of the case.

Consider once more, then, how this plays out in practice in “The Mummy’s Curse.” We pick up this potentially case-cracking clue about Mrs. Fenwick’s previous relations with the victim. If we’ve ever read a mystery novel or watched a crime drama, we know immediately what to do. Caught up in the fiction, we rush back to the Fenwicks without even thinking about it. We get there, and of course it doesn’t work; we just get the same old spiel. It’s a thoroughly deflating experience. This isn’t just a sin against mimesis; it’s wholesale mimesis genocide.

It is true that the board-game version of Consulting Detective suffers from the exact same flaws born of its own statelessness. By presenting a case strictly as a collection of extant clues to be put together rather than asking you to ferret them out for yourself — by in effect eliminating from the equation both the story of the crime and the story of the investigation which turned up the clues — the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers avoid most of these frustrations, at the expense of feeling like drier, more static endeavors. I will say that the infelicities of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective in general feel more egregious in the computer version — perhaps because the hotter medium of video promotes a depth of immersion in the fiction that makes it feel like even more of a betrayal when the immersion breaks down; or, more prosaically, simply because we feel that the computer ought to be capable of doing a better job of things than it is, while we’re more forgiving of the obvious constraints of a purely analog design.

Of course, it was this very same statelessness that made the design such an attractive one for adaptation to full-motion video in the first place. In other words, the problems with the format which Kinoautomat highlighted in 1967 aren’t quite as easy to dodge around as ICOM perhaps thought. It does feel like ICOM could have done a little better on this front, even within the limitations of full-motion video. Would it have killed them to provide a few clips instead of just one for some of the key scenes, with the one that plays dependent on what the player has already learned? Yes, I’m aware that that has the potential to become a very slippery slope indeed. But still… work with us just a bit, ICOM.

While I don’t want to spent too much more time pillorying this pioneering but flawed game, I do have to point out one more issue: setting aside the problems that arise from the nature of the engine, the cases themselves often have serious problems. They’ve all been shortened and simplified in comparison to the board game, which gives rise to some of the issues. That said, though, it must also be said that not everything in the board game itself is unimpeachable. Holmes’s own narratives of the cases’ solutions, which follow after you complete them by answering all of the questions in the trial phases correctly, are often rife with questionable assumptions and intuitive leaps that would never hold up on an episode of Perry Mason, much less a real trial. At the conclusion of “The Mummy’s Curse,” for instance, he tells us there was “no reason to assume” that the three archaeologists weren’t all killed by the same person. Fair enough — but there is also no reason to assume the opposite, no reason to assume we aren’t dealing with a copycat killer or killers, given that all of the details surrounding the first of the murders were published on the front page of the London Times. And yet Holmes’s entire solution to the case follows from exactly that questionable assumption. It serves, for example, as his logic for eliminating Mrs. Fenwick as a suspect, since she had neither motive nor opportunity to kill the other two archaeologists.

To be fair to Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg, this case is regarded by fans of the original board game as the weakest of all ten (it actually shows up as the sixth case there). Why ICOM chose to lead with this of all cases is the greatest mystery of all. Most of the ones that follow are better — but rarely, it must be said, as airtight as our cocky friend Holmes would have them be. But then, in this sense ICOM is perhaps only being true to the Sherlock Holmes canon. For all Holmes’s purported devotion to rigorous logic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales never play fair with readers hoping to solve the mysteries for themselves, hinging always on similar logical fallacies and superhuman intuitive leaps. If one chooses to read the classic Sherlock Holmes stories — and many of them certainly are well worth reading — it shouldn’t be in the hope of solving their mysteries before he does.

The three volumes of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective would mark the end of the line for ICOM, who, faced with the mounting budgets that it made it harder and harder for a small developer to survive, left the gaming scene quietly in the mid-1990s. Their catalog of games is a small one, but includes in Déjà Vu and Consulting Detective two of the most technically significant works of their times. The Consulting Detective games were by no means the only interactive mysteries of the early full-motion-video era; a company called Tiger Media also released a couple of mysteries on CD-ROM, with a similar set of frustrating limitations, and the British publisher Domark even announced but never released a CD-ROM take on one of the old Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers. The ICOM mysteries were, however, the most prominent and popular. Flawed though they are, they remain fascinating historical artifacts with much to teach us: about the nature of those days when seeing an actual video clip playing on a monitor screen was akin to magic; about the perils and perhaps some of the hidden potential of building games out of real-world video; about game design in general. In that spirit, we’ll be exploring more experiments with full-motion video in articles to come, looking at how they circumvented — or failed to circumvent — the issues that dogged Kinoautomat, Dragon’s Lair, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective alike.

(Sources: Byte of May 1992; Amazing Computing of May 1991, July 1991, March 1992, and May 1992; Amiga Format of March 1991; Amiga Computing of October 1992; CD-ROM Today of July 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1991, August 1991, June 1992, and March 1993; Family Computing of February 1984; Softline of September 1982; Questbusters of July 1991 and September 1991; CU Amiga of October 1992. Online sources include Joe Pranevich’s interview with Dave Marsh on The Adventure Gamer; the home page of Kinoautomat today; Expo ’67 in Montreal; and Brian Moriarty’s annotated excerpt from Kinoautomat, taken from his lecture “I Sing the Story Electric.”

Some of the folks who once were ICOM Simulations have remastered the three cases from the first volume of the series and now sell them on Steam. The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective tabletop line is in print again thanks to Asmodee Games. While I don’t love it quite as much as some do due to the some of the issues mentioned in this article, it’s still a unique experience today that’s well worth checking out.)


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Posted by The Editors

By Alex Storer.

Any science fiction or space art aficionado should instantly recognise the name David A. Hardy – perhaps from the early part of his career working with Sir Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night and their award-winning books, including Challenge of the Stars and Futures / 50 Years in Space, or perhaps from his film and television credits, which include Blake’s Seven and The Neverending Story. Maybe you’ve got books in your SF collection adorned with David’s stunning cover art (maybe you’ve even read his own SF book, Aurora), or have encountered his work on the convention circuit. At the very least, if you’ve ever bought Cadbury’s chocolate, you’ll recognise the logo that Hardy originally designed during his time working at their Bournville factory, Birmingham, in the 1960s!

First published in 1952, David A. Hardy is the longest-established living space artist. Hardy started out as an astronomical artist, and the inevitable expansion into science fiction did not come for some years. Hardy’s work can transport you to the remotest corners of the Solar System, or into remote alien worlds and future times. What’s more, Hardy is still working and in as much demand as ever, regularly supplying cover art for the likes of Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and countless science fiction paperback and e-book titles.

Initiation of Akasa_F&SF

F&SF: Initiation of Asaka

Hardy’s artwork continues to move with the times – in tandem with spaceflight technology and our ever-expanding scientific knowledge about the planets in our Solar System, and advancing with the advent of computer technology and digital art.

I grew up in awe of Hardy’s work, courtesy of its inclusion in the most marvellous book, Space Worlds, Wars & Weapons (published in 1977 by the sadly defunct Paper Tiger imprint), and an art print that hung on the wall at home, entitled Stellar Radiance. This artwork my young imagination; it was like having a window into space. It sparked my obsession with science fiction art and ultimately led to me working as a science fiction artist myself, years later.

Stellar Radiance

Stellar Radiance

When I rediscovered my love of science fiction and space art in 2007, I realised it was time to start creating my own – and David A. Hardy’s work was my first port of call.

However, at the time, I did not know the name of that wonderful painting that I used to lose myself in, nor the artist’s full name – though the carefully scribed signature of “Hardy” in the bottom corner of the painting had always stuck in my mind. Thanks to a quick Google search, in no time at all I was in touch with the man himself, and soon found myself discovering his decade-spanning portfolio, starting with the books, Hardyware and Futures / 50 Years In Space. David’s enthusiasm and encouragement were invaluable and enough for me to know that I simply had to give it a shot.

One of the things which appeals to me about Hardy’s art is that whether it is paint or pixels, the work is still distinctly Hardy. When it comes to digital art in particular, I’ve always found it crucial to still have the touch of the artist’s hand, which I feel adds soul and personality to a digitally piece, eliciting just the same kind of emotional response one gets from looking at a canvas painting – and Hardy achieves this masterfully.

Despite being in the age of photographic imagery and photorealistic 3D graphics, hand-rendered art has remained important in science fiction circles, as it is another medium in which we can escape into other times or worlds – and more often than not, the art goes hand in hand with the SF literature we read; either adorning the covers of the books we love or simply inspired by them.

A ‘Hardy’ is immediately identifiable, not only by that kind of vibrant colour palette (regardless of medium), but by a consistent style and approach. Decades of experience and expertise all go into making each and every piece a work of wonder that one never tires of viewing.

I caught up with David to chat about all aspects of his work and career …

The first time I encountered computer-aided artwork in the early 1990s, it felt like a life-changing moment; a glimpse of the future. Do you remember the first time you saw computer art and did you realise it was going to be a significant way forward, especially in terms of science fiction art?

DAH: I had a similar “Eureka!” moment when I discovered the airbrush in 1957! Here was a way to paint atmospheres, glows, nebulae in a way that was realistic yet wouldn’t take hours of painstaking blending of paints. I have always kept up with new technology, and started using photography, especially ‘derivative’ (manipulated) images, in my work. In the 1980s I did all my own darkroom work and even became a LRPS. I also bought a large-format camera and started taking photos of my work to send to publishers as transparencies (slides) rather than entrusting valuable artwork to the tender mercies of the Post Office! I became aware of the intrusion of computer art in publishing, and it was exciting, but I couldn’t afford any of the equipment. Then when the Atari ST came along in 1986 I got a 520, then a 1040 and finally a Falcon before getting my first PowerMac in 1991. But it was still some time before I felt able to use this professionally. (I did however produce graphics for an Atari/Amiga game, Kristal, which won an industry award.)

Kristal

Kristal

Many SF artists have continued to work with paint while others have moved to digital or only work digitally – yet you have maintained a healthy balance of both. What do you feel you can achieve with digital art that you can’t with traditional media – and vice-versa?

DAH: Digital art is much more flexible – you can change, delete, try different effects and save the results separately. There are filters and plugins which produce results quite impossible to achieve in painting. And of course one can send JPEGs to publishers by email. (This can be a disadvantage as well as an advantage, as it gives them an opportunity to request many changes, some of which would be virtually impossible with traditional media. Fortunately, though, this rarely happens to me now!).

How do you feel your work has progressed since branching out into digital art?

DAH: I’m not sure it has progressed – perhaps this is for others to say? My method of working has changed, because now I usually produce a digital version first on my Mac, to see what I am working towards, before putting paint on canvas.

You create works both in paint and digitally which both clearly have your distinctive style. How would you say you achieve this?

DAH: Well I suppose it is inevitable that my work will look like mine, however I work. In either case I know how I want my final work to look, and I just continue until I achieve that, in whatever medium. However (see below) computer art can have a rather bland look, and I try to avoid that by using various ‘real media’ filters and other techniques.

Mountain Grill_Portals_comp

Mountain Grill Portals

I personally dislike the term ‘digital’, as it all too often makes people think of cold 3D renderings or that the computer does all the work, whereas you still work by hand using a graphics tablet – the way of working is practically the same, just the medium that is different. Would you agree?

DAH: I do agree. TV presenters especially tend to give the impression that ‘digital art’ is produced simply by pressing a few buttons. This is far from the case – I use very little ‘3D’ art, but I admire those who can, because it is a very steep learning curve to use Vue or Lightwave, and the results can be incredible. I do user Poser to help me with figures, and used the original version of Terragen as a terrain generator for many of the new illustrations in Futures: 50 years in Space. But then they changed it, and instead of being a user-friendly graphic interface one has to enter numbers and such – not what I call art!

Comet Probe

Comet Probe, as featured in 50 Years in Space

It’s only in recent years that digital has become more accepted as a medium – yet there’s no less imagination or creativity involved. How do you feel when collectors voice concerns about there being no ‘original’ so to speak?

DAH: I can quite understand that. Yes one can produce any number of prints from a traditional painting, but there is only one original, and the difference is immediately obvious on close inspection. Also, when painting I often use ‘impasto’ effects – paint applied thickly with a palette knife – and although it is no doubt possible to simulate this, it is quite impossible to do digitally. There is a huge amount of trust involved in digital fine art (personally I only use the computer for illustrations), as the customer is expected to accept that only one, or a limited number of prints will be made from a digital file, which may or may not then be destroyed. . .

Talk us through your general process when starting a new piece. Are you more inclined to head to your digital or wet studio? What kind of creative routines or rituals do you have?

DAH: As I said above, I often produce a quick digital version first when painting, but for illustrations – covers and such – I always use the Mac. So the choice is quite simple really. Currently I am experimenting with less realistic, even abstract techniques, and for these the wet studio is the only choice. Actually, after working for perhaps weeks on a 27” monitor it is a pleasure to be able to slap some paint on a large canvas, and I enjoy the whole physical process of working directly with my hands.  Routines? None really, except to have all my tools readily available and to hand.

Do you remember when you first realised that science fiction and space art was something you absolutely had to do?

DAH: When I was thirteen my parents took me to Blackpool. I walked down the seafront from the boarding house, and found a newsagent’s which had some SF ‘pulps’ on a shelf. I bought two: Seven to the Moon by Lee Stanton and Rocket Men by King Lang (a pseudonym if ever I saw one!). They were the first ‘adult’ SF books I had read, and I was hooked!  From then on I got SF whenever and wherever I could, including of course H.G.Wells from the library. Sometimes the covers were quite good, if garish, but often I would amuse myself by trying to create my own based on the stories. A year later, in 1950, I found a copy of The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley, with the most amazing photographic paintings of the Moon and planets by Chesley Bonestell.  That was the moment when I knew what I wanted to do! From then on, although I read and was involved with SF, I thought of myself purely as a space artist; this was of course amplified by the fact that I was working with people like Patrick Moore, and illustrated my first book for him in 1954. In fact it wasn’t until 1970 that my first published SF covers appeared, first on Vision of Tomorrow and then on F&SF.

EnigmaF&SF- Enigma

Enigma (1970) and the F&SF cover featuring it

DAH: In the 40s and 50s F&SF, and to a lesser extent other magazines such as Amazing and Galaxy, used Bonestell art as covers. Yet he always insisted that he was not a SF artist, but an astronomical one. When Challenge of the Stars (a book that I co-wrote with Patrick Moore as well as illustrated) was published in 1972, F&SF and a couple of the other mags used my paintings from that in exactly the same way that they had used Bonestell. But sadly, 1972 was also the year in which men visited the Moon for the last time, and public interest in space began to wane. To give me a reason for still painting space art covers I invented (with my cartoonist friend Anthony Naylor) ‘Bhen’, the benevolent green B.E.M., who I showed with the Viking lander, riding in the bowl of the Pioneer probe at Saturn, riding the Lunar Rover, and so on.  (Not a little green man, as some have called him, because if you compare him with the NASA vehicles he is about two-and-a-half metres – nearly 8ft – tall!). He first appeared on F&SF in 1975, and of course the earlier covers – there have been ten – were painted, though the last one, in 2015, was digital.

Bhen on Mars v1

BHEN on Mars (1975)

Bhen 15

BHEN ExoMars (2015)

In recent years, we’ve seen a healthy revival of painted/illustrated covers for SF titles. What do you think it is about this kind of artwork that has such longevity, and right for the genre?

DAH: I suppose it’s largely tradition, and nostalgia? We became so used to expecting SF covers to look a certain way that it still gives us pleasure to see that type of work.

In your opinion, what makes a good SF book cover?

DAH: Ah, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it! For me, it’s essential that it really relates to the content of the book (but preferably without giving too much away), and that is exciting and eye-catching.

Is there any particular SF novel that you’d still like to illustrate?

DAH: Loads, but I couldn’t really list them. . .

Moving briefly on to space art – your earlier depictions of Pluto turned out to be astoundingly accurate in recent years, when NASA published its first high-definition images of the planet. This must have been a proud moment.

DAH: Yes, I think I was as surprised as anybody when we saw that there actually was a cracked, icy plain which they named ‘Sputnik Planum’, few craters, and that on Charon there are great crevasses – just as I had painted them in 1991 for The Universe by Ian Ridpath. I don’t really claim any prescience; I had just based my version on the geology of some of the outer moons, like Neptune’s Triton.

New Horizons at Pluto.jpg

New Horizons at Pluto

As a space artist, do you feel it vital to keep painting new and updated interpretations of our planets, as we learn more about them? For example, the way you may have painted Jupiter from Io in the 1970s would be significantly different to how you would paint the same scene today.

DAH: Absolutely. I’ve heard people say that the paintings of, say, Bonestell from the 1950s have no value now because they are inaccurate, showing tall, jagged mountains on the Moon or canals on Mars and so on (and of course I was highly influenced by him then). Rubbish! What we painted then was based on the scientific knowledge of the time, so yes, we do need to keep updating our work as new data come in. Having said that, even Bonestell should really have known that the lunar mountains have been eroded by millennia of impacts by micrometeorites and extremes of temperature – French astronomer/artist Lucien Rudaux knew, back in the 1930s, because he observed the limb of the Moon, where the mountains can be seen in profile – though they still cast sharp, pointed shadows in a low light.

Despite the amazing, high-resolution photographs of other planets which we now can see thanks to modern technology, there continues to be a healthy interest in space art. Why do you think this is?

DAH: It’s true that instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have sent us the most amazing, detailed colour images of distant nebulae etc. But much of the information we receive comes in the form of data, and while numbers, charts and graphs may be exciting to astronomers, the public and the media prefer to see exciting visual interpretations. This is where space artists come into their own. It is also the area where we see the difference between space artists and SF artists: while SF and fantasy artists are free to use their imagination, space artists need to combine these talents with accurate scientific knowledge. And they can’t afford to get it wrong!

Two Worlds 15

Two Worlds

This Summer Hardy exhibited at Visions of Space 2 – An Exhibition of Astronomical and Space Art by British IAAA artists at Wells & Mendip Museum in Somerset, at which he also gave a talk on the Moon and Eclipses on the opening night. His next event is next month at Novacon, the UK’s longest-running SF convention, at which Hardy has attended and exhibited every year since it began in 1971.

Every year, Hardy presents a display of work covering all aspects of science fiction, fantasy, space art and beyond. Not one to rest on his laurels, Hardy continually pushes himself and experiments with new artistic media – the most recent being sculpted 3D relief landscapes and scenes, and also abstract art.

At 81, David A. Hardy could easily be living proof that art and creativity keeps both the body and the mind young – youthful in appearance, with a mind as sharp as his wit, just a few minutes of conversation with the artist leaves you feeling inspired and educated. His passion and dedication for his art and everything that has influenced it over his long career, is as strong today as it ever was – and this should be an inspiration to us all.

Alex Storer is a science fiction artist and electronic musician. www.thelightdream.net


Posted by Robin D. Laws

In the latest episode of our aurally soothing podcast, Ken and I talk GM nudging modes, Cuban sonic attacks, the Kibbo Kift and Twin Peaks: the Return.
posted by [syndicated profile] in_the_pipeline_feed at 12:26pm on 20/10/2017

Posted by Derek Lowe

Let’s file this one under “We’ve seen this before, and I’ll bet we’ll see it again”. Anyone who’s worked for some years in cell culture (or with people who have) should appreciate the dangers of cell line contamination. You can get mycoplasma, you can get other cell lines entirely (particularly others that are more vigorous and hardy than the ones you’re trying to grow), and you can get viral thingies that cause you so much trouble that your entire company gets bought by someone else.

Here’s a new paper in PLoS ONE that tries to get a handle on the problem. The real kicker is that some of these cell lines became contaminated along the way, so that earlier papers and later ones in the field are actually referring to different cells. And others became contaminated (or mis-identified) so early that basically all of the literature on them is mistaken. Warnings have taken place about this stuff again and again, and the current literature is surely cleaner than the older papers. But how bad is it in the published record?

By correlating the literature with a list of known contaminated cell lines (many of them invaded by HeLa cells), the authors estimate a lower bound of over 32,000 papers that have worked on the wrong cells, compared to what they report. In turn, these papers are cited by at least 500,000 more articles, and that total excludes self-citations. And as the authors note, they were quite conservative with their name strings in the searches, so although there are also still a few false positives in those numbers, they are surely tiny compared to the false negatives – the mistaken papers that haven’t been flagged yet. A representative example:

In a 1994 report, the establishment of a group of novel thymic cell lines (F2-4E5, F2-5B6, P1-1A3 and P1-4D6) [39] was announced. In a report by MacLeod et al. [40], the cell lines were found to be misidentified, having been derived in fact from a liver carcinoma. In total, 69 articles were found that refer to these cell lines, in turn cited by 2092 articles. Of the primary articles, 43 were published after the report by MacLeod et al. and the most recent one was published only in late 2016 [41]. Of the fifteen most recent articles referring to the 1994 report, thirteen actually refer to it because they use the cell lines, all thirteen reporting research on thymic cells, without mentioning any knowledge of the misidentification of these cell lines. The other two articles refer to the establishing article for the sake of the method used in it to establish novel cell lines.

So yeah, there’s a lot of crap out there. All you folks who are trying to machine-learn your way through the medical literature, you now have a half million more papers to flag: and remember, there are plenty more where those came from. And as the authors note ruefully, just flagging a cell line as misidentified is not enough to stop people from using it. The “Chang Liver” cell line was established in the early 1950s, but as early as 1967 it was suspected to actually be yet another culture of HeLa cells. Ten years later, more evidence was presented, but the cell line originator argued at the time that these were real liver cells that had changed in cell culture, not HeLa. The question was resolved beyond doubt in 2001, so that should have been that. Right?

Wrong. A search through the literature will show “Chang liver” cells are still being used as if they were liver cells, with no mention of the misidentification. Hundreds of papers in the last fifteen years have done so, and their appearance in the literature shows no signs of going down. If anything, it may be slightly increasing. This new paper finds the same trend. The number of papers citing cell lines that are known to be wrong is increasing – perhaps not as a percentage of all scientific papers, but it sure isn’t going down, despite numerous warnings and exhortations.

You’d think that this would largely be a problem for areas where research has not been as well established, or where appropriate safeguards haven’t yet been put in place. For example, a 2015 report – from China – suggested that 85% of the cell lines established there were wrong, and were almost entirely HeLa cells. This latest work finds that China’s share of the contaminated cell line literature is indeed rising rapidly (like, congratulations, guys), but that the majority of such papers are still from the US, Japan, Germany, and the like. No one has any room to feel superior, for all have HeLa-ed.

What to do? At the very least, the authors suggest, we could flag these papers in the databases with a note that they used a cell line that is known to be misidentified. Later readers can then deal with them as they will. But for papers going forward, I’m stumped. Nothing seems to have worked. Just as with bad chemical probes, people just plow right ahead no matter how many warning flares you send up. Any ideas?

posted by [syndicated profile] dg_weblog_feed at 07:00am on 20/10/2017

Posted by diamond geezer

A City of London
The City of London has always remained outside the administrative system of the other London boroughs, so there was never any danger of the Herbert Commission adding it to Greater London. It's always done its own thing, its planning department especially so, including a pioneering network of elevated walkways in the late 60s and early 70s. The 'pedways' were supposed to become a 30 mile network across the City keeping pedestrians above the traffic, but development ground to a halt and only a fraction were ever built. I've been out in search of what remains, with the aid of this 1992 map usefully tweeted by @MrTimDunn (the numbers and colours are my addition). Why not head down and explore for yourself?
[green - still walkable, amber - somewhat stunted, red - since redeveloped]


Pedways of the City of London



1) The Barbican Highwalks
The one set of pedways every Londoner knows is the maze of passageways around the Barbican, if only as somewhere it's notoriously easy to get lost. The estate was built during the precise period that pedways were in vogue, hence all the main thoroughfares run above ground level, leaving down below for water gardens, car parks and deliveries. The concrete highwalks exhibit considerable variety, from tight tunnels to broad esplanades and from smart crescents to narrow gangways, linking visitors to the central concert hall and residents to the outside world. For lovers of practical brutalism it gets no better.



Most of the original network survives, looping beneath slab blocks and skirting the towers, but the eastern end hasn't been so lucky. The Moorfields Highwalk comes to an abrupt end in midair above the edge of a building site, the remainder of the rooftop empire demolished as part of Crossrail-related development. Some new kind of connection will be created once that's complete, but in the meantime don't try following the fabled yellow line to Moorgate while a less than satisfactory diversion remains in place.
I could devote this entire post to the Barbican's pedways, but you don't need me to tell you where they are to be able to explore for yourself. The City's more elusive pedways deserve our attention instead.

2) Baynard House
Where you find pedways, you often also find concrete. Baynard House is a total concrete eruption, a three storey office block smothering the site of a royal Tudor mansion, located just to the east of Blackfriars station. Architect William Holford built his grey fortress with pedway principles in mind, its main entrance at first floor level, and an elevated walkway set back alongside Queen Victoria Street.



40 years later this gloomy passageway feels somewhat dour, frequented by BT employees and pigeons, twisting past boarded-up doorways, men in sleeping bags and a single potplant. It begins in a raised square with a Shakespearean totem pole depicting the seven ages of man, continues above the Mermaid Theatre accompanied by whiffs of urine, and descends on the far side of Puddle Dock outside a little-known entrance to Blackfriars station. As M@'s video attests, this is a pedway worthy of (brief) psychogeographical exploration.

3) Peter's Hill
According to the City of London's classification, the long pedestrian avenue which slopes down from St Paul's Cathedral to the Millennium Bridge was officially designated a pedway. It's still very much in situ, and easily the busiest on the map, but totally lacks that essential elevated pedway vibe, so I'm going to skip it and move on.

4) Fyefoot Lane
This meanwhile is a proper pedway, one of a series built to span Upper Thames Street when it was dual-carriagewayed in the late 1960s. It begins on Queen Victoria Street, slipping between a couple of office blocks wherein financial drones can be seen sat patiently tapping on computers. It's named Fyefoot Lane after a medieval alley which once ran this way down to the docks, previously known as Five Foot Lane because one end was only five foot wide.



The land hereabouts drops quite steeply towards the Thames, hence the walkway emerges at lamppost-top-height, just to the east of the Upper Thames Street tunnel. A double bend leads pedestrians to a sleek footbridge above the road, propped up on thin concrete wedges, with the City's coat of arms decorating the railings on each flank. No attempt is made to reach the building on the far side, there are simply steps down, but maybe that's why this pedway has survived riverside redevelopment and several of those downstream have not.

5) Suffolk Lane
Located just to the east of Cannon Street station, this pedway's had a modern makeover. At its heart, spanning Upper Thames Street, is an flat concrete slab much like that at Fyefoot Lane. But someone - I suspect the Japanese bank in the new building to the south - has clad the bridge's exterior with timber struts, and replaced the treads in the staircase with modern metal. Employees now trot out of the security door at first floor level with gym kits poised, before returning with a bagged-up noodle feast, while other local workers get to walk up from street level instead.



On the northern side the path bends round a much more 20th century office block, channelled through a pillared promenade, through whose windows Prudential employees are going about their business. The landing point is a backwater junction on Laurence Pountney Hill, with boltholes where "any sandwich and a drink" costs £9, and besuited souls do deals over a ciabatta and a glass of red.

6) Swan Lane
I will confess to never noticing this one before, which perhaps isn't surprising given it's been almost completely severed. An ummarked staircase rises on the corner of Swan Lane and Upper Thames Street, one block west of London Bridge, filling a space where you might expect to see two storeys of office windows. I ducked somewhat suspiciously past two ladies chatting, cigarettes in hand, and climbed five flights of stairs past a doorway marked Out of Order and a second landing with similarly non-existent access.



At the top of the final flight a diagonal railing brought my ascent to an abrupt halt, at the point where the pedway would have continued across the road. The footbridge disappeared when the building across the road was redeveloped in a more private manner, leaving an unintentional triangular landing which now functions as a kind of balcony overlooking the street corner below. This stumpy staircase should never have survived, but hurrah that it does, as easily the quirkiest pedway remnant on my list.

7) Pudding Lane
This is probably the best of the pedways outside the Barbican, both for length and for variety. It also has a splendid staircase to link roadside and footbridge level, curved in South Bank style, with no-expense-spared granite treads. A broad path heads Thamesward through St Magnus House, one of the chunky office blocks between London Bridge and Billingsgate, emerging onto an expansive terrace with fine views down to Tower Bridge and immediately opposite to the Shard. A sign at riverwalk level attempts to lure tourists upwards, but the vast majority pass by, leaving the upper terrace free for fag puffers, sandwich munchers and windblown litter.



On the northern side of the footbridge one prong of the pedway runs parallel to Pudding Lane, joining it roughly where 1666's fateful bakery once stood. The other prong runs parallel to Upper Thames Street, down a featureless corridor seemingly ideally sheltered for overnight sleeping. I found a small tent, a rolled up sleeping bag, and one alcove neatly laid out with carpet tiles, shoes and clothes on coathangers. If the worst ever happens, bear this pedway in mind.

8) Bishopsgate
The City's second-largest pedway network used to span the area around Bishopsgate, from Leadenhall Street north towards Liverpool Street station. No more. This part of town lies at the sweet spot for skyscraper development, unencumbered by protected views, and sequential rebuilding projects have wiped most of the highwalks away. The imminent behemoth rising at 22 Bishopsgate ensures that nothing survives of the former footbridge (and all points east), while the warren of paths around the foot of Tower 42 has (very) recently been cut by the intrusion of a gleaming glass row of bars and restaurants.



To find the one surviving chunk of pedway head to Wormwood Street, look for the concrete span across the road and climb the unmarked staircase alongside. Although it's possible to cross the bridge in perfect freedom, the main exit past the office block on the far side is fenced off and the other ends intrusively beside a second floor meeting room. Meanwhile a service corridor weaves south from the footbridge past several emergency back-exits and an open courtyard before terminating down a second corridor in hostile semi-darkness. The closure's only temporary, according to a brief notice, but it's hard to see how it'll ever again continue onwards through that new barrier of wrap vendors and burger eateries. A total dead end, in both directions, and easily the spookiest surviving pedway.

9) Middlesex Street Estate
Out on the far eastern edge of the City, and primed for unwealthier citizens, the Middlesex Street estate was built between 1965 and 1970 and so wholly embraced the pedway concept. One tower block and a ring of elevated flats surround Petticoat Square, with one upper gangway around the rim, and a series of access stairs squeezed in with the emergency services in mind.



When first built anyone could have wandered in, but the main entrance opposite Wentworth Street is now blocked off, and security doors prevent public access elsewhere. Laminated notices confirm that this is Private Property, No Loitering, and that rough sleepers will be arrested for trespassing. You will not be visiting this pedway any time soon.

10) London Wall Place
Somewhat unexpectedly, for those who thought pedways were out of fashion, a brand new City development is embracing them in a big way. London Wall Place is being built across a long splinter of land to the north of London Wall, to the southeast of the Barbican estate, with construction requiring the demolition of the former St Alphage Highwalk. The developers have been obliged to add new pedways amid their jungle of office blocks, mainly because the surrounding infrastructure includes several upper level links on all flanks which would otherwise be defunct.



Construction of the chain of bridges is well underway, not in concrete but in weathered steel, because architectural tastes move on. You can already see one of the seven bridges suspended above Wood Street, close to Jamie's Italian, and another over Fore Street close to Salters Hall. The closest to completion spans London Wall on a jaunty diagonal, and yesterday was being scrubbed down by a workman with a big cloth. Once open it'll breath fresh life into the Bassishaw Highwalk, formerly the Barbican's link to the Guildhall, and the workers in the adjacent offices won't be quite so shocked to see people walking past their window. It seems pedways are no longer the dead end concept they used to be.

» The Pedway: Elevating London (40 minute video)
posted by [syndicated profile] cks_techblog_feed at 05:03am on 20/10/2017

Posted by cks

I was recently reading Testing disks: Lessons from our odyssey selecting replacement SSDs (via). In this article, the BBC technical people talk earnestly about carefully picking stride and stripe width size values for ext4 on their SSDs and point to this blog post on it. Me being me, I immediately wondered what effects these RAID-related settings actually had in ext4, so I headed off for the kernel source code to take a look. The short spoiler is 'not as much as you think'.

First, setting both the stripe size and the stride width is redundant as far as the kernel's ext4 block allocation goes; the kernel code only uses one of the two, preferring the stripe width if possible (see ext4_get_stripe_size in fs/ext4/super.c). Setting the stride as well does have a small effect on the layout of an ext4 filesystem; it appears to cause some metadata structures to be pushed up to start on a stride boundary when mke2fs creates the filesystem.

(In the kernel, the stripe width and stride are ignored if they're larger than the number of blocks per block group. According to Ext4 Disk Layout and various other sources, there are normally 32,768 filesystem blocks per block ground, for a block group size of 128 MBytes, so this probably won't be an issue for you.)

As far as I can tell from trying to understand mballoc.c, the stripe size only has a few effects on block allocation. First, if your write is for an exact multiple of the stripe size, ext4 will generally try to align it to a stripe boundary if possible (assuming there's sufficient unfragmented free space). This is especially likely if you write exactly one stripe's worth of data.

The second use is more complicated (and I may not understand it correctly). For small files, Ext4 allocates space out of 'locality groups', which are given preallocated space in bulk that they can then parcel out (among other things, this keeps small files together on disk). When you have a stripe size set, the size of each locality group's preallocated space is rounded up to a multiple of the stripe size and I believe it's aligned with stripe boundaries. Individual allocations within a locality group's preallocated space don't seem to be aligned to the stripe size if they're not multiples of it.

Comments in the source code suggest that the goal in both cases is to avoid fragmenting stripes and fragmenting things across stripes. However, it's not clear to me that most allocations particularly avoid doing either; certainly they don't explicitly look at the relevant C variable that holds the stripe size.

Having gone through reading the ext4 kernel code, my overall conclusion is that you should benchmark things before you assume that setting the RAID stripe width and stride is doing anything meaningful on ext4 on a SSD. Also, for maximum benefit it seems very likely that you want your applications to do their large writes in multiples of whatever stripe width you set. Of course, writing data out in erase-block sized chunks seems like a good idea in general; regardless of alignment issues, it probably gives the SSD firmware its best chance to avoid read-modify-write cycles.

(When you test this, you may want to use blktrace to make sure that ext4 is actually issuing large right-sized writes out to the SSD and isn't doing something problematic like slicing them up into smaller chunks. Some block IO tuning may turn out to be necessary.)

Posted by Grant

It is 31 January 1994 and time for the worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever made.

This is not a drill. It's not an exaggeration. It is not as if I have forgotten all of those absolutely dire episodes made all the way back in Season 1, or the cobbled-together clips show that concluded Season 2. The truth is that "Sub Rosa" trumps them all with easily the most ridiculous and unsuitable premise ever pushed into the series, and a very poor execution of that already unfortunate concept. To momentarily use the episode title convention of Friends, this is "The One Where Dr Crusher Has Sex with a Space Ghost".

The Enterprise visits the colony of Caldos IV so that Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) may attend the funeral of her grandmother. Caldos IV is a colony deliberately styled upon 18th century Scotland. While staying in her grandmother's cottage, Crusher is visited by a spectral apparition that calls itself Ronin; the same apparation with whom her grandmother appeared to be having a passionate love affair. As Ronin and Crusher enter into a romance of their own, she decides to resign from her Enterprise post to remain with him.

Poor Gates McFadden. Of the entire regular Next Generation cast, she gets to be the protagonist of episodes the least. When she does get an episode to herself, it is almost invariably terrible. This time around the writer's room have outdone themselves, although specific credit goes to Jeanna F. Gallo for the original idea, Jeri Taylor for the story and Brannon Braga for the script.

The Scottish setting is a weird one. It clearly exists to set up the windswept, romantic nature of the story, and to establish a gothic tone for pastiche purposes (two of the guest characters are named after characters from The Turn of the Screw). At the same time it aesthetically feels less like Scotland and more like an idyllic green Ireland setting akin (and potentially inspired by) John Ford's The Quiet Man. Not only does it feel a little confused, it feels weirdly tokenistic and silly. It's perhaps not as silly or stereotypical as the Irish colonists back in "Up the Long Ladder", but being a close second to 'objectively terrible' is nothing to be proud about.

Over the pseudo-historical setting comes a hugely stereotypical supernatural romance. There is a magic candle - it could be dressed up as some alien artefact to at least try and feel like Star Trek, but no it's really just a candle with magical powers. There is the crazy old man who warns of terrible doom and horrors if Crusher doesn't leave her grandmother's house. There is the hidden journal, which tells of grandma's erotic experiences at the hands of her ghostly lover - and hey, more power to her. If I was over 100 years old and a handsome thirty-something apparition chatted me up, I'd be pretty enthused too. Crusher telling Troi (Marina Sirtis) that she finds her grandmother's erotic diary entries arousing did give me pause, but I guess if it helps her through the grieving process than that's sort of okay?

The notorious ghost sex is flat-out embarrassing - McFadden sorts of writhes around inside a green energy field - and the climactic possession by Ronin of Grandma Crusher's corpse is pretty off-colour. It's also worth considering how the episode effectively has Crusher be sexually assaulted - Ronin has a supernatural influence over her - and yet attempts to portray it as something at least briefly romantic or erotic. It is not a good look for anybody involved. Duncan Regehr flails valiantly as Ronin, but the bottom line is that he's not exceptionally good (he later plays Shakaar in Deep Space Nine very underwhelmingly) and he's trapped with an awful character.

McFadden, to her enormous credit, gives the episode 100 per cent. She fully commits, whether she's stumbling around a storm-wracked graveyard or rolling around in a chair covered in green smoke. She deserves better; for the entire seven seasons of The Next Generation she deserved better.

By the episode's climax there's a sudden attempt to shoe-horn the ghost stuff into science fiction terms, which means the planet's climate controls go haywire to launch a storm at just the dramatically appropriate moment. It also leads to classic Next Generation technobabble such as 'he realised one of my ancestors had a biochemistry that was compatible with his energy matrix'. Nice try Braga, but a ghost is a ghost. You didn't fool anyone.

Once again we have a Season 7 episode focused on a character's family. This comes after episodes about Worf's brother, La Forge's mother, Data's brother, Troi's mother and Data's mother. There are so many family reunions going on this year that one wonders if the Enterprise has any real missions to undertake.

So obviously this episode is not going to improve Season 7's quality ratio. It's laughably bad. It leaves the season with 14 episodes, only seven of which have been good. The ratio drops once again to an even 50 per cent.
October 19th, 2017
posted by [syndicated profile] newelementary_feed at 09:17pm on 19/10/2017

Posted by caperberry

Here are the results from the final day of our first ever live parts festival, where AFOLs from all over the world who were attending the Paredes de Coura (PdC) Fan Weekend last June were given just over an hour to come up with ideas of what might be possible using a range of new LEGO® parts. See the parts selection here.

Bill Ward



At the rear of his spaceship, Bill created rather neat vector thrust capability by creating oval shapes from pairs of Mudguard 3X4, W/ Plate, No. 1 (6178912 | 28326). I will show you a breakdown of this technique in my next post, when I explore the geometry of this part a little more deeply. 

Continue reading »

Posted by Laura Staugaitis

All photos © Mikkel Jul Hvilshøj

In a shoot for Nordic cookware brand Eva, Copenhagen-based photographer Mikkel Jul Hvilshøj lets the ingredients speak for themselves. With his flatlay photos on rich matte backgrounds, Hvilshøj creates compositions of raw recipe materials like carrots, star anise, and lemon that seem to suggest that the cookware itself is an essential element in classic Scandinavian food and drink. You can see the full series on Behance.

Posted by Kate Sierzputowski

This week the Anne Petronille Nypels Lab at Van Eyck Academie in the Netherlands shared a video of an edition of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 being held up to a flame. The video was not an ironic twist on the book’s overt message of censorship, but rather a demonstration of the experimental work’s hidden capabilities. The book was screen printed by French graphic design collective Super Terrain using heat sensitive ink, which conceals the book’s text behind a layer of black when at room temperature. You can see more of the collective’s experiments with printed matter on their website and Instagram. (via Open Culture)

Posted by John Scalzi

The headline says it all: The Dispatcher is an Amazon Deal of the Day, so you can get it for under a buck on the Kindle. What a deal! But it’s only for the day (October 19, 2017), and it’s for the US and Canada. I’m not sure if the price applies on other retailers today, so you’d have to check it out for yourself. Regardless, if you’ve not picked up this novella yet, today is a good day to do so. Enjoy!


posted by [syndicated profile] wavewithoutashore_feed at 02:55pm on 19/10/2017

Posted by CJ

This is after pulling the cabinets and deciding to put an equipment closet midway to section off the dining area. The walls are now coral in the direction of view, white trim, and will have a grey slate flooring. Cabinets are quiet brown, fittings are ruddy copper, backsplash will be mixed glass tiles, countertop black. We were going to do flooring today, but our faithful carpenter is now starting another job, and needed to be off and took a needed tool with him. [He is really incredibly generous about letting two amateurs use his gear.] We had fallen in love with this gadget and can see future uses. So we ordered one of our own, which is the biggest honking dremel you can manage to hold in both hands. Its virtue is being able to cut a hole in the middle of a panel: a half-moon disk vibrates its way through the wood. Takes a little learning curve to do it without a gash on the corners, but its the most useful thing Dremel ever came up with. We have their little ‘hobby’ kit, which has trouble with balsa wood. This baby can buzz its way through hard floor paneling and cut weird shapes.

Posted by Mike Taylor

In a project we’re working on, a Java source file is auto-generated: method names on the interface that is generated (ready for implementing) are based on the HTTP method and URL in the RAML.

The result is this:

asyncResultHandler.handle(Future.succeededFuture(
    PutFixedDueDateScheduleStorageFixedDueDateSchedulesByFixedDueDateScheduleIdResponse
        .withNoContent()));

What we have here is a single identifier that, at 83 characters in length, is too wide to fit in standard 80-character-wide terminal.

File under “Why Java Is Not My Favourite Programming Language”.

(No, there is no reason why a similar identifier could not in principle be generated in some other programming language. But no other language has the programming culture that make such things possible.)


posted by [syndicated profile] in_the_pipeline_feed at 12:21pm on 19/10/2017

Posted by Derek Lowe

Here’s an article at The Atlantic (via the Washington Monthly) that should concern anyone involved in R&D. It’s about the funding problems of many of the large public universities, particularly in the Midwest. Chemists will recognize several historically strong departments in that part of the country – but may also have noted that faculty poaching (always a feature of life in academia) seems to have been increasing over the years. The biggest private universities have, for the most part, been operating on a more stable financial footing (and usually at a much higher baseline) than the schools that have to depend on their state legislatures. And state-level financial problems don’t allow for much optimism about where those funding levels will be going.

As the article points out, there are some large public universities (such as the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia) that get more of their funding privately than from public funds. But Ohio State, the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State, and many others are caught in bad positions. It did not pass without notice when Wisconsin fell out of the top five schools in the NSF research rankings for the first time ever.

A continuing slide like that will be bad news, because a lot of research gets done at these places, in a lot of different fields. That matters to science as a whole, and it matters even more to the universities’ regions themselves, where they (and the companies that have spun off from them) are often the main technology-based employers. The risk is that entire sections of the country find themselves sliding off in a different direction – and as someone who did not exactly grow up in a technological wonderland (Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas in the 1970s), I don’t like the sound of that. We have enough places that feel as if they’re stuck years behind everyone else without creating more of them.

I realize that I’m being a bit self-serving here, because I’m implicitly conflating “lack of any scientific research” with second-rateness, and scientific research happens to be what I do for a living. Convenient! But in these cases, we’re looking at places that really have been large-scale research centers that may be allowed to slide into that second-rateness, which is really shameful. I have the greatest respect for the work being done at the Harvards, Stanfords, and MITs, but I don’t think that we should sort of throw up our hands and allow university science to concentrate in their hands alone. There’s too much to do, for one thing, and the more sets of eyes (and hands) we have working on all these topics, the better off we are. Industrial research at least has the startup route, where small companies come along and tackle problems on their own, but starting your own university is not such an easy task. Keeping the ones we have going would seem to be a better plan.

But even in industry, there’s been a tendency towards just this sort of thing, albeit for different reasons. I write this from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and you cannot throw a rock around this neighborhood without going through some biopharma or tech company’s window. Northern New Jersey and Connecticut are not exactly Pennsylvania coal-mining country, but from a biopharma pespective, they’ve been emptying out pretty thoroughly in favor of a few big concentrations, Boston-Cambridge very prominent among them. This is not good for the places getting emptied, but at least the R&D is still being done somewhere new. But no one’s going to relocate Ohio State to a hipper location; it stands or falls where it is. Letting it and the other big public schools decline gives you the worst of both worlds.

Update: as pointed out in the comments, this problem doesn’t break on strictly geographic lines. The state of California, famously, has severe budget and tax-base problems, and that’s been showing up in the funding of the state’s universities. When there’s turmoil at a chemistry department as historically strong as Berkeley’s, then you do have trouble indeed. What we’re looking at is more of a state-versus-private breakdown, rather than a Midwest-versus-the-coasts one; it just so happens that the Midwest has a lot of big public universities with strong research histories.

Update 2: I also meant to include a note about Neal Stephenson’s memories of growing up in Ames, Iowa, in the atmosphere created by the university (in his introduction to David Foster Wallace’s “Everything and More”). Some of that shows up in this interview as well.

Posted by John

Mathematical writing is the opposite of business writing in at least one respect. Math uses common words as technical terms, whereas business coins technical terms to refer to common ideas.

There are a few math terms I use fairly often and implicitly assume readers understand. Perhaps the most surprising is almost as in “almost everywhere.” My previous post, for example, talks about something being true for “almost all x.”

The term “almost” sounds vague but it actually has a precise technical meaning. A statement is true almost everywhere, or holds for almost all x, if the set of points where it doesn’t hold has measure zero.

For example, almost all real numbers are irrational. There are infinitely many rational numbers, and so there are a lot of exceptions to the statement “all real numbers are irrational,” but the set of exceptions has measure zero [1].

In common parlance, you might use ball and sphere interchangeably, but in math they’re different. In a normed vector space, the set of all points of norm no more than r is the ball of radius r. The set of all points with norm exactly r is the sphere of radius r. A sphere is the surface of a ball.

The word smooth typically means “infinitely differentiable,” or depending on context, differentiable as many times as you need. Often there’s no practical loss of generality in assuming something is infinitely differentiable when you only need to know, for example, that it only needs three derivatives [2]. For example, a manifold whose charts are once differentiable can always be altered slightly to be infinitely differentiable.

The words regular and normal are used throughout mathematics as technical terms, and their meaning changes completely depending on context. For example, in topology regular and normal are two kinds of separation axioms. They tell you whether a topology has enough open sets to separate a point from a closed set or separate two closed sets from each other.

When I use normal I’m most often talking about a normal (i.e. Gaussian) probability distribution. I don’t think I use regular as a technical term that often, but when I do it probably means something like smooth, but more precise. A regularity result in differential equations, for example, tells you what sort of desirable properties a solution has: whether it’s a classical solution or only a weak solution, whether it’s continuous or differentiable, etc.

While I’m giving a sort of reader’s guide to my terminology, log always refers to natural log and trig functions are always in radians unless noted otherwise. More on that here.

* * *

The footnotes below are much more technical than the text above.

[1] Here’s a proof that any countable set of points has measure zero. Pick any ε > 0. Put an open interval of width ε/2 around the first point, an interval of width ε/4 around the second point, an interval of width ε/8 around the third point etc. This covers the countable set of points with a cover of measure ε, and since ε as arbitrary, the set of points must have measure 0.

The irrational numbers are uncountable, but that’s not why they have positive measure. A countable set has measure zero, but a set of measure zero may be uncountable. For example, the Cantor set is uncountable but has measure zero. Or to be more precise, I should say the standard Cantor set has measure zero. There are other Cantor sets, i.e. sets homoemorphic to the standard Cantor set, that have positive measure. This shows that “measure zero” is not a topological property.

[2] I said above that often it doesn’t matter how many times you can differentiate a function, but partial differential equations are an exception to that rule. There you’ll often you’ll care exactly how many (generalized) derivatives a solution has. And you’ll obsess over exactly which powers of the function or its derivatives are integrable. The reason is that a large part of the theory revolves around embedding theorems, whether this function space embeds in that function space. The number of derivatives a function has and the precise exponents p for the Lebesgue spaces they live in matters a great deal. Existence and uniqueness of solutions can hang on such fine details.

Posted by Shamus

It takes a lot of door-opening, fetch-questing, and button-pushing, but eventually the player breaks through the defensive layers to reach Angel. But before we get to her, I need to gripe about a plot door. This one:

Fine. I guess we have to do everything the hard way.

Fine. I guess we have to do everything the hard way.

That’s a “death wall” force field that will atomize you if you try to cross it. You need to jump through some hoops to enable Claptrap to deactivate the shield so you can pass safely. My problem is that this door doesn’t look like it should be that hard to get around. The space on the other side of the door is open to the elements, which means you should be able to get there via climbing or flying. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that the previous quests had you do a bunch of work specifically to enlist the help of a fleet of flying machines (called Buzzards) and they’re supposedly under your control now. In fact, they show up the moment the forcefield comes down. It should be trivial to get over this door. Even if hitching a ride on a Buzzard isn’t an option, later in this mission Roland climbs far more daunting cliffs than the ones on either side of this door. Not being able to bypass this door makes about as much sense as being trapped on an escalator.

To rub salt in the wound, the mission to grant Claptrap the ability to open this door is also the mission that got Bloodwing killed. A sympathetic character died for this cause, so it’s annoying that, in retrospect, all of that screwing around was apparently pointless. This would be fine if it was played for a joke or lampshaded, but it isn’t.

I’m not saying I think the developers should have added a Buzzard ride or a climbing minigame. (Please no.) I’m saying they should have changed the scenery so that these two options were no longer (visually) viable. It’s the old problem with 90s shooters: I’m fine with not being able to climb over a chest-high wall, until the moment you put my goal on the other side of said wall and require me to go miles out of my way through waves of foes. Just make the obstacle more visually insurmountable and the sidequest will be easier to swallow.

Anyway, it’s finally time to meet Angel…

Angelic Exposition

I realize it`s really common these days, but you look nothing like your profile photo.

I realize it`s really common these days, but you look nothing like your profile photo.

For the last game and a half Angel has pretended to be some kind of AI. This lie was implicit in Borderlands 1. Of course, it wasn’t necessarily a lie (yet) in Borderlands 1 because the writer never figured out what she was. It wasn’t until Borderlands 2 was written that her faux-computer schtick retroactively made her behavior deceptive. Her claims of being an AI are far more explicit here in Borderlands 2, and it’s not until we reach her that the truth comes out in a series of reveals:

  1. Angel is a person, not a computer.
  2. She’s also a Siren, like Lilith[2].
  3. Handsome Jack is Angel’s father.
  4. Yes, Jack is charging the vault key with eridium. But the twist is that you can’t just shove the eridium into the vault key. Instead you pump the eridium into a Siren and she can charge the key.
  5. Angel is being kept alive by the constant flow of eridium into her system. If it stops, she dies.
  6. Angel is trapped in this one room all the time, hooked up to this giant key-charging machine. The only thing she gets to do all day is help her dad manipulate people. Jack gets to exploit her power while at the same time convincing himself that he’s helping his daughter.
  7. Angel wants to die to escape this existence.

Angel is hovering inside the bubble. Jack is yelling at us over the jumbotron. Roland is shouting from the walkway above.

Angel is hovering inside the bubble. Jack is yelling at us over the jumbotron. Roland is shouting from the walkway above.

That’s a lot of stuff to reveal at once, and it makes this entire section pretty dense. There’s no central boss monster to fight, but the relentless pace of the robot attack ratchets up the challenge into boss fight territory. The goal of the fight is to shoot several pipes leading into Angel’s chamber. This will cut off the flow of eridium, which will stop the vault key from charging and also kill her.

It’s one of the few sections of the game where you fight beside the original vault hunters. Roland is there for most of the fight, and Lilith shows up near the end.

Jack doesn’t want you to kill his daughter / charging adapter. As the fight drags on, he keeps changing tactics. He tries to threaten you. He tries to guilt you. He tries pleading with you. Then he goes back to threats, only more serious. Angel argues with him. Angel shouts directions at Roland. Roland argues with Lilith. It’s a madhouse. It feels like you’re trying to have a gunfight while on a conference call.

At the conclusion of the fight Angel’s prison powers down and she dies. Jack teleports in, shoots Roland dead, and ambushes Lilith with a collar that… I don’t know what it does. It doesn’t mind control her, but it does seem to hurt her a lot and prevent her from using her powers without his permission. He orders her to kill the player, but she teleports you away.

Highly Motivated

Yes, it`s very sad that Angel is dead, but can someone PLEASE pick up the stupid vault key before Jack ambushes us?

Yes, it`s very sad that Angel is dead, but can someone PLEASE pick up the stupid vault key before Jack ambushes us?

I certainly can’t accuse the writer of taking shortcuts when it comes to character motivation. Every single character now has multiple things pushing them towards the final confrontation.

Mordecai wants to avenge his bird. Everyone wants to avenge Roland. Everyone wants to rescue Lilith from her torment at Jack’s hands. Everyone wants to stop Jack from charging the vault key (Lilith is his new charger) and gaining control of the Warrior, which everyone believes will let him crush all resistance instantly.

Jack was originally just in this for power and glory, but now it’s personal. He’s been humiliated and his daughter is dead. From here on out he’s a little less funny and a lot more dangerous.

Both the good guys and the bad guys need to have a final showdown. Jack wants to do it after opening the vault so he can win easily. Jack is rushing to open the vault and working to stall the heroes, and everyone else is scrambling to reach him as soon as possible.

I can’t think of another game with a clearer or more intense set of motivations for the lead characters. Even brilliant story-based games like Witcher 3 aren’t quite this thorough about establishing the emotional stakes.

I don’t know that Borderlands needed this level of emotional tension. I was fine with the story when it was a simple good guys vs. bad guys story. But I can’t fault the writer for a job well done.

That said, I do have a problem with this scene. Because of course I do…

Hang on a Second

Jack has just shot Roland. (Hence the blood all over my monitor.) Not sure why I`m standing here doing nothing, though. I mean, can I at least TRY to shoot him?

Jack has just shot Roland. (Hence the blood all over my monitor.) Not sure why I`m standing here doing nothing, though. I mean, can I at least TRY to shoot him?

Okay, I actually have three problems with this scene:

1. Shut Up Already

I don’t think I’ve ever had a “boss” encounter with this much talking before. Angel is giving you exposition and encouraging you. Jack is taunting you via the jumbotron screens around the room. Angel and Jack are arguing with each other. Roland has to ask Angel for explanations (to stuff she already told the player) and she has to shout directions to him. Roland is shouting encouragement at the player and explains what he’s trying to do. Angel shouts when she spawns some ammo for you. Roland shouts when he drops his turret. Lilith and Roland argue a little when she finally shows up near the end. Lilith shouts some swaggering barks as she nukes guys with her siren powers. And the whole time you’ve got chattering robots, gunfire, and explosions rounding out the soundscape.

2. Why Doesn’t Roland Respawn?

In this game the respawn stations are an explicit part of the fiction of the world. This isn’t an out-of-universe abstraction like the save system. It’s not something nobody talks about, like respawning in Diablo. Respawning is a thing that happens in this universe and the characters know about it.

In the first game, Claptrap laboriously explains what the respawn station does, who runs it, and how it works. In this game, the machine has snarky little comments to make at you as you respawn. The machine explicitly charges you money to rebuild you, atom-by-atom.

And then Handsome Jack one-shots Roland and he falls over dead. No respawn. You can make the excuse that Jack “turned off respawn” for Roland, but then why does it continue to work for you?

3. Why Can’t I Shoot Jack?

Jack’s ambush goes off without a hitch. He shoots Roland, tosses out some snark, and puts the collar on Lilith. But the only reason this works is because this is a cutscene and the player is reduced to a passive viewer.

How Can We Fix This?

Sirens: Gotta catch `em all!

Sirens: Gotta catch `em all!

This is the part in my analysis where I usually try to “fix” a broken scene by suggesting some edits. I usually constrain myself to the same basic budget limitations that the original writer operated under. So I can’t “fix” a scene by suggesting a half hour of mo-capped cutscenes, a bunch of additional gamespace, or a new gameplay mode. I try to stick to changes to existing assets, like different dialog or a change to the scenery.

But I’m stumped. I can’t fix any of these problems without creating more.

We could fix the problem of “why doesn’t Roland respawn?” by showing Jack sabotaging the respawn station. Maybe just as Roland is respawning, Jack blows it up and Roland is atomized or whatever. But that just compounds the question of what Lilith and the player are doing while all of this is going on. Also, if Roland dies during respawn then Trek nerds might might start thinking he’s just stuck in the machine and can be salvaged later. For this scene to have the intended emotional punch we need to make it clear to the audience that Roland is 100% dead, right now. The abrupt shock of seeing him die is the whole point, and any additional confusion or after-the-fact exposition will erode that.

We could have Jack explain that he’s disabled the respawn station, but then why don’t Lilith and the player blast him in the face while he’s running his mouth? His ambush has to be a quick one-two punch, and there’s no room for exposition in there without making the scene really clunky.

Roland is dead, but *I`M* still alive, right? So why am I standing here doing nothing while Jack tries to murder me?

Roland is dead, but *I`M* still alive, right? So why am I standing here doing nothing while Jack tries to murder me?

We can explain why the player can’t act by putting them on the other side of a forcefield, but then it doesn’t make sense for Jack to try and make Lilith kill someone protected by a forcefield. Also it would be fiddly to make it clear where the forcefield is, given the camera distance. And besides, we don’t want to watch Jack’s big scene through a sparkly “forcefield” filter.

We could set up Roland’s death by having Jack announce during the fight that the respawn gizmo is off, but then… what if the player dies? This game doesn’t have a game over screen, and you really don’t want the player to have to replay a battle with this much emotion and dialog in it.

I have no idea how to fix this without fundamentally redesigning the entire confrontation. But this fight has already been built up by the preceding scenes, so those would need to be rewritten as well. I think if we kept pulling on this thread the entire second act would come apart.

I stand by my assertion that this fight is a little too talky, the unjustified loss of player agency is annoying, and Roland’s non-respawning death is a plot hole. But I concede that I couldn’t do any better, and in fact you might not be able to fix this without ruining all of the newly-energized character motivations I talked about above.

posted by [syndicated profile] johndcook_feed at 09:34am on 19/10/2017

Posted by John

If you take the fractional parts of the set of numbers {n cos nx :  integer n > 0} the result is uniformly distributed for almost all x. That is, in the limit, the number of times the sequence visits a subinterval of [0, 1] is proportional to the length of the interval. (Clearly it’s not true for all x: take x = 0, for instance. Or any rational number times π.)

The proof requires some delicate work with Fourier analysis that I’ll not repeat here. If you’re interested in the proof, see Theorem 4.4 of Uniform Distribution of Sequences.

This is a surprising result: why should such a strange sequence be uniformly distributed? Let’s look at a histogram to see whether the theorem is plausible.

 

Histogram for an = n

OK. Looks plausible.

But there’s a generalization that’s even more surprising. Let an be any increasing sequence of integers. Then the fractional parts of an cos anx are uniformly distributed for almost all x.

Any increasing sequence of integers? Like the prime numbers, for example? Apparently so. The result produces a very similar histogram.

Histogram for an = n

But this can’t hold for just any sequence. Surely you could pick an integer sequence to thwart the theorem. Pick an x, then let an be the subset of the integers for which n cos nx < 0.5. Then an cos anx isn’t uniformly distributed because it never visits the right half the unit interval!

Where’s the contradiction? The theorem doesn’t start by saying “For almost all x ….” It starts by saying “For any increasing sequence an ….” That is, you don’t get to pick x first. You pick the sequence first, then you get a statement that is true for almost all x. The theorem is true for every increasing sequence of integers, but the exceptional set of x‘s may be different for each integer sequence.

Posted by admin

I’ve been living in Guangzhou since March 2010 and it’s often been a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs. I’ve gotten my dream wedding day here, I’ve stayed in a hospital for over a week. I’ve struggled to make long term friends and then found my place with amazing women who share the joy and struggle of living in another culture.

Now that I’m soon starting my ninth year in Guangzhou, I feel I am coming to a peace, I have found my place. My small family is healthy and happy, our daughter is in a great daycare and in the weekends we enjoy taking her out to explore or just stay at home cleaning together. Now at almost 2 years old she is such a fun person to be around!

Me and my husband are working together in our business. He is in charge of management and finances, I’m in charge of teaching and promoting. We have grown from teaching at coffee shops to having our own office in the center of Guangzhou. A small office, but an office nevertheless! We are approaching our 50th student any time now.

Regarding friends I have found other long-timers who are married to Chinese men and have young children as well. We have all lived in Guangzhou for years, some of us over 10 years. And most likely will stay in for the foreseeable future as well. When moving to a new place, especially into a new culture, it really makes a huge difference to be able to meet friends who are in the same situation as you are.

For making friends I’ve found GWIC, Guangzhou Women’s International Club, to be huge help! I’ve made so many new friends through coffee morning and afternoon teas. I’ve explored new places in Guangzhou and even started my own club inside the community.

The best season has started in Guangzhou, the Autumn. Temperatures are between 23 to 28 degrees, it doesn’t rain that much and the sun isn’t as scorching as during the Summer. If one wants to travel to Guangzhou, October to December is definitely the best time to come!

There are always new challenges coming when living in China, but right now Guangzhou is the best place to be. For me at least.

Until next time!

posted by [syndicated profile] dg_weblog_feed at 07:00am on 19/10/2017

Posted by diamond geezer

And while we're talking big screens...

It's been a a year since TfL hung two huge LED screens in the heart of Canary Wharf station. They blaze, the surrounding lighting dimmed for added contrast, drilling advertising messages into the eyeballs of millions of passing passengers. The CEO of Exterion Media described the screens as "enhancing the customer experience through delivering a truly world class estate". He may be keen, but my experience has not been enhanced.



But Canary Wharf was just the beginning, because TfL have coffers to fill.
Known as Hello London, the eight-year media partnership between TfL and Exterion Media aims to excite and engage the customers that make more than a billion journeys on TfL's Underground and rail services each year. Hello London will be bringing investment and innovation to the outdoor media market, installing improved digital screens and offering brands new opportunities in sponsorship, pop-up retail and experiential marketing. The partnership is expected to generate £1.1bn in revenue to reinvest in the transport system.
Another big screen has recently been installed at King's Cross St Pancras. Specifically it's attached to the balcony in the western ticket hall, on the St Pancras side, close to the Circle line ticket barriers. It's nowhere near as big as the screens at Canary Wharf, but it's still much bigger than the Tube usually employs, and will be pretty much unmissable to those passing underneath. I've not seen it up and running, but its dancing pixels look like being a permanent distraction, and a full time moneyspinner.



It's a fair bet that the original designer of the western ticket hall didn't have a commercial intrusion in mind. Instead it feels like TfL's Chief of Economic Deliverance walked round all the prime stations in Zone 1 looking for big high-up rectangular gaps, noted this one with glee, and hey presto a huge digital screen has appeared. Expect more. Some of you may even have noticed more at tube stations elsewhere. Do tell.

Update: Apparently the King's Cross screen is for an Art on the Underground project, 'The Bureaucracy of Angels', a 12 minute film depicting the demolition of 100 migrant boats in Sicily. It's supposed to be running from 28 September to 25 November, so should be a temporary intervention, although I've only ever seen a blank screen when walking through.

Meanwhile you might be wondering where all the digital projectors on tube station platforms have gone. These large white boxes first appeared in 2008, firing moving adverts onto the opposite wall between trains, but last year they were all switched off. I was going to say they've all been removed, but then I found this one on the southbound Victoria line platform at King's Cross, dormant and a bit grubby.



These projectors vanished because Exterion Media are bringing in a better system. It'll be bigger (half as as big again), brighter (twice as bright) and with enhanced HD screen resolution. They call it DX3.
DX3 is a network of large digital screens (4.5m x 2.4m) installed cross track on London Underground. With a projection from the platform onto custom-coated surface, DX3 will cut through any ambient light conditions, ensuring high-defnition, premium resolution across the entire network. These screens allow for full-motion, dynamic digital content.
DX3 is also running over two years late, so there's a blessing, but the new projectors will finally start to appear next month. 20 units will be live by the end of November, and 60 by the end of January, with the focus being busy stations in Zone 1. Expect to see them popping up in Liverpool Street, King's Cross St. Pancras, Waterloo, Oxford Circus and Bank, amongst others.

According to the people whose job it is to get excited about these things, the DX3 network will target "the ultimate premium consumer audience", reaching an annual footfall of 750 million with 5.5 million fortnightly impressions. These same people also describe the act of being shown moving adverts while you wait for trains as "a positive disruption to the everyday commute", on the basis that the average passenger would rather be sold to than be bored.

In reality, the advertisers need to provide something pretty damned wow to drag our eyes away from our phones. Ever since wifi was installed at stations most of us whip out our phones and check what the world's up to while we wait for trains underground, hence the hope that dazzling animated adverts projected in front of us will prove even more attractive. Stop watching what you wanted to watch and look at we want to show you, is the unspoken intention. And because most of us are really rather predictable, we'll probably fall for it and help provide TfL with their money.

Also coming soon are continuous 'ribbon' video screens along the sides of escalators, replacing the sequence of single screens we see today. Several escalators are already ribbon-ready, for example at Tottenham Court Road, with shiny blank metal surfaces awaiting all the electronic gubbins being slapped on top. Again the intention is to stop you whipping out your own phone for 20 seconds and to stare lovingly at all the marketing messages instead.
"Personally, I'm most excited about the ribbon screens," said Chris Reader, TfL's Head of Commercial Media. "I think they will offer a very innovative canvas for brands."
Underground advertising will become even more entrenched once Crossrail starts up next year. Unlike, say, the Jubilee line extension of 20 years ago, all of Crossrail's new stations have been specifically designed with spaces for advertising in mind. Expect to see "a wide range of innovative and high impact formats that best complement the stations' large proportions and modern design elements" as you pass through, including vertically mounted TV screens between the platform edge doors.

And it's not just the tube. Drivers aren't being left out, as TfL scour their arterial estate in search of locations for giant screens. Here's the big screen above the underpass at the Sun In The Sands roundabout, playing out ads for Ford, British Airways and LBC to vehicles on the A2.



Other pixel-based distractions are to be found looming above the A3 in Kingston, the A40 in Ealing, the North Circular in Brent, the Uxbridge Road in Hillingdon and the A12 in Leytonstone. Digital roadside advertising is certainly nothing new, but what's fresh is TfL's emboldened embrace of their outdoor portfolio.

Tube advertising is nothing new either, it's been with us since Victorian times. What's changing is the scale of the distraction we customers are being presented with as we travel, no longer just multi-coloured static rectangles but brightly illuminated consciousness-piercing screens.

Ultimately we can blame our leaders rather than TfL. We live in a country where the government is extinguishing the subsidies it pays for public transport, and in a city where the Mayor has hamstrung investment by imposing a four year fare freeze. Both policies are nakedly political rather than economically sane, and both conspire to focus TfL on raising money via every other means possible.

Bear this in mind the next time you see another intrusive screen has gone up, and your brain nags you to watch what it has to say. As flexible dynamic messaging takes hold, going forward, there's little hope this flashy underground filmshow will ever go away.
posted by [syndicated profile] cks_techblog_feed at 03:55am on 19/10/2017

Posted by cks

A few months ago I wrote an entry about my views on Shellcheck where I said that I found it too noisy to be interesting or useful to me. Well, you know what, I have to take that back. What happened is that as I've been writing various shell scripts since then, I've increasingly found myself reaching for Shellcheck as a quick syntax and code check that I could use without trying to run my script. Shellcheck is a great tool for this, and as a bonus it can suggest some simplifications and improvements.

(Perhaps there are other programs that can do the same sort of checking that shellcheck does, but if so I don't think I've run across them yet. The closest I know of is shfmt.)

Yes, Shellcheck is what you could call nitpicky (it's a linter, not just a code checker, so part of its job is making style judgments). But going along with it doesn't hurt (I've yet to find a situation where a warning was actively wrong) and it's easier to spot real problems if 'shellcheck <script>' is otherwise completely silent. I can live with the cost of sprinkling a bunch of quotes over the use of shell variables, and the result is more technically correct even if it's unlikely to ever make a practical difference.

In other words, using Shellcheck is good for me and my shell scripts even if it can be a bit annoying. Technically more correct is still 'more correct', and Shellcheck is right about the things it complains about regardless of what I think about it.

(With that said, I probably wouldn't bother using Shellcheck and fixing its complaints about unquoted shell variable usage if that was all it did. The key to its success here is that it adds value over and above its nit-picking; that extra value pushes me to use it, and using it pushes me to do the right thing by fixing my variable quoting to be completely correct.)

Posted by Liz Barr

Last week, I made fun of the show for having a pretentious title.

This week, I would like to make fun of it for having a completely naff title. Fans, right? Are they ever happy?

As it happens, yes! Quibbles aside, I rather enjoyed this episode, and here is the post (complete with parenthetical digressions) to prove it.

…is it a quibble or a proper complaint when I point out that it’s 2017, and the cast contains two women and four men? Only Voyager and the first season of TNG, have managed to have more than two women in the regular line-up. The ratios vary, but the closest we get to parity is the magic 30%.

This, coupled with the fact that we’ve lost two female characters of colour in five episodes, is a bitter pill. Do better. Do much better.

So, of course, we got a new male regular, Lieutenant Ash Tyler.

Here are my feelings:

  1. Pleasure at seeing a Middle Eastern Starfleet officer in this age of The War On Terrorism and Muslim Bans and all that nonsense.
  2. Aesthetic appreciation of Shazad Latif and his remarkably attractive face.
  3. Irritation that it’s Yet Another Dude.
  4. Cautious interest at the depiction of a male rape victim…
  5. …coupled with trepidation that it’s going to turn Extremely Bad.

(I did note with interest that Ash Tyler is in some ways a Strong Female Character — introduced as a rape victim, but gets revenge via slightly improbable hand to hand combat, rescued by manly captain guy, rumour has it he’s a love interest for Burnham…)

Also, he is probably a Klingon spy.

This is a Reddit theory which has rapidly gone mainstream: “Ash Tyler” is in fact Voq, last seen fleeing the wreck of the Shenzhou with L’Rell to seek refuge with the matriarchs of House Mokai.

See, Shazad Latif initially auditioned for the character who would become Voq — and the guy credited as Voq now, one Javid Iqbal, doesn’t seem to exist. He has no other credits, hasn’t done any publicity, has no social media presence — there’s not even a headshot. No one knows what he looks like under that make-up.

And sure, maybe he’s shy! A shy method actor!

Or it’s Shazad Latif under the mask. (Incidentally, “Latif” is a stage name — his real family name is … Iqbal.)

If you’re curious, Javid Iqbal is credited as Voq for only three episodes. Now, IMDB’s records are … dubious (Michelle Yeoh was initially credited for all fifteen), so we can take that with a grain of salt. But it’s iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinteresting.

(Drive-by reminder: Lorca has a tribble on his desk. In “The Trouble with Tribbles”, a Klingon spy is discovered only because the tribbles see through his disguise and scream at him.)

(Having said this, Tansy Rayner-Roberts and I have figured out that the DIS Klingons are all evil time travelling tribbles wearing humanoid suits, which is why they look different and speak strangely. WE ARE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, PEOPLE.)

(Also, the Galactic Suburbia Slack is great, and you should definitely subscribe to the GSub Patreon and join if you’re a listener.)

My take on the theory is that it seems credible so far — moreso than Tyler’s explanation for how he has lasted seven months in captivity relatively unscathed (physically). (Klingon women: not gentle.) If it’s true, I like that Voq, to pursue T’Kuvma’s goal of “remaining Klingon”, has sacrificed his Klingon identity.

But it also makes me a bit reluctant to bond with Tyler, and if he hurts my lady Michael, I will end him.

The Voq Tyler theory raises a bunch of questions — here’s a list:

  • Does “Tyler” know he’s Voq, or has his mind been wiped?
  • Is L’Rell the captain of the Klingon ship? No one seems to know for sure, not least because the actors sound so different when they speak English, and the credits are unclear. If it was L’Rell, her appearance has been altered, and she seems shorter and older than before.
  • Heavy Klingon make-up plus my ever-worsening face blindness is a curse.
  • …but I digress. If that was L’Rell, and Tyler’s memories are implanted (but real to him), that makes their relationship seriously messed up and interesting, but also threatens to lead into some kind of tedious jealousy subplot if it’s true about Tyler being attracted to Michael.
  • Is Mudd in the cell as a way of forcing Lorca and Tyler to quickly form an alliance?
  • Something something game theory?
  • People talk about game theory in this kind of situation and I have literally no idea what it is.

Along with Ash, we were also (re)introduced to Harcourt Fenton Mudd…

Ugggghhhhh Mudd

That was my reaction when I heard that Harry Mudd was making an appearance in this series.

Mudd was introduced in TOS to be a recognisable character for 1960s audiences who might not bond right away with these futuristic Starfleet officers. He was conceived as a harmless con artist with a line in zany shenanigans.

I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that the character hasn’t aged well. His first scheme is, at best, a mail order bride scam, and at worst, sex trafficking.

I’ve seen grumbles around the internet about Mudd being “rewritten” as an out and out villain, but his behaviour here is consistent with what we’ve seen in his TOS appearances — the difference is that now he’s trading with the lives of men, not women.

Rainn Wilson is making several appearances as Mudd, and while I can see it getting old real fast, I’m more open to the possibility than I was before I saw this episode.

Lorca probably knows what game theory is

I bet he pontificates about it in darkened rooms all the time.

I actually like Lorca as a character, in that I’m having a good time sort of hating his guts and wondering how he even got command of a starship. Twice. Because my theory last week, that he was a Section 31 operative who was given Discovery after the war started, is completely wrong.

No, he’s just a guy who nuked his own ship rather than let his crew be taken prisoner.

I have questions:

  • Why wasn’t he on the USS Buran?
  • Captain Picard heroically saves his crew but has to abandon the USS Stargazer, and he’s court martialled. Lorca loses his crew and his ship, and Starfleet’s like, “Weelllllll, okay, we’re not angry, we’re just disappointed, anyway, here’s a new ship, go do whatever.”
  • I MEAN.
  • Like, Burnham got a life sentence for mutiny, Lorca doesn’t even get a house arrest?

He also leaves Mudd, a civilian, behind in Klingon captivity. Which is bad Starfleeting, but perfectly in character.

Truly, my main issue with Lorca is a fear that he’s not being set up as the antithesis of what a good Starfleet captain should be. I want him to become the boogeyman who lurks in the nightmares of Picard and Sisko and Janeway, going, “This is what you must never become.”

Meanwhile, back on the Discovery

Burnham takes a backseat for the second half of the episode, which gave us a better look at the rest of the ensemble. Particularly Stamets, who gets his wish of talking to mushrooms.

Stamets has evolved very quickly from “colossal jerk in a way we’ve seen on lots of shows and honestly I JUST DON’T CARE” to “character I’m very fond of”. Not least because his interactions with Dr Culber are delightful, and it’s much easier to like a character when you see them interacting with someone who … also likes them? It’s recursive, but it works for me.

I guess I’m Team Stamets now, which is good, because I didn’t want to hate Star Trek‘s first openly gay regular who isn’t Sulu, but also disconcerting, because now I have to come to terms with Anthony Rapp’s lack of eyebrows. (It’s fine, I’ll get used to it, I hardly ever notice Matt Smith’s forehead anymore.)

Cadet Tilly continues to be a delight (“I love feeling feelings”), pushing Burnham just enough, and abandoning protocol and good manners with her potty-mouthed enthusiasm for SCIENCE.

But the real ensemble winner here is Commander Saru, which conveniently almost rhymes with “Kobayashi Maru“. As acting captain, Saru faces his own no-win scenario, having to choose between the life of his captain or that of a possibly-sentient being, and all without (he feels) adequate training.

The key thing is not that Saru makes the right choice, but that he makes a choice at all, knowing that he will have to live with the consequences. That’s the point of the whole Kobayashi Maru challenge — which James Kirk misses, incidentally.

For the record, I do think that Saru made the right choice. But I also think that Burnham was right in trying to find an alternative, and I think that Saru might have done better to give her that task officially, but with the caveat that the Tardigrade might have to be sacrificed.

One thing I love about Discovery, and which keeps it firmly in the nebulous category of Proper Star Trek, is the emphasis on people accepting the consequences of their actions. I’ve never agreed that the TNG characters were “too perfect”, but they were certainly aspirational in their willingness to deal with the outcomes of their choices.

On the other hand, episodic television made that easy. DS9’s characters were more challenged in that respect, but I think it’s with Discovery that we really see the impact of choices made. Even Captain “moral boundaries are for plebs” Lorca chooses to live with the disability that reminds him of his actions and lost crew.

As for Burnham, she faces the challenge of doing nothing. This is not a passive or easy option for her. We know from “Battle at the Binary Stars” that she can succumb to despair and fatalism, but we also know just how ruthless she can be in the cause of the greater good. To resist that urge, and trust that her crewmates will do the right thing, is a big leap for her, and it’s rewarded with her … she’s not quite reconciled with Saru, but they’ve taken another step down that path.

This Week’s Jerk Rankings

  1. Harry Mudd. Ugh, that guy is the worst.
  2. All the Klingons. I assume they’ve been subscribing to Cardassian Torture Weekly. Well done on the villainy, guys.
  3. Lorca. Like, congratulations, you are not literally the worst person in the galaxy this week, but you nuked your crew, you’re still awful.
  4. Saru. He will be getting a stern letter from the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Tardigrades. Yes, even though I think he did the right thing.

Other observations

  • According to ancillary sources, Vice Admiral Katrina Cornwell is a psychiatrist by training, and is unofficially observing Lorca’s mental health as she supervises him. I love her, I ship them, I also want her to meet Burnham so I can ship them, she’s just great (so far).
  • Just how did the Tardigrade rehydrate in a vacuum? Let’s not think too hard about that.
  • The “brief history of Tardigrades” dialogue was truly clunky and badly needed those gratuitous F-bombs.
  • Lieutenant Joann Oswekun had dialogue! As did Keyla, the cyborg or robot lady, and a new dude named Rhys.
  • WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN STAMETS’S MIRROR AT THE VERY END? ARE WE DUE FOR MIRROR UNIVERSE EPISODE?
  • Spoilers: actual spoilers in this link. Don’t hover, even the URL is spoilery.
  • Steph notes: Cadet Tilly is wrong, feelings are terrible; a mirrorverse episode might have Space Captain Auntie Michelle in it and I deserve that; Vice Admiral Katrina Cornwell played one of my favourite characters in Chicago Hope and I loved her.
  • Liz adds: EVIL MIRROR UNIVERSE SPACE CAPTAIN AUNTIE MICHELLE. JUST GIVE US THIS ONE REPRIEVE, 2017. WE DON’T ASK FOR MUCH.

October 18th, 2017
posted by [syndicated profile] jowaltonbooks_feed at 11:13pm on 18/10/2017

Posted by Jo Walton

Lent is finished. 103565 words as of now, sent it out to beta readers, waiting for response. Kind of done, yay!

posted by [syndicated profile] jo_walton_blog_feed at 11:13pm on 18/10/2017

Posted by Jo Walton

Lent is finished. 103565 words as of now, sent it out to beta readers, waiting for response. Kind of done, yay!

posted by [syndicated profile] infoisbeautiful_feed at 10:21pm on 18/10/2017

Posted by Kate Sierzputowski

All images via Owen Buggy

This past April a massive 80-foot steel kraken was purposefully sunk into the Caribbean Sea on top of a decorated WW2 ship. The former Navy fuel barge and its monstrous passenger were placed underwater in order to jumpstart a new coral ecosystem, while also serving as a cutting-edge education center for marine researchers and local students from the surrounding British Virgin Islands. The project is titled the BVI Art Reef, and aims to use sculptures like the porous kraken as a base to grow transplanted coral.

The Kodiak Queen, formerly a Navy fuel barge named the YO-44, was discovered by British photographer Owen Buggy approximately two and a half years ago on the island of Tortola. Instead of letting the historic vessel get picked apart for scrap metal, Buggy approached former boss Sir Richard Branson about collaborating on a restorative art installation. Together with nonprofit Unite B.V.I., artist group Secret Samurai Productions, social justice entrepreneurial group Maverick1000, and ocean education nonprofit Beneath the Waves, the project was established as both an eco-friendly art installation, and a philanthropic measure to rehabilitate native marine species.

“It’s envisioned that within just a short space of time the ship and artwork will attract a myriad of sea creatures,” said Clive Petrovic who consults on the environmental impact of the BVI Art Reef. “Everything from corals to sea sponges, sharks and turtles will live on, in, and around the wreck. The ship will become valuable for future research by scientists and local students alike.”

To sink the massive ship, the project sought the help of the Commercial Dive Services who safely submerged the vessel off the coast of the island Virgin Gorda. It was the first time the ship had been in the water for nearly 17 years, and was lead to its final resting place by a bevy of boats and helicopters.

Filmmaker Rob Sorrenti filmed both the construction and sinking of the kraken and its ship. The full-length documentary is currently in post-production, with an estimated release early next year. You can watch a clip from the upcoming film below. For information on visiting the BVI Art Reef, and to learn more about its educational programs, visit the project’s website and Facebook.

posted by [syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed at 10:29pm on 18/10/2017

Posted by John Scalzi

Hello fellow humans! I am not dead. I am slowly making my way down the length of California toward my high school reunion.

Life is good. I hope also that your life is good.

Tell the class about your day in the comments.

Yours,

JS


Posted by The Editors

By Alex Storer.

Any science fiction or space art aficionado should instantly recognise the name David A. Hardy – perhaps from the early part of his career working with Sir Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night and their award-winning books, including Challenge of the Stars and Futures / 50 Years in Space, or perhaps from his film and television credits, which include Blake’s Seven and The Neverending Story. Maybe you’ve got books in your SF collection adorned with David’s stunning cover art (maybe you’ve even read his own SF book, Aurora), or have encountered his work on the convention circuit. At the very least, if you’ve ever bought Cadbury’s chocolate, you’ll recognise the logo that Hardy originally designed during his time working at their Bournville factory, Birmingham, in the 1960s!

First published in 1952, David A. Hardy is the longest-established living space artist. Hardy started out as an astronomical artist, and the inevitable expansion into science fiction did not come for some years. Hardy’s work can transport you to the remotest corners of the Solar System, or into remote alien worlds and future times. What’s more, Hardy is still working and in as much demand as ever, regularly supplying cover art for the likes of Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and countless science fiction paperback and e-book titles.

Initiation of Akasa_F&amp;SF

F&SF: Initiation of Asaka

Hardy’s artwork continues to move with the times – in tandem with spaceflight technology and our ever-expanding scientific knowledge about the planets in our Solar System, and advancing with the advent of computer technology and digital art.

I grew up in awe of Hardy’s work, courtesy of its inclusion in the most marvellous book, Space Worlds, Wars & Weapons (published in 1977 by the sadly defunct Paper Tiger imprint), and an art print that hung on the wall at home, entitled Stellar Radiance. This artwork my young imagination; it was like having a window into space. It sparked my obsession with science fiction art and ultimately led to me working as a science fiction artist myself, years later.

Stellar Radiance

Stellar Radiance

When I rediscovered my love of science fiction and space art in 2007, I realised it was time to start creating my own – and David A. Hardy’s work was my first port of call.

However, at the time, I did not know the name of that wonderful painting that I used to lose myself in, nor the artist’s full name – though the carefully scribed signature of “Hardy” in the bottom corner of the painting had always stuck in my mind. Thanks to a quick Google search, in no time at all I was in touch with the man himself, and soon found myself discovering his decade-spanning portfolio, starting with the books, Hardyware and Futures / 50 Years In Space. David’s enthusiasm and encouragement were invaluable and enough for me to know that I simply had to give it a shot.

One of the things which appeals to me about Hardy’s art is that whether it is paint or pixels, the work is still distinctly Hardy. When it comes to digital art in particular, I’ve always found it crucial to still have the touch of the artist’s hand, which I feel adds soul and personality to a digitally piece, eliciting just the same kind of emotional response one gets from looking at a canvas painting – and Hardy achieves this masterfully.

Despite being in the age of photographic imagery and photorealistic 3D graphics, hand-rendered art has remained important in science fiction circles, as it is another medium in which we can escape into other times or worlds – and more often than not, the art goes hand in hand with the SF literature we read; either adorning the covers of the books we love or simply inspired by them.

A ‘Hardy’ is immediately identifiable, not only by that kind of vibrant colour palette (regardless of medium), but by a consistent style and approach. Decades of experience and expertise all go into making each and every piece a work of wonder that one never tires of viewing.

I caught up with David to chat about all aspects of his work and career …

The first time I encountered computer-aided artwork in the early 1990s, it felt like a life-changing moment; a glimpse of the future. Do you remember the first time you saw computer art and did you realise it was going to be a significant way forward, especially in terms of science fiction art?

DAH: I had a similar “Eureka!” moment when I discovered the airbrush in 1957! Here was a way to paint atmospheres, glows, nebulae in a way that was realistic yet wouldn’t take hours of painstaking blending of paints. I have always kept up with new technology, and started using photography, especially ‘derivative’ (manipulated) images, in my work. In the 1980s I did all my own darkroom work and even became a LRPS. I also bought a large-format camera and started taking photos of my work to send to publishers as transparencies (slides) rather than entrusting valuable artwork to the tender mercies of the Post Office! I became aware of the intrusion of computer art in publishing, and it was exciting, but I couldn’t afford any of the equipment. Then when the Atari ST came along in 1986 I got a 520, then a 1040 and finally a Falcon before getting my first PowerMac in 1991. But it was still some time before I felt able to use this professionally. (I did however produce graphics for an Atari/Amiga game, Kristal, which won an industry award.)

Kristal

Kristal

Many SF artists have continued to work with paint while others have moved to digital or only work digitally – yet you have maintained a healthy balance of both. What do you feel you can achieve with digital art that you can’t with traditional media – and vice-versa?

DAH: Digital art is much more flexible – you can change, delete, try different effects and save the results separately. There are filters and plugins which produce results quite impossible to achieve in painting. And of course one can send JPEGs to publishers by email. (This can be a disadvantage as well as an advantage, as it gives them an opportunity to request many changes, some of which would be virtually impossible with traditional media. Fortunately, though, this rarely happens to me now!).

How do you feel your work has progressed since branching out into digital art?

DAH: I’m not sure it has progressed – perhaps this is for others to say? My method of working has changed, because now I usually produce a digital version first on my Mac, to see what I am working towards, before putting paint on canvas.

You create works both in paint and digitally which both clearly have your distinctive style. How would you say you achieve this?

DAH: Well I suppose it is inevitable that my work will look like mine, however I work. In either case I know how I want my final work to look, and I just continue until I achieve that, in whatever medium. However (see below) computer art can have a rather bland look, and I try to avoid that by using various ‘real media’ filters and other techniques.

Mountain Grill_Portals_comp

Mountain Grill Portals

I personally dislike the term ‘digital’, as it all too often makes people think of cold 3D renderings or that the computer does all the work, whereas you still work by hand using a graphics tablet – the way of working is practically the same, just the medium that is different. Would you agree?

DAH: I do agree. TV presenters especially tend to give the impression that ‘digital art’ is produced simply by pressing a few buttons. This is far from the case – I use very little ‘3D’ art, but I admire those who can, because it is a very steep learning curve to use Vue or Lightwave, and the results can be incredible. I do user Poser to help me with figures, and used the original version of Terragen as a terrain generator for many of the new illustrations in Futures: 50 years in Space. But then they changed it, and instead of being a user-friendly graphic interface one has to enter numbers and such – not what I call art!

Comet Probe

Comet Probe, as featured in 50 Years in Space

It’s only in recent years that digital has become more accepted as a medium – yet there’s no less imagination or creativity involved. How do you feel when collectors voice concerns about there being no ‘original’ so to speak?

DAH: I can quite understand that. Yes one can produce any number of prints from a traditional painting, but there is only one original, and the difference is immediately obvious on close inspection. Also, when painting I often use ‘impasto’ effects – paint applied thickly with a palette knife – and although it is no doubt possible to simulate this, it is quite impossible to do digitally. There is a huge amount of trust involved in digital fine art (personally I only use the computer for illustrations), as the customer is expected to accept that only one, or a limited number of prints will be made from a digital file, which may or may not then be destroyed. . .

Talk us through your general process when starting a new piece. Are you more inclined to head to your digital or wet studio? What kind of creative routines or rituals do you have?

DAH: As I said above, I often produce a quick digital version first when painting, but for illustrations – covers and such – I always use the Mac. So the choice is quite simple really. Currently I am experimenting with less realistic, even abstract techniques, and for these the wet studio is the only choice. Actually, after working for perhaps weeks on a 27” monitor it is a pleasure to be able to slap some paint on a large canvas, and I enjoy the whole physical process of working directly with my hands.  Routines? None really, except to have all my tools readily available and to hand.

Do you remember when you first realised that science fiction and space art was something you absolutely had to do?

DAH: When I was thirteen my parents took me to Blackpool. I walked down the seafront from the boarding house, and found a newsagent’s which had some SF ‘pulps’ on a shelf. I bought two: Seven to the Moon by Lee Stanton and Rocket Men by King Lang (a pseudonym if ever I saw one!). They were the first ‘adult’ SF books I had read, and I was hooked!  From then on I got SF whenever and wherever I could, including of course H.G.Wells from the library. Sometimes the covers were quite good, if garish, but often I would amuse myself by trying to create my own based on the stories. A year later, in 1950, I found a copy of The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley, with the most amazing photographic paintings of the Moon and planets by Chesley Bonestell.  That was the moment when I knew what I wanted to do! From then on, although I read and was involved with SF, I thought of myself purely as a space artist; this was of course amplified by the fact that I was working with people like Patrick Moore, and illustrated my first book for him in 1954. In fact it wasn’t until 1970 that my first published SF covers appeared, first on Vision of Tomorrow and then on F&SF.

EnigmaF&amp;SF- Enigma

Enigma (1970) and the F&SF cover featuring it

DAH: In the 40s and 50s F&SF, and to a lesser extent other magazines such as Amazing and Galaxy, used Bonestell art as covers. Yet he always insisted that he was not a SF artist, but an astronomical one. When Challenge of the Stars (a book that I co-wrote with Patrick Moore as well as illustrated) was published in 1972, F&SF and a couple of the other mags used my paintings from that in exactly the same way that they had used Bonestell. But sadly, 1972 was also the year in which men visited the Moon for the last time, and public interest in space began to wane. To give me a reason for still painting space art covers I invented (with my cartoonist friend Anthony Naylor) ‘Bhen’, the benevolent green B.E.M., who I showed with the Viking lander, riding in the bowl of the Pioneer probe at Saturn, riding the Lunar Rover, and so on.  (Not a little green man, as some have called him, because if you compare him with the NASA vehicles he is about two-and-a-half metres – nearly 8ft – tall!). He first appeared on F&SF in 1975, and of course the earlier covers – there have been ten – were painted, though the last one, in 2015, was digital.

Bhen on Mars v1

BHEN on Mars (1975)

Bhen 15

BHEN ExoMars (2015)

In recent years, we’ve seen a healthy revival of painted/illustrated covers for SF titles. What do you think it is about this kind of artwork that has such longevity, and right for the genre?

DAH: I suppose it’s largely tradition, and nostalgia? We became so used to expecting SF covers to look a certain way that it still gives us pleasure to see that type of work.

In your opinion, what makes a good SF book cover?

DAH: Ah, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it! For me, it’s essential that it really relates to the content of the book (but preferably without giving too much away), and that is exciting and eye-catching.

Is there any particular SF novel that you’d still like to illustrate?

DAH: Loads, but I couldn’t really list them. . .

Moving briefly on to space art – your earlier depictions of Pluto turned out to be astoundingly accurate in recent years, when NASA polished its first-high definition images of the planet. This must have been a proud moment.

DAH: Yes, I think I was as surprised as anybody when we saw that there actually was a cracked, icy plain which they named ‘Sputnik Planum’, few craters, and that on Charon there are great crevasses – just as I had painted them in 1991 for The Universe by Ian Ridpath. I don’t really claim any prescience; I had just based my version on the geology of some of the outer moons, like Neptune’s Triton.

New Horizons at Pluto.jpg

New Horizons at Pluto

As a space artist, do you feel it vital to keep painting new and updated interpretations of our planets, as we learn more about them? For example, the way you may have painted Jupiter from Io in the 1970s would be significantly different to how you would paint the same scene today.

DAH: Absolutely. I’ve heard people say that the paintings of, say, Bonestell from the 1950s have no value now because they are inaccurate, showing tall, jagged mountains on the Moon or canals on Mars and so on (and of course I was highly influenced by him then). Rubbish! What we painted then was based on the scientific knowledge of the time, so yes, we do need to keep updating our work as new data come in. Having said that, even Bonestell should really have known that the lunar mountains have been eroded by millennia of impacts by micrometeorites and extremes of temperature – French astronomer/artist Lucien Rudaux knew, back in the 1930s, because he observed the limb of the Moon, where the mountains can be seen in profile – though they still cast sharp, pointed shadows in a low light.

Despite the amazing, high-resolution photographs of other planets which we now can see thanks to modern technology, there continues to be a healthy interest in space art. Why do you think this is?

DAH: It’s true that instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have sent us the most amazing, detailed colour images of distant nebulae etc. But much of the information we receive comes in the form of data, and while numbers, charts and graphs may be exciting to astronomers, the public and the media prefer to see exciting visual interpretations. This is where space artists come into their own. It is also the area where we see the difference between space artists and SF artists: while SF and fantasy artists are free to use their imagination, space artists need to combine these talents with accurate scientific knowledge. And they can’t afford to get it wrong!

Two Worlds 15

Two Worlds

This Summer Hardy exhibited at Visions of Space 2 – An Exhibition of Astronomical and Space Art by British IAAA artists at Wells & Mendip Museum in Somerset, at which he also gave a talk on the Moon and Eclipses on the opening night. His next event is next month at Novacon, the UK’s longest-running SF convention, at which Hardy has attended and exhibited every year since it began in 1971.

Every year, Hardy presents a display of work covering all aspects of science fiction, fantasy, space art and beyond. Not one to rest on his laurels, Hardy continually pushes himself and experiments with new artistic media – the most recent being sculpted 3D relief landscapes and scenes, and also abstract art.

At 81, David A. Hardy could easily be living proof that art and creativity keeps both the body and the mind young – youthful in appearance, with a mind as sharp as his wit, just a few minutes of conversation with the artist leaves you feeling inspired and educated. His passion and dedication for his art and everything that has influenced it over his long career, is as strong today as it ever was – and this should be an inspiration to us all.

Alex Storer is a science fiction artist and electronic musician. www.thelightdream.net


Posted by Grant Watson

In 2007 Paramount Pictures released Transformers, a glossy big-budget science fiction film based on a range of action figures. It was a massive commercial hit, grossing more than US$700 million theatrically and inspiring an entire franchise with four sequels to date and a total worldwide theatrical gross of US$4.4 billion. Transformers was, of course, not the first live-action feature film to be based on a range of action figures. That film was Masters of the Universe, directed by Gary Goddard and released all the way in August 1987.

Masters of the Universe was not the commercial hit that Transformers was. Critically reviled and essentially ignored by audiences, the story of its making seems at times a cavalcade of mistakes, poor choices and occasionally some exceptionally bad behaviour. Despite this there is a surprising amount of decent material in the film. For the right viewers of a certain age there is even a large amount of nostalgia. There has never been quite enough for Masters to ever really qualify as a cult film, but it has its fans. I am one of them.

Tracking the origin of the film probably needs a jump back to 1976, when aspiring writer/director George Lucas was making a science fiction adventure film titled Star Wars. With a forward-thinking eye towards merchandising, Lucas had arranged with studio 20th Century Fox that he would retain the rights to sell and license Star Wars goods while the studio would retain the rights to the film itself. One of Lucas’ top priorities was a line of tie-in toys. When he approached major toy manufacturer Mattel, he was turned down. In the end a small company named Kenner picked up the rights and found themselves with the most lucrative action figure property of all time. Mattel – along with every other major American toy company – was left kicking itself with regret.

 

With the success of Kenner’s Star Wars line, pretty much every other popular movie franchise hitting cinemas came with its own toy line. All of them were hopefully going to be the next big hit with children; none of them really came close. Mattel gave serious consideration to licensing the characters from the fantasy film Conan the Barbarian, but blanched at the idea when the violent content of that film became apparent. Instead they took an alternate route: abandoning the idea of licensing a property and choosing to develop their own instead. Rather than aim for fantasy or science fiction, Masters of the Universe blended the two genres together. Characters were kept intentionally simple: an ultra-masculine hero literally named He-Man, and a skull-faced villain named Skeletor. To expand on their stories and fictional universe, comic book writers like Donald F. Glut were hired to produce miniature comic books that could be packaged with the individual figures.

The Masters of the Universe action figure line launched in 1982 to immediate success. A DC Comics series was released to expand on the characters and story, and one year later Filmation launched a lengthy animated television series to syndication. It remains one of the most commercially successful TV cartoons of all time, despite accusations at the time that it only existed to advertise toys at children.

In 1982 the film producer Edward R. Pressman – who had co-produced the Conan the Barbarian film that Mattel had almost licensed – approached Mattel with an offer to purchase the rights for a Masters of the Universe film. He immediately recognised the popularity of the brand and its potential to be adapted in a summer blockbuster. ‘On Masters,’ said Pressman, ‘we insisted on Mattel’s blessing but as little input as possible. We knew going in that for Masters to work as a movie, we could not be restricted by a corporate entity. Our goal was to make a movie and not to sell toys.’[1]

To develop the film’s screenplay Pressman hired writer David Odell, then fresh off co-writing the screenplay to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s fantasy film The Dark Crystal. One of Odell’s main problems was that of cost: the television cartoon presented a faraway planet named Eternia, featuring vast alien vistas, a massive gothic castle named Grayskull, and a plethora of strange fantasy characters wielding laser guns and swords and driving all manner of vehicles and beasts. A Star Wars-sized production budget would be required to realise the toy line on screen, and it was unlikely that a major studio would back Masters of the Universe to such an extent.

Odell suggested a ‘reverse Wizard of Oz’ storyline in which He-Man and his companions would travel from Eternia to present-day Earth, where the bulk of the film could play out. Such a plot device would not only help Masters of the Universe to stand out from other fantasy films, it would also make the production significantly cheaper to shoot.

While Odell wrote the screenplay, Pressman began hunting for a studio and a director. Finding a studio proved difficult, as none of them were convinced by the idea of turning a set of children’s toys into a narrative feature. Pressman persevered, and quickly zeroed in on Gary Goddard as a possible director.

Goddard did not come from a film background but rather theme parks and live theatre. He had designed the Japanese pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT Centre, and developed and directed the Conan the Barbarian live show at Universal Studios. When he was first approached by Edward R. Pressman he was beginning work on a film project titled Children of Merlin, which he hoped would mark his directorial debut.

Goddard’s main inspiration for the film’s storyline and aesthetic was not the Masters of the Universe toy line or cartoon, but superhero comic books. He was a keen comic book fan and was eager to adapt their storytelling style to the big screen. ‘I still have my Marvel comics collection,’ he told one interviewer, ‘all the X-Men, Fantastic Four and The Avengers.  You name it I’ve got it.’[2]

In, of all things, a comic book letters column, Goddard responded to writer John Byrne’s observation that Masters of the Universe bore an uncanny resemblance to Jack Kirby’s New Gods series published by DC Comics. ‘Your comparison of the film to Kirby’s New Gods is not off,’ he wrote. ‘In fact, the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there. I intended the film to be a “motion picture comic book”, though it was a tough proposition to sell to the studio at the time.’[3]

There is a striking similarity between the characters of Masters of the Universe and New Gods, in some cases dating back to the original action figures of 1982. The character of Zodac, who was included in the second wave of figures, is a direct lift of the New Gods character Metron. In Goddard’s film one can quickly draw further lines between the two properties: He-Man as Orion, Skeletor as Darkseid, Skeletor’s off-sider Evil-Lyn as Granny Goodness, and so on. Even the inventor Gwildor’s ‘cosmic key’ is essentially a New Gods mother box in all but name.

 

As the film was being developed, Mattel started to make creative demands that Pressman had hoped to avoid. ‘At first,’ said Goddard, ‘the directive was “He-Man cannot kill anyone” – and I remember saying “well this is an action movie and He-Man’s going to have to kick some serious butt or we are going to have a problem.’[4]

The script in development had the film opening with Skeletor succeeding in invading Castle Grayskull with an army of soldiers. To avoid giving the perception that He-Man was killing people on screen, Skeletor’s numerous troops were re-imagined from alien mercenaries into robots.

Early iterations of the film’s screenplay included a small supporting role for He-Man’s twin sister She-Ra, as well as a brief cameo for the villainous Snakemen. Both of these elements were cut from the shooting script. In the case of She-Ra, some design work had been done prior to her being removed. Also designed and then excised was Skeletor’s home Snake Mountain.

Despite providing feedback through the scripting process, Goddard ultimately found Odell’s screenplay a little too light-hearted and camp. He would work with his cast on-set to give some scenes a more dramatic approach.

The first role cast in the film was He-Man. Only one performer was ever seriously in contention: Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren.

Born Hans Lundgren in 1957, he had originally intended to be a chemical engineer and indeed graduated from the University of Sydney with a master’s degree in 1982. A chance meeting with American model Grace Jones, however, led to a career first as a model and subsequently as an actor. After a small role as a KGB officer in the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, Lundgren was cast in the high-profile role of Russian boxer Ivan Drago in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV.

At almost six-and-a-half feet in height, the muscular Lundgren was visually the perfect actor to perform the role of He-Man. Golan and Globus signed him onto Masters of the Universe while he was on a promotional tour for Rocky IV.

‘I thought it was a joke when I was offered the part,’ admitted Lundgren. ‘I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, right. This is exactly what I need to finish off my career before it’s even started.’[5]

‘It was a very hard decision to make, because Masters is one of those films where if you didn’t do it right, it would be a disaster and everyone would laugh at you for another 20 years. I thought about it for months and months’[6]

Once cast, Lundgren then struggled to convince Gary Goddard that he was capable of enunciating the character’s dialogue. Lundgren had it stipulated in his contract that he was allowed three takes of every dialogue shot in order to ensure he could be understood through his Swedish accent. Were a fourth required, Goddard was authorised to seek a vocal replacement to dub over the dialogue in post-production.

‘I saw the rough cuts,’ recalled Mattel marketing executive Paul Cleveland, ‘I listened to Dolph Lundgren’s voice and I just about had a heart attack. It’s okay if He-Man has a little bit of an accent, but you have got to be able to understand him.’[7]

Despite Goddard and Cleveland’s objections, Lundgren’s own voice was retained at the insistence of producer Menaheim Globus.

The production scored something a coup when it cast the Tony Award-winning theatrical actor Frank Langella as Skeletor. Their secret weapon in convincing him: his own children played with the Masters of the Universe toys.

‘I asked them to tell me about the Masters characters,’ Langella said of his children. ‘Since they played with the toys and watched the cartoon show, they were able to tell me a great deal about how Skeletor should be played. My portrayal of Skeletor is a present to my children.’[8]

Despite focusing the bulk of his career on the theatre, Langella had already appeared in a string of successful and acclaimed movies including Diary of a Man Housewife (1970), The Deadly Trap (1971), The Wrath of God (1972) and Dracula (1979), in which he played the title role.

As Gwildor the production cast 73-year-old actor Billy Barty. The creation of the dwarf-like inventor Gwildor was for practical purposes: the floating wizard Orko, developed for the cartoon, was not easily recreated in live-action. Gwildor was a more cost-effective and readily achievable replacement.

Skeletor’s lieutenant Evil Lyn was played by Meg Foster. ‘This film is not Shakespeare,’ she told one interviewer. ‘At least not Shakespeare in the grand theatrical sense. But the challenge of making toys into living, breathing creatures is one that I’m taking very seriously.’[9]

As the film’s two human protagonists, Goddard cast Robert Duncan McNeill and Courtney Cox. Cox, who almost failed her audition before the casting director begged Goddard to see her a second time, was most famous at the time for appearing in a Bruce Springsteen music video – “Dancing in the Dark”. The cast was rounded out by James Tolkan (Back to the Future) as Detective Lubic, Chelsea Field as Teela, and John Cypher as Man-at-Arms.

The film’s production designer was Bill Stout, who joined the production in March 1986. ‘The first time they asked me,’ he said, ‘I thought of the toys and the potential of making a really stupid movie and turned them down. The second and third time they asked, it was the same thing. But the fourth time they asked me, something had changed.’[10]

Both Gary Goddard and David Odell met with Stout several times, showcasing their ideas and the film’s characters and impressing upon him that their interest was making a fantasy film inspired by toys, and not simply a translation of them. Stout originally signed on the provide some design work, but with the sudden resignation of original designer Geoff Kirkland he found himself promoted to a full-time role.

‘The idea was to keep the essence of the characters while making them believable. I saw this as a chance to make the characters more three-dimensional, to flesh them out. It was an opportunity to give each character a history, a sense that they had a past and a background so that they would seem real to us and therefore become real to an audience. The toys themselves were not believable – after all, they were never intended to be movie characters. Primarily, they were designed with economics in mind so that Mattel could take different heads, put them on different-coloured generic bodies and create different toys. Obviously, we couldn’t do that.’[11]

Stout found his task complicated as a result of Mattel’s involvement. Every change in character design from the original toy to the finished film had to be directly approved by the toy manufacturer, who seemed particularly resistant to any deviation from the source material. This included rejecting a new design for He-Man developed by noted French comic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud. In order to prevent too many disagreements over character designs, the decision was made to largely create entirely new villains to work for Skeletor. Asides from Beastman, whose modified look was eventually approved by Mattel after close to 25 iterations, Skeletor gained an almost entirely new rogue’s gallery including Blade, Saurod and Karg. Since they had no equivalent character in either the television cartoon or the toy line, Goddard was free to have the characters designed, abused and killed off as he saw fit. It also gave Mattel a ready source of new intellectual property to adapt into action figures.

Both Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella gave feedback on their own costumes. Langella in particular was keen to ensure his character had a cloak that Langella could work with effectively on set.

Designing Skeletor turned out to be the greatest challenge among the film’s fantasy characters, as there were opposing needs to reflect the skull-like face of the original character and to provide Langella with the ability to emote and deliver a proper performance. Four prototypes of Skeletor’s face were developed. ‘We wanted to experiment with the placement of Skeletor’s teeth,’ said make-up designer Michael Westmore. ‘We did our initial design with the teeth placed inside Langella’s mouth, while the others had different types of teeth sculpted into the actual appliance. We ended up using the design with the teeth inside Langella’s mouth because we felt it was the most effective. With the teeth sculpted onto the outside of the skull, we found that the makeup had a smiling look to it at the time.’[12]

Anthony De Longis, who played the sword-wielding mercenary Blade, also worked as Dolph Lundgren’s broadsword trainer and co-choreographer of the fight sequences.

‘I trained Dolph for a month,’ said De Longis, ‘giving him a solid one and two handed broadsword vocabulary. He’s a terrific athlete and a trained kick boxer so he had terrific natural skills. Then, due to the filming schedule, I didn’t even see him for the better part of the next month. I kept asking [stunt coordinator] Walter Scott when I could see the location so I could plan choreography for the film. The environment always plays an important part of any action scene and can either be embraced or struggled against. I prefer to make the setting an active character in the scene when I can. Walter assured me we’d have “plenty of time once we got there.” Guess what scene we shot first on the very evening we arrived at our Whittier location. You guessed it, the big sword fight. Fortunately I’d taught Dolph some double sword versus single sword choreography as part of our training regimen and that gave us something to build on with virtually no rehearsal.’[13]

Further improvisation was required when it came to choreographing He-Man and Skeletor’s final fight. An elaborate golden helmet had been added to Skeletor’s costume without De Longis’ knowledge, making his entire developed routine unusable. A new set of combat moves was developed on the fly as the scene was filmed, with De Longis standing in for Frank Langella.

Masters of the Universe entered development as a strategic promotional tool to push the success of the action figure range well into the late 1980s. It entered production as a ‘hail mary’ bid to save the entire line from cancellation. In 1986 the sales of Masters of the Universe action figures accounted for a total of US$400 million in revenue to Mattel. In 1987, with a glut of figures on the shelves and children moving onto new properties, Mattel sold just US$7 million dollars’ worth of stock. The live-action feature was effectively released to support a dead toy line.

At the same time, Cannon Films’ long-running strategy of selling global rights to future productions in order to finance their current ones was collapsing. Poor box office returns on their increasingly expensive films was catching up, leaving the studio with next to no money available to co-fund Masters of the Universe. When the film entered production, roughly half of its production budget had been contributed by Mattel. Now Golan and Globus went to Mattel with an ultimatum: fund the other half or throw the existing investment away.

Throughout the entire production shoot there was a constant pressure to cut scenes, reduce the film’s scale and save money by any means possible. Since sets had already been constructed this proved to be difficult. Skeletor’s throne room, for example, was so large that an adjoining wall was knocked down between two soundstages to create one massive chamber. At the time it was the single-largest film set in Hollywood in almost 40 years.

The original climax shoot came on the day that Cannon Films executives literally walked onto the soundstage to physically shut down production, having completely exhausted the entire production budget. A desperate Goddard shot the fight with a single stage light and camera, simply to ensure that whatever film was edited out of the extant footage could have some form of conclusion.

Two months later a small amount of additional funding was allocated to reshoot the climax; still unsatisfactory for Goddard’s intentions, but at least useable.

Masters of the Universe was released months after the bottom fell out of the franchise. It opened in third place in American cinemas, behind the James Bond sequel The Living Daylights and the action-comedy Stakeout. It fell to sixth place in its second weekend, then 10th in its third. By its fourth week it was effectively out of the charts, with a total domestic gross of US$17 million. The critical reception was as savage as the audience reaction was tepid.

Despite the film’s commercial failure, Golan and Globus were keen to exploit the Masters of the Universe license for as long as possible. They immediately started development on a much cheaper sequel, and to that end had sets and costumes constructed for a North Carolina shoot despite lacking a screenplay or director.

‘I would have welcomed working on the sequel,’ said Goddard, ‘but another director had convinced them he could make a He-Man movie for $6,000,000 or less. I think that is what led to the Cyborg movie eventually. Mattel saw the script, or perhaps the storyboards, and pulled the license.’[14]

The director to which Goddard refers is Albert Pyun, whose low budget fantasy film The Sword and the Sorcerer became an unexpected hit back in 1982. Pyun’s original proposal was to shoot both Masters of the Universe 2 and Spider-Man back-to-back using shared sets and locations. When Mattel withdrew the Masters of the Universe license, and Cannon’s precarious financial position made a Spider-Man production unfeasible, Pyun redrafted the in-development Masters 2 into an original science fiction film titled Cyborg. The final film starred up-and-coming action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and was a low-budget hit in 1989. It was Cannon’s last hit. Following a period of re-shuffles, buy-outs and business changes – including a move into both distribution and a British chain of cinemas – the company released its final film (Hellbound, starring Chuck Norris) in 1994.

Dolph Lundgren moved on from Masters of the Universe – he rejected an offer to star in the then-expected sequel – to establish a lucrative career as an action star in a variety of independent and direct-to-video productions, including directing several films in addition to starring in them. He also appeared in a number of higher-budget studio pictures including Universal Soldier (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Blackjack (1998). Between 2010 and 2014 he co-starred in the ensemble action franchise The Expendables.

Of the film’s Earth-based cast it was Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill who had the greatest success post-Masters; McNeill played pilot Tom Paris in seven seasons of the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, while Cox struck pay dirt when she was cast as Monica Geller in the long-running and globally popular sitcom Friends.

Immediately following his work on Masters of the Universe, Gary Goddard co-created the children’s science fiction series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. In 1995 he created Skeleton Warriors, a 13-part animated series with a matching action figure range. To date Masters of the Universe remains his sole feature film as director, although he has produced a number of popular theme park attractions including T2 3D and Jurassic Park: The Ride.

The Masters of the Universe action figure range was retired in 1988, although it was briefly resurrected with all-new design as The New Adventures of He-Man in 1990. A third iteration was released in 2002 with yet another cartoon but a story more faithful to the original narrative. A second live-action feature has been in development for several years. At the time of writing the remake is scheduled for release in late 2019 but this could easily be delayed or even cancelled.

So why talk about Masters of the Universe at all?

It should probably be noted, first and foremost, that it is not an exceptionally good film. It is regularly quite corny, and to a large degree feels patched together out of a lot of earlier and much better films – its debt to the Star Wars trilogy, for example, cannot be overstated. At the same time there is a huge amount of creativity in the film’s design work.

Dolph Lundgren commits to the role of He-Man and, despite some limitations from his comparatively weak English and acting skills (both would improve over time) he successfully sells the character without even feeling ridiculous or embarrassing to watch.

The rest of the cast work in fits and starts. Both John Cypher and James Tolkan are solid, and Meg Foster is nicely entertaining as Evil Lyn. The group of alien mercenaries – a clear steal from the bounty hunters of The Empire Strikes Back – make for a strong set of enemies for He-Man and his friends to fight. Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill are less effective, sadly with fairly weakly written characters and not experienced enough to overcome all of the stereotypes.

Towering over everybody else, however, is Frank Langella as Skeletor. It is a genuinely impressive performance, with Langella presenting a range of emotions and nuances despite the restrictions of his full-face prosthetic make-up. He wisely accentuates his performance through voice and gesture. It is a comparatively rare case of a genuinely talented actor taking a seemingly ridiculous, throwaway role, and treating it with as much effort and respect as they would Shakespeare. He even sneaks a Shakespeare quote into his dialogue.

It is also with Skeletor that the screenplay is at its strongest. He is a tyrant, but he can unexpectedly be a man of his word as well. He is cruel, but he also works to a calculated strategy. Occasionally a film comes along where one element is strong enough to make the whole production worth watching at least once; I think Frank Langella is absolutely such an element here. He is quite simply marvellous.

The film’s production design is beautifully crafted as well, despite straining the budget from time to time. As noted above, it all owes a massive debt to the Star Wars films, but it steals smartly and delivers a very contemporary (for 1987) aesthetic.

The most frustrating part of Masters of the Universe is not any individual shortfall, but rather the realisation that the film comes surprisingly close to being a properly good Summer blockbuster. Its screenplay almost works. Its cast are almost universally good. With proper studio backing, more time to improve the screenplay and a more relaxed shoot without constant threats of a complete shut-down, it might actually have become the Star Wars successor that its producers so desperately wanted it to be.

[1] Marc Shapiro, “From here to Eternia”, Starlog #122, September 1987.

[2] Steven Simak, “Gary Goddard toys with Masters of the Universe”, Galactic Journal, Summer 1987.

[3] Gary Goddard, writing in Next Men #26, Dark Horse, June 1994.

[4] Quoted in “Q&A with director Gary Goddard”, MOTU Movie, 24 February 2010.

[5] Alan Jones, “He-Man Dolph Lundgren”, Starburst #112, December 1987.

[6] Carr D’Angelo, “Dolph Lundgren: The ascent of He-Man”, Starlog #123, October 1987.

[7] Corey Landis and Roger Lay Jr, Toy Masters, Urban Archipelago Filmed Entertainment, 2012.

[8] Quoted in Masters of the Universe official poster magazine, 1987.

[9] Marc Shapiro, “From here to Eternia”, Starlog #122, September 1987.

[10] Marc Shapiro, “Bill Stout in Toyland”, Starlog #118, May 1987.

[11] Ron Magid, “Masters of the Universe”, Cinefex #31, August 1987.

[12] Ron Magid, “Masters of the Universe”, Cinefex #31, August 1987.

[13] John Atkin, “Q&A with actor Anthony De Longis”, MOTU Movie, 18 November 2010.

[14] Quoted in “Q&A with director Gary Goddard”, MOTU Movie, 24 February 2010.


Posted by Christopher Jobson

From commercial packaging to artistic creations fused with geometry, paper designer Peter Dahmen is a true master of the pop-up. This new video titled Most Satisfying Video of Pop-Up Cards is a portfolio of sorts spanning the last several years of his work engineering elaborate objects that unfold from the pages of books or the confines of tiny boxes. You can go behind the scenes a bit more in this 2014 film on Dahmen from Christopher Helkey, and you can also try building some of his original designs with these free online tutorials. (via The Kid Should See This)

Posted by Colossal

For one day only in Los Angeles, a series of futuristic art installations and panels will bring together some of the brightest minds in art, entertainment, and technology. The Engadget Experience will be an opportunity to experience one-of-a-kind art exhibits and hear from the artists behind these projects. The Engadget Experience will take place at LA’s Ace Hotel on November 14th, and you can win tickets to be there.

To make The Engadget Experience happen, Engadget gave out the largest prizes ever in the field of immersive tech—$100,000 apiece to teams creating art from VR, artificial intelligence and even search results.

The artistic projects that will be part of the experience include:

   — Dance with flARmingos, a mixed reality experience that features a interspecies dance between humans and flamingos. For artist Kristin Lucas, it’s an opportunity to depart from a human-centered worldview.
   — Dinner Party, a virtual-reality thriller based on the true story of the Betty and Barney Hill UFO-abduction incident, the first nationally known UFO abduction in American history.
   — Mapper’s Delight, a cultural tale representing worlds, experiences and gameplay told through hip-hop.
   — Untrained Eyes, a conceptual technology project that takes its inspiration from observing the explicit bias that can be found during everyday image searches within Google and other public-image archives.
   — Your Hands Are Feet, an interactive room-scale VR experience that places you in surreal realities made up of experiential metaphors.

Dance with flARmingos

Dinner Party

Mapper’s Delight

Tickets for the Engadget Experience are on sale now at a temporarily reduced price, but one lucky reader can win two free tickets, plus a two-night stay at the Ace Hotel, a $1,000 airfare stipend and a collection of gadgets that includes the Amazon Echo, Samsung Galaxy S8, Samsung Gear VR and a Smarthome automation bundle.

The Engadget Experience will take place at LA’s Ace Hotel on November 14th. Enter here to win tickets.

posted by [syndicated profile] crpgaddict_feed at 12:00pm on 18/10/2017

Posted by CRPG Addict

Developer Steven Screech might want to re-think his little personal logo.
    
The Kingdom of Krell
United Kingdom
Anco (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 8 October 2017
Date Ended: 14 October 2017
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

British ZX Spectrum games occupy a weird little sub-genre that I'll have to fully analyze after I reach the last one in 1989. This is my eighth, after The Ring of Darkness (1982), Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark (1984), Out of the Shadows (1984), City of Death (1985), Heavy on the Magick (1986), and The Wizard of Tallyron (1986). Five others--The Valley (1982), The Citadel of Chaos (1984), The Forest of Doom (1984), The Master of Magic (1985), and Seas of Blood (1985)--I played on Commodore 64 ports but were originally written for the Spectrum.

The Ring of Darkness is the odd-one-out, being mostly plagiarized from Ultima. The rest are highly original, lacking no clear progenitors in their styles and conventions, not only avoiding American RPG tropes but almost consciously shunning them. More unexpected, however, is how oddly foreign they feel, coming from an English-speaking nation that manages to churn out perfectly comprehensible (from an American perspective) books, films, and television shows. In some ways, they're as bizarre as French RPGs.

As the popularity of the ZX Spectrum wanes in the late 1980s and the Amiga begins to dominate British RPG development, we see the same stark originality (with both good and bad consequences) in games like Galdregon's Domain (1989), Lords of Chaos (1990), Heimdall (1991), and Moonstone: A Hard Days Knight (1991), but the sense of the bizarre fades, which makes me wonder how much of it is due to the platform. With its extremely limited keyboard, stunted default memory, and cassettes as the primary distribution media, the platform was never going to support games with the same speed, complexity, and ease of play as U.S. players were getting on, say, the Commodore 64.

The Kingdom of Krell is the first ZX Spectrum RPG to require the 128 model (issued in 1985). With all this extra memory, the developer could have offered a more complex engine, more tactical combat, or better graphics, but instead what he did was to make the physical game world ridiculously large. The box boasts "more than 2,500 locations." I only mapped a little over 1,900, but either figure is far too large when the number of those locations with an item, NPC, or other plot-driven need to be there is around 60.

The backstory is amusing in its lack of epic ambition. The game is set in a "remote part of Britain" in the "misty past." The custom of these people is that when a young man reaches his 18th birthday, he has to spend a month in the wilderness alone before he's welcomed back to the tribe as a man. The tribe throws a party for the protagonist; he gets drunk; and he awakens the next day "alone in the vast wilderness."
    
Part of the vast wilderness.
     
Character creation is nothing more than a name, from which the game procedurally generates your six attributes: strength, wisdom, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. This is the first game that I know of in which attributes are derived from the chosen name; Captive (1990) would later use the same method. Anyway, I lost patience trying different names and ended up adventuring with a sub-par character; I would recommend anyone else playing the game hold out for at least 15s in strength, dexterity, and intelligence and 10s in everything else, lest their reload counts hit the astronomically high levels that mine did.

As the game begins, you're on a "barren grassy plain" with a sling at your feet. The image shows a bridge, which is one of the game's oddities. As you turn different directions, the screen changes to show the terrain in the next square, not the one you're currently in.
         
Sure looks like notable features to me.
      
That bridge is probably the most complex graphic that you get in the game. Among the c. 2,000 "locations" in the game are about 12 different terrain types, including "barren, grassy plains," "dense, dark forests," and "long, dark tunnels." The author wastes precious descriptive text space saying things like "well, here you are" and "I don't know what else to tell you," with at least one misspelling on every screen. I didn't find a single "unique" location in the game.
      
A decent percentage of the game's many vaunted locations.
     
You interface with the game not with a keyboard, which would make sense given that the game was developed for a PC, but with a joystick. You cycle through the various icons and use the button to execute an action or move to a sub-menu. This is true even of movement. Main actions include move, sleep, fight, cast a spell, take or drop an object, speak, handle various disk operations, and "other," the latter including eat and check the time. To move, you have to activate the "shoe" icon then the appropriate directional arrow. If you're not already facing a particular direction, your first move turns you in that direction and then your second and subsequent moves actually walk you in that direction.
  
A typical Krell location. A zombie is waiting as I arrive. The scene shows more icy wastes to my north. "Crevasses" is misspelled.
      
Krell is such a deadly place, I can't believe how irresponsible I was to get drunk and pass out here. You can't even sleep in a hut without getting interrupted by a monster 50% of the time. Foes are D&D standard--giant rats, hobgoblins, ogres, skeletons, trolls, orcs, and the like--and there's around a one-in-four chance that one will be waiting for you in every new square. If you managed to kill it, there's a decent chance another monster will be waiting just behind, sometimes two or three more.
     
I only encountered one dragon in the game. He wasn't significantly harder than the other monsters.
      
The game doesn't throw easy monsters at you early and harder ones late. You're just as likely to face a "cyclopse" in the opening area as a giant rat. There are some contextual encounters; the graveyard area produces almost exclusively undead, for instance, and the only dragon I encountered was deep in a cavern. For the most part, they don't have any special strengths or weaknesses except that some have more hit points than others.
  
For combat, you select your sword icon and then decide whether to aim it at the enemy's head, torso, or legs. I managed to hit the enemy's head maybe twice in my 15-hour game. Torso is almost always the best bet. After your attack, the enemy gets a swing at you. There is a variety of messages indicating damage--"sliced through your flesh," "took a chunk out of you," mercilessly rips into you"--but basically you just take either 1 or 2 hit points damage for each attack (if the enemy doesn't miss).
           
Exchanging blows with a dwarf.
     
A character might start with 10 hit points at maximum constitution, so as you can imagine, he doesn't last long in long battles. Fortunately, most enemies die within a couple of hits. Moreover, you can eat the corpse (or "carcus," as the game has it) of any slain enemy to regain one hit point. Unfortunately, you don't get any intrinsic attributes for doing so.
      
A skeleton appears right after I killed something else.
     
Your character gets experience from kills but doesn't gain anything from that experience. Despite promises made on the box, neither attributes nor hit points change as he levels up. Only his "rating" changes, which starts at "dung dweller" and progresses through at least 12 levels, including "scavenger," "dog-wrestler," "useful," and "dangerous." I spent so long at Level 10--"Schwarzenegger"--that I thought it was the highest level, but after a while the rating changed to "Psycho," as if it's my fault that monsters spawn practically every square, and finally to, nonsensically "Well Ard." Does that mean something in British?
       
My character at the 20th hour.
     
What does improve with leveling is access to spells. You start with only one: "Detect Magic," which as far as I can tell has no use anywhere in the game. But you soon acquire "Burning Hands," "Detect Evil" (also no use), and "Magic Missile," and both of the offensive spells in that list outperformed combat attacks for my character for the rest of the game. The last spell you acquire, "Disintegrate," reliably one-shots every single enemy, so there's no more reloading once you have it. I spent the entire second half of my playing time with that spell and didn't even bother to carry a weapon from the moment I acquired it.
       
Blasting an enemy with a "Magic Missile."
      
The list of spells includes "Cure Illness" and "Remove Curse," neither of which I experienced in the game. "Teleport" returns you to the starting area, which is handy because there's a one-way path that locks you out of the area. "Magic Mouth" warns you if an enemy approaches while you're sleeping.
      
The full list of spells at the end of the game.
   
There is absolutely no meter for spells. You can cast as many as you want as frequently as you want.

You don't have to fight every enemy that appears. You can try to just brush past them, which I did a lot of after I was already "well ard." Success seems to depend heavily on the enemy type. Sentient NPCs like dwarves and halflings almost always let you go; monsters like cyclopes and ogres catch you about half the time. Giant rats absolutely never let you pass. When it doesn't work, the enemy gets a free attack at you, so it's a bit of a risk.
      
Trust me, this absolutely is not going to work out for you.
      
As for equipment, there's some. Among the game's 1,500+ squares, I found around 40 items: a sling, two swords, two bolas, two spears, two axes, a dagger, two suits of armor, four scrolls, six potions, a shield, a crown, four bags of gold, two precious gems, a torch, and about eight quest items. They seem to be in the same places for every game.
       
My inventory early in the game.
      
There are a lot of mysteries among the inventory items, some of which I'll cover below. Five of the six potions improved attributes--the only other source of character development in the game. None of the weapons markedly outperformed the others. I'm not sure what the torch does, since you can enter caves and tunnels without it. The bags of gold are treated like inventory items, not an actual pool of gold pieces, and as far as I can tell there's no place to spend them. There is no command to equip the shield. As I'll cover below, none of the quest items did anything for me at all.
      
This potion increased my constitution.
     
NPCs are a big part of the game, but I didn't understand their importance until late. At first, I tried to talk with generic sentient creatures like dwarves and halflings but just got rude replies. The "Tongues" spell lets you get rude replies from even non-sentient creatures like cobras and skeletons. When you choose to speak, you can be friendly, neutral, or rude, but I never noticed a difference in the replies I got except once when a friendly overture elicited "GO AWAY" and a rude overture prompted "GO AWAY AND DON'T COME BACK." My comparatively low charisma might have had something to do with it.
      
Krell must have borrowed Sword & Sorcery's random insult generator.
     
Later, I realized that there are a few named NPCs in the world. Almost all of them say the same thing: "DAMIENNE STOLE THE SCROLLS." That's it. No other explanation or assistance. Because of that, I didn't bother noting their locations as I mapped. This would later come back to haunt me.
      
An NPC waits in a temple.
      
So what of any kind of quest? At first, I hoped that the main quest was just to wait out your 30 days and see what kind of score you'd achieved. The clock ticks forward even if you're just standing still, so I tried jacking the CPU speed to maximum and standing in one place for 30 days. Unfortunately, nothing happened, not even when I returned to the starting square.
       
At least the game uses a 24-hour clock.
      
For no reason that I can possibly justify except that I've recorded a loss on two consecutive games, I spent over 20 hours mapping the entire thing, one lethargic square at a time. The sections of the game basically correspond with a map in the manual, from forests to the southwest to ice wastes in the northeast.
    
The map of the land in the game manual.
And my Excel map.
     
I ran into several problems while mapping. As you can see from the map above, the terrain is blocked off into several sections with single-square passages or bridges between them. It's very easy, when you've hit 20 consecutive "barren grassy plains" in a row offering exits only to the north, west, and east, to miss the one that suddenly had a southern exit. This means that there were entire areas, including most of the tunnels at the bottom-right, that I didn't discover until late in the game.

Second, a few NPCs become important later in the game even if all they say is "DAMIENNE STOLE THE SCROLLS" when you first encounter them. I should have been noting their locations. Most of them are in huts or other buildings, and I did go back and re-investigate those, but a few are just standing in the wilderness, and who knows how many of them I overlooked.

Missing NPCs is compounded by another problem: if there are enemies in the same square, the enemy portraits appear on top of the NPCs. You have to kill them before the NPC shows up. I could have just brushed past any number of NPC squares while trying to avoid enemies.

A few NPCs do offer quests. For instance, a man named Graxx stands at the mouth of the cave to the northwest. He says he has a "magical shape" and wants me to collect the four sacred scrolls, presumably the ones that Damienne stole. In the southeast, "Davilla" wants me to kill "Habgoog," who she says is evil. "Megog" asks me to kill "Questilla," who has cursed him with stone skin. Some of these NPCs drop rings after you talk to them; picking them up makes them disappear but adds permanently to one of our attributes.

Some of the NPCs are clearly lying. Once I killed Questilla and returned to Megog, he called me a "foolish man" and said that I'd managed to kill the "chief do-gooder of Krell" and attacked me. I also have suspicions about Davilla, who seems to be using sex to get what she wants and asked me to kill another NPC named "Caldrix" after I was done with Habgoog.
    
Betrayal!
    
The bigger problem is that the NPCs don't always acknowledge what you've done. After I collected the four scrolls, Graxx had nothing to say, not even when I dumped them in his square. NPCs never seem to acknowledge items, not when I returned the Crown of Hod to Hod or the Eye of Graxx to Graxx. There's no "use" or "give" command for items, just pick up and drop, but still it's hard not to feel like I'm missing something.
      
Graxx refuses to acknowledge the scrolls he asked me to bring him.
     
Meanwhile, Davilla acknowledged when I killed Habgoog but not Caldrix, so that quest is stuck in limbo.
       
But I killed Caldrix!
      
There are a lot of other mysteries. In an ancient sacred temple in the southwest, an Oracle. It sits on the ground like an object that you can pick up, although the game tells you it's too heavy. You can't speak to it or do anything useful with it. I never did find the Damienne who had stolen the scrolls. The most I ever got on something that sounded like a main quest was someone named Guntor, who said that I would need the "Staff of the Gods" to destroy "Vulcor," two things I'd otherwise never heard of.
     
Why is this here?
     
My lack of progress might also be related to a final issue: At the top of the map in the northeast, there's a square that says you can go north, but the game freezes every time I enter this area and go north. I'm not sure if this is an "exit" square for after you solve the quests or if it's a bug. If the latter, it would explain why the game manual counts 600 more squares than I do, and why I can't seem to find so many vital things.

Thus, after spending an absurd amount of time mapping such a limited game, I must unfortunately call a halt and declare it unwinnable unless someone comes forward with more information or the "hint sheet" that the manual promises.
      
In an odd innovation, the "B"-side of the cassette has a track of "ambient noises" to listen to while playing. It consists of chirping crickets, howling wind, animal noises, monstrous groans and snorts, the odd clanging of a church bell, distant thunder, screams, and the occasional hint offered by the developer in a Satanic voice. "Ancient Krellian proverbs say, 'Never let your heart rule your head,'" goes one. Another warns about bad potions. I listened to the whole half hour to see if it offered anything to assist with my predicament, but no luck. It's certainly an interesting approach to providing atmosphere to a game.
    
Something about that dragon behind the rock seems familiar.
     
Based on what I experienced, it earns a 16 on the GIMLET, with 1s and 2s for everything except "economy" (0) and "quests" (3); I'm going out on a limb with the latter and assuming that at least one of the encounters is an alternate or side-quest.

I was glad to find a compatible opinion in the only review I could find, from the May 1987 Sinclair User. "My God, is it tedious," Graham Taylor writes, after offering a little praise for the graphics. He's not just talking about the repetitive banality of the areas but also the loading time of those areas; I was running the game at 4x normal speed, so I didn't experience that particular issue. He also thought the icon system was needlessly cumbersome. One aspect I didn't cover above, which I guess was fairly innovative at the time, was the use of RAM for quick-saving and quick-loading the game. This and the large game world were responsible for the title's 128k requirement.

The Kingdom of Krell was written by Steve Screech, who became relatively famous in subsequent years for his soccer games. His portfolio, up to the present day, is almost all sports titles. Neither he nor Anco ever developed or published another RPG, which makes one wonder why they were particularly motivated to create this one.

"The Kingdom of Krell," as a bit of trivia, appears in the 1971 sci-fi novel A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. It is also the name of an audio systems manufacturer in Connecticut and a vampire in the Warhammer universe.

It looks like I only have one more ZX Spectrum game, in 1989. I'll miss the emulator--Spectaculator is fantastically easy to use--if not the platform.

****

There's a TI-99 game called Legends coming up, but I can't get it to run. I think I'm doing something wrong with the emulator (Classic99), but I don't know what. I've got the Extended Basic cartridge activated, and from what I understand, it's supposed to just pick things up automatically, but it doesn't. If I try to load it manually, it comes up with "Legends Loading, Please Wait" and then crashes with an "I/O ERROR 07 IN 10." If anyone has successfully gotten this game running, I would appreciate help with the configuration.




Posted by Christopher Jobson

Wiener Schmetterlinge, 2017. Wien, Austria.

France-based street artist Mantra has been unveiling a series of trompe l’oeil murals that convert the facades of commercial and residential buildings into larger-than-life butterfly display cases in Spain, Austria, France, and Bogota. Seen here are a few pieces from the last year, but you can explore a bit more on Facebook.
(via Lustik)

El asalto de Apollo, 2017. Saragosse, Spain.

Mariposas de Aragón, 2017. Festival Internacional de Arte Urbano. Photo by Juanjo Fernandez.

Mariposas de Aragón, progress.

Yasuni’s Imago, 2017. Thionville, France.

Bogota, 2015.

Collaboration with Stinkfish. Vienna, Austria.

posted by [syndicated profile] in_the_pipeline_feed at 11:56am on 18/10/2017

Posted by Derek Lowe

A recent paper on drug development costs did not impress me. But if possible, it impressed Matthew Herper at Forbes even less. That’s the one where the authors looked at a number of companies that had been around long enough to develop one drug – they figured that this would give a cleaner read on what that one drug cost, as opposed to trying to work it out from a larger or more well-established company’s budget, and the figure that they came up with was $648 million.

Herper takes issue with this in the same way that I did:

Prasad and Mailankody assert this analysis takes into account the high attrition rates of drug development because each company was developing between 2 and 11 experimental medicines, only one of which reached the market. But this assumes that the companies were developing a large enough number of medicines to capture the high failure rate of drug development. Given that 9 in 10 medicines fail, it seems unlikely that looking at companies that had made 4.3 attempts at creating a drug, on average, would capture this. Conceptually, this is no different from simply looking at companies that had only tried to develop a single drug and happened to succeed. Researchers call this “survivorship bias” – it’s like estimating an average lifespan by asking people their ages, but not finding out if anyone already died.

He has the data to back this up, too. If it really costs about $648 million to develop a drug, then you would figure that as a company gets large enough to have several projects running, those costs should converge more and more on a figure in that range, as you average out the slightly-cheaper and slightly-more-expensive ones. Heck, it should probably converge on something even lower, because a larger company would certainly have some economies of scale in its development costs that a smaller one-drug company has had to pay full whack for.

But that’s absolutely not what happens. As Herper shows, the more drugs a company has developed, the higher the average cost per drug. That, my friends, is because the cost for the one-drug-only companies is not representative, for just the reasons mentioned above. When you look at what companies spend to keep on developing drugs, year after year, the true costs become apparent, and the number is not pretty. It comes out to a bit over $2 billion per, these days.

And “these days” is an important qualifier, because these costs have not been static. One of the things you come away with from studying this issue is that the cost-per-drug has truly been increasing, and that the (relatively steady) productivity of the drug industry as a whole is due to lots more cash being frantically bulldozed into the the furnaces behind the scenes.

The real problem is that the amount spent to develop every new drug seems to be increasing. Prasad and Mailankody present the $2.7 billion Tufts estimate as being in contrast with an estimate of $320 million produced by the group Public Citizen. But the Public Citizen estimate, which is also based on R&D budgets divided by the number of drugs approved, is based on drugs approved in the 1990s. And the most obvious explanation for the difference is that the R&D dollars spent per drug have increased ten-fold in two decades. This is exactly the observation that Jack Scannell and his co-authors noted in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery in 2012, calling it “Eroom’s Law” – the reverse of the tech industry’s Moore’s Law, which predicts that transistors become exponentially cheaper over time.

Exactly. I would like to lay down a challenge for future authors who want to show that “come on, drug development’s really not all that expensive, right guys?” Unless they can show that they have read, understood, and refuted the best writing and evidence on this subject, with detailed reasons why the previous analyses are wrong, they are not to be taken seriously. Everyone who comes after this topic mentions the Tufts figures (which are damned close to what Herper arrives at, by the way), but generally to brush them off with a “ah, that can’t be right” and an insinuation that they must be a bunch of industry shills. But that won’t cut it. If you want to show that drugs are actually a lot cheaper to find, then you not only need to engage with the Tufts numbers, in detail, but you need to also deal with the writings of Jack Scannell, Bernard Munos, and others, with those others very much including Matt Herper. Show just why they’re wrong. Don’t just wave your hands at them in annoyance and say that these numbers are obviously inflated or something – show why they’re wrong. Because I don’t think that they are.

Posted by cks

Various local events recently made me think a bit about the future of Python at work. We're in a situation where a number of our existing tools will likely get drastically revised or entirely thrown away and replaced, and that raises local issues with Python 3 as well as questions of whether I should argue for changing our list of standard languages. I have some technical views on the answer, but thinking through this has made me realize something on a more personal level. Namely, I still like Python and it's my go-to default language for a number of things.

I'm probably always going to be a little bit grumpy about the whole transition toward Python 3, but that in no way erases the good parts of Python. Despite the baggage around it, Python 3 has its own good side and I remain reasonably enthused about it. Writing modest little programs in Python has never been a burden; the hard parts are never from Python, they're from figuring out things like data representation and that's the same challenge in any language. In the mean time, Python's various good attributes make it pretty plastic and easily molded as I'm shaping and re-shaping my code as I figure out more of how I want to do things.

(In other words, experimenting with my code is generally reasonably easy. When I may completely change how I approach a problem between my first draft and my second attempt, this is quite handy.)

Also, Python makes it very easy to do string-bashing and to combine it with basic Unix things. This describes a lot of what I do, which means that Python is a low-overhead way of writing something that is much like a shell script but that's more structured, better organized, and expresses its logic more clearly and directly (because it's not caught up in the Turing tarpit of Bourne shell).

(This sort of 'better shell script' need comes up surprisingly often.)

My tentative conclusion about what this means for me is that I should embrace Python 3, specifically I should embrace it for new work. Despite potential qualms for some things, new program that I write should be in Python 3 unless there's a strong reason they can't be (such as having to run on a platform with an inadequate or missing Python 3). The nominal end of life for Python 2 is not all that far off, and if I'm continuing with Python in general (and I am), then I should be carrying around as little Python 2 code as possible.

posted by [syndicated profile] dg_weblog_feed at 07:00am on 18/10/2017

Posted by diamond geezer

Well this is exciting.



This new pilot screen at Shoreditch High Street station shows you how busy each of the carriages are before you board your train. Green means It's quiet in here, amber means It's getting a bit busy and red means This is rammed (or words to that effect). Something similar happens on the new Thameslink trains, although on Thameslink the displays are inside the carriages, not in the stations.

Shoreditch's new animated display appears at the far end of the ticket hall, at the point where the staircase splits towards the two platforms. At the start of the animation it looks like any other digital Next Train Indicator, listing the next three departures in each direction, but then several train graphics rush in from the right revealing the colours carriage by carriage.

During most of the day everything's green. But as the afternoon peak approaches some of the carriages go amber, occasionally covering most of the train, and at the busiest times there might be some red.



Use this information wisely and you could wander down the platform to the appropriate place to board the carriage with the most available space. That's assuming you can make your way to the right point before the next train arrives, of course, and can push past all the other people waiting in less optimal locations.

This might all seem a bit pointless on a walk-through train, but there is a potential benefit, namely a more efficient service. Encourage passengers to board emptier carriages rather than squeezing into full ones and departures can become more punctual. One display in Shoreditch isn't going to make a lot of difference, but imagine if this were rolled out more widely elsewhere - the cumulative effect on dwell times could be significant.

Another first is that you don't have to be standing in front of the display to see it, it's also available online. Surf to shoreditch.opencapacity.co and you can view the crammedness of Shoreditch's Overground trains from home, from the office or from outside in the street, exactly as the display appears within the station. Again imagine this kind of functionality rolled out for Overground stations elsewhere, or how this data could be employed within the usual transport apps.



Now let's stop and wonder what the hell is going on here.

For a start, how do they know where all the people are on a particular train?

Well, it's not all guesswork, it's down to a specially-installed electronic system called Orinoco. Every single one of the Overground's fleet of 57 Class 378 trains has been fitted with sensors and special software which monitor the weight of each carriage, specifically the pressure inside the air suspension bags under each carriage. These rise and fall to help keep the train's doors at platform height, and this allows the onboard computer to calculate how many people are in each carriage.

This "loadweigh" data is transmitted via 4G to Bombardier in Derby, then onward to a German company called Hacon who specialise in transport software systems, and it's they who generate the information on the display. Initially Orinoco was provided exclusively for Overground staff, who by using apps and tablets could direct waiting passengers to the least crowded carriages. But the release of the Shoreditch High Street data into the public domain is the first sign of spreading the information benefits more widely. [more info]

It's all damned clever but obviously it's not accurate. The software doesn't know precisely how many people are in each carriage, only how much they weigh, so (for example) an infant school outing or a rugby team with suitcases could seriously skew the readings. To counter this Hacon also cross-reference their data with other sources including "CCTV cameras, door sensors and ticketing information", with the expectation that if it was busy at six fifteen last Friday it probably will be again this week. Not perfect, but more likely to be correct.



But hang on, are we watching actual loadings now or a prediction for the future?

I'm willing to believe that a train arriving in 1 minute might actually be loaded as the display shows, but for those further away, how can they possibly know? Any train heading north and more than 2 minutes away has yet to pass through Whitechapel, ditto 10 minutes for Canada Water. Loads of people are going to alight and board at the intermediate stations, upsetting the pattern of which carriage is the busiest, so by the time the train arrives the current information will be badly out of date. A display you can only read on the stairs won't be much help if the train you intend to catch is several minutes away.

What's more, some of these southbound trains haven't even left yet. Trains to New Cross and Clapham Junction start from Dalston Junction, which is only 6 minutes up the line, which means the display frequently shows loadings on trains which haven't yet set out. Look for example at the Clapham Junction train at the bottom of the display above. It's 10 minutes away from arriving at Shoreditch, so must be waiting at Dalston Junction and still four minutes from departure. That means there's no way it can already be amber-busy in its front two carriages, away from the ticket hall, while the rear three carriages remain green.

I can only conclude that the display isn't showing genuine real time information, only computer predictions for what might be turning up later, in an attempt to manipulate passengers into the optimal position.

So don't necessarily believe everything you see on these displays, you're being toyed with, and who's to say what the borderline between a green carriage and an amber carriage is anyway. But the future is increased public data, the future is informed passenger choice, and the future is being nudged into position to speed up the service.
posted by [syndicated profile] the_angriest_feed at 09:16am on 18/10/2017

Posted by Grant

Scott Snyder epic and ridiculous story of dark universes and evil Batmen continues for a third instalment. This one feels as if the story has jumped forward a little too much, suggesting that all of those Batman one-shots in recent weeks were more of a necessary read that DC had previously suggested. What we get here is a lot of fast catching-up on how America is falling to the dark universe Batmen, followed by an assembly of remaining heroes working out a plan of fighting back.

The issue moves in fits and starts. It really does lack any iconic action, although the central hero meeting in the Oblivion Bar is a hugely enjoyable one. Fans of Detective Chimp will get an immediate thrill, as will anybody who enjoys these kinds of widescreen-style superhero event titles. The combination of characters is clever and effective, and while this issue feels like a bit of a drop in quality it does set up the future well.

Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion's artwork is excellent, and really sells the dynamic, over-the-top nature of the story. The colours by FCO Plascencia give everything a rich and dramatic look. It's imperfect, but this issue does keep Snyder's epic going. (3/5)

Dark Nights: Metal #3. Written by Scott Snyder. Art by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion. Colours by FCO Plascencia.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Doctor Who: The Lost Dimension, Hulk, Kull Eternal and Star Trek: Boldly Go.


Action Comics #989
DC Comics. Written by Dan Jurgens. Art by Viktor Bogdanovic and Trevor Scott. Colours by Mike Spicer.
Superman's encounter with his long-presumed-dead father Jor-El continues, while a suicide bomber holds the Daily Planet hostage. I am still hoping - likely in vain - that the mysterious Mr Oz is not Jor-El as he claims, but putting that aside for the moment this is a strong and dramatic issue. Like the best Superman comics it forces him into moral struggles, and makes him make difficult choices on where and how to use his powers. A last-page cliffhanger reveal really caught me by surprise. I was a bit ambivalent about where this storyline was headed; I have no idea whatsoever now, but I'm pretty excited. (4/5)


Doctor Who: The Lost Dimension Special #1
Titan Comics. Written by Emma Beeby and Gordon Rennie. Art by Ivan Rodriguez, Wellington Diaz and Anderson Cabral. Colours by Thiago Ribiero and Mauricio Wallace.
Two storylines (although three were advertised), both tying into Titan's "Lost Dimension" crossover. The first sees Professor River Song uncover a secret civilization inside an unstable asteroid. The second sees the Fourth Doctor and Romana find a confluence of parallel universe battle fleets emanating from a series of rifts in space/time. To be blunt: neither are particularly good. The River story is short and confusing, whereas the Fourth Doctor adventure combines a few too many returning monsters with some jaw-droppingly odd artwork. It all feels rather haphazard and rushed, to be honest, and does not seem to add too much to the overall crossover. Easily missed. (2/5)


Hulk #11
Marvel. Written by Mariko Tamaki. Art by Bachan. Colours by Federico Blee.
Her latest adventure over, Jennifer reluctantly goes on a date. This is an unexpected tribute to the self-aware, direct-address era of She-Hulk comic books, as made famous decades ago by writer/artist John Byrne. While not anywhere near as successful as Byrne's splendid run, it is fairly amusing and a nice one-off throwback. Bachan's artwork does get a little distracting; there's a very uneven sense of perspective from panel to panel. It's a confection really, but one that does have a fair bit of entertainment value and acts as a lead-in to the next story arc beginning next month in the retitled and renumbered She-Hulk. (3/5)


Kull Eternal #2
IDW. Written by Tom Waltz. Art by Luca Pizzari. Colours by Triona Tree Farrell.
It has been a bit of a wait between the first and second issues of Kull Eternal, a new series that takes Robert E. Howard's heroic fantasy character and throws him across time into a science fiction story. It is a clever blend, using the mythical setting of Kull's usual adventures as a base, and then stepping out into various settings. The bulk of this issue focuses on revolutionary America, with Kull coming face-to-face with General George Washington. It's odd, but also oddly effective. Pizzari's artwork and Farrell's colours give everything a bold, classic kind of a look. (3/5)

Star Trek: Boldly Go #12
IDW. Written by Mike Johnson. Art by Megan Levens. Colours by Marissa Louise.
Legendary Starfleet captain Garth has suddenly re-appeared, swapping places with James Kirk and stealing his identity. Like most issues of Boldly Go, this is a enjoyable but unchallenging read. It's entertaining for fans of the recent Star Trek films, but a broader audience really isn't going to find anything here they're not going to find in a better form in original books elsewhere. I do like Megan Levens' artwork, however; she has a slightly more abstracted and less photo-referenced look that helps to make the stories more engaging. (3/5)
October 17th, 2017

Posted by Kate Sierzputowski

Scottish painter Andrew McIntosh (previously) paints bridges, castles, and forgotten homes, repurposing the structures’ windows and arches as vibrant portals into another world. The deep red and orange sunsets found in these negative spaces serve as the heart of each work, which each cast an intense glow into the surrounding desolate landscapes. The works are centered around scenes found in his native Scotland, areas that don’t necessarily illicit awe or intrigue from the average viewer.

“McIntosh is drawn to the plain and ordinary – a Victorian lodge, a simple tower house, or an unremarkable castle set in scenery that is not immediately picturesque or inspiring – subjects that wouldn’t usually attract an artist’s attention,” writes Dr. Richard Davey in an essay about McIntosh’s paintings. “They are born from deep knowledge of the land, painted by an artist who wants to probe the limits of landscape painting, who knows that nature is much quieter than it is more usually portrayed, and that capturing the undramatic, ordinariness of nature, is more difficult than it may seem.”

The confined sunsets serve as secretive elements of power to each crumbling form of architecture. McIntosh intends for these private moments to remind the viewer of everyday wonder, and to search for these moments during the mundane aspects of the day-to-day. The painter has an upcoming solo exhibition of his work at Beaux Arts London opening October 19 and running through November 18, 2017.


 

Posted by Christopher Jobson

From her small studio in rural Alaska, artist Laura C. Hewitt fuses the technological with the handmade, producing cyberpunk dishware and cyborg decor from wheel-thrown ceramics. A recurring theme in her work are plates, cups, and bowls speckled with 0’s and 1’s formed by vintage alphanumeric and punctuation keys from old typewriters or machinist punches. She often fires the pieces multiple times to enhance the worn appearance of each object, pieces that might look right at home on the desk of H. R. Giger. You can follow her most recent work on Instagram and she has several pieces available on Etsy.

posted by [syndicated profile] reprog_feed at 06:54pm on 17/10/2017

Posted by Mike Taylor

Last time we looked at how ScottKit games handle the player’s actions. But sometimes you need actions to happen independently of what the user does. If you’re in a frozen wilderness, maybe there’s ten percent chance each turn of freezing to death; or if there’s a thief here and you’re carrying a crown, he might steal it.

That’s what we’re going to look at this time. Here’s the map for today’s version of the game we’re working on:

Changes to the map

First, there are two new rooms since last time: a throne-room, which is where we’re going to deposit the treasure; and a crypt, where the key now starts, inconveniently guarded by a vampire.

Then there are two new items: the vampire, and a cross which will of course come in useful in dealing with him.

(We won’t bother listing the code for these room-and-item changes — if you’ve followed the earlier stages in this tutorial, you’ll already know how to set up rooms and items.)

Occurrences

Now we need to set up the new actions that happen by themselves. In ScottKit, we call these occurrences. (In some other systems, I believe they are called daemons.)

As with actions, a ScottKit file can define any number of occurrences. Each turn, before the user submits a command, the game runs down the list of defined occurrences and executes all those whose conditions are satisfied. (This is an important difference from actions, in which only the first matching action fires.)

An occurrence is introduced by the keyword occur, which may optionally be followed by a percentage indicating the chance of it happening. This is expressed as sequence of digits followed by a percentage sign (%).

Like an action, an occurrence may be followed by when and a list of conditions joined with and. The available conditions are exactly the same as those available for actions.

And also like actions, occurrences are followed by a sequence of action results — commands like get, goto, look, etc. Again, the available results are the same as those for actions.

Finally, and also like actions, occurrences can have a comment, which does not affect the behaviour of the action in any way but is written through to the compiled game file.

Putting it all together, typical occurrences look like this one (taken from Scott Adams’s own Adventureland):

occur 75% when carried FISH and !carried NET
	print "Fish have escaped back to the lake."
	put FISH lake
	comment "FISH ESCAPE"

Occurrences in the sample game

If we enter the presence of the vampire room while carrying the cross, he will shy away from it and we will be free to pick up the key. If we don’t have the cross, then he will look hungrily at us, and there’s a one-in-four chance that he will kill us outright. Finally, if we try to take the key while the vampire is threatening up (i.e. when we don’t have the cross), he won’t let us do it.

Here’s how that looks in code:

occur when here vampire and carried cross
	print "Vampire cowers away from the cross!"

occur when here vampire and !carried cross
	print "Vampire looks hungrily at me."

occur 25% when here vampire and !carried cross
	print "Vampire bites me!  I'm dead!"
	game_over
	comment "vampire can attack unless cross is carried"

action get key when here vampire and !carried cross
	print "I'm not going anywhere near that vampire!"

I hope all this looks obvious and intuitive.

The first and second occurrences here have no associated percentage, so they always fire when their conditions are met: in other words, when we’re with the vampire, he will always either cower away from the cross or look at us hungrily. The third occurrence has the same condition as the second, but also a 25% chance associated with it — so a quarter of the time that we see the second message, we will also be killed. (The sole action is there to prevent us from taking the key unless we’ve brought the cross with us: if its condition is not satisfied — e.g. because we have the cross — then the default GET action fires and we successfully take it.)

Note that the order of occurrences is important. If we swapped the second and third, so that the 25%-chance occurrence was evaluated first, then on the times when that one happened to fire, we would not see the “looks hungrily at me” message.

It’s rather rude game design to let the player walk blithely into a room that can punish him with instant death. To ameliorate that, we’ll add one more occurrence: when we’re in the room that leads to the vampire’s crypt, we’ll emit an occasional warning message:

occur 25% when at dungeon
	print "I smell something rotting to the north."

Putting it together

One thing we’ve not yet touched on is global settings that affect the game as a whole. We’ll look at these systematically another time, but let’s just toss a couple into the present version of the game.

Up till now, we’ve been using the default behaviour that the player begins in the first room to be defined. (This is a small exception to the earlier claim that the order of room definitions doesn’t matter.) But we can explicitly state which room we want to start in using start NAME.

And equally, we found that leaving treasures in the first room allowed us to score points for them. But typically, the treasury will be some other room. Again, we can designate a suitable room using treasury ROOM.

We’ll add both of these into the game file. And with that done, here’s the complete source code:

start dungeon
treasury throne

action score: score
action inventory: inventory
action look: look

room throne "gorgeously decorated throne room"
	exit south chamber

item sign "Sign says: leave treasure here, then say SCORE"

room chamber "square chamber"
	exit east dungeon
	exit north throne

item cross "Wooden cross"
	called "cross"

room dungeon "gloomy dungeon"
	exit west chamber
	exit north crypt

occur 25% when at dungeon
	print "I smell something rotting to the north."

item door "Locked door"

item key "Brass key"
	called "key"
	at crypt

item door2 "Open door leads south"
	nowhere

action open door when here door and !present key
	print "It's locked."

action open door when here door
	swap door door2
	print OK
	look

action go door when here door2
	goto cell
	look

room cell "dungeon cell"
	exit north dungeon

item coin "*Gold coin*"
	called "coin"

room crypt "damp, dismal crypt"
	exit south dungeon

item vampire "Vampire"

occur when here vampire and carried cross
	print "Vampire cowers away from the cross!"

occur when here vampire and !carried cross
	print "Vampire looks hungrily at me."

occur 25% when here vampire and !carried cross
	print "Vampire bites me!  I'm dead!"
	game_over
	comment "vampire can attack unless cross is carried"

action get key when here vampire and !carried cross
	print "I'm not going anywhere near that vampire!"

Now let’s take a look at how it plays.

There’s an additional complication this time, though: because of the random factor introduced by our new occurrences, we can’t tell whether any given excursion to the vampire’s crypt is going to kill us. We might use the same sequence of moves in two consecutive games only to find that it works the first time but not the second time.

We can fix this by supplying ScottKit with an explicit random seed, which tells it to use a reproducible sequence of random numbers. You supply this with the -s number command-line option: for example, -s 3456.

So here we go using random seed 2:

ringo:tutorial mike$ scottkit -s 2 -p t4.sck 
ScottKit, a Scott Adams game toolkit in Ruby.
(C) 2010-2017 Mike Taylor <mike@miketaylor.org.uk>
Distributed under the GNU GPL version 2 license,
Setting random seed 2

I'm in a gloomy dungeon
Obvious exits: North, West.
I can also see: Locked door

Tell me what to do ? n

I'm in a damp, dismal crypt
Obvious exits: South.
I can also see: Brass key, Vampire

Vampire looks hungrily at me.
Tell me what to do ? get key
I'm not going anywhere near that vampire!
Vampire looks hungrily at me.
Tell me what to do ? s

I'm in a gloomy dungeon
Obvious exits: North, West.
I can also see: Locked door

Tell me what to do ? w

I'm in a square chamber
Obvious exits: North, East.
I can also see: Wooden cross

Tell me what to do ? get cross
O.K.
Tell me what to do ? e

I'm in a gloomy dungeon
Obvious exits: North, West.
I can also see: Locked door

I smell something rotting to the north.
Tell me what to do ? n

I'm in a damp, dismal crypt
Obvious exits: South.
I can also see: Brass key, Vampire

Vampire cowers away from the cross!
Tell me what to do ? get key
O.K.
Vampire cowers away from the cross!
Tell me what to do ? s

I'm in a gloomy dungeon
Obvious exits: North, West.
I can also see: Locked door

Tell me what to do ? open door
OK

I'm in a gloomy dungeon
Obvious exits: North, West.
I can also see: Open door leads south

Tell me what to do ? go door

I'm in a dungeon cell
Obvious exits: North.
I can also see: *Gold coin*

Tell me what to do ? get coin
O.K.
Tell me what to do ? n

I'm in a gloomy dungeon
Obvious exits: North, West.
I can also see: Open door leads south

Tell me what to do ? w

I'm in a square chamber
Obvious exits: North, East.

Tell me what to do ? n

I'm in a gorgeously decorated throne room
Obvious exits: South.
I can also see: Sign says: leave treasure here, then say SCORE

Tell me what to do ? score
I've stored 0 treasures.  On a scale of 0 to 100, that rates 0.
Tell me what to do ? drop coin
O.K.
Tell me what to do ? score
I've stored 1 treasures.  On a scale of 0 to 100, that rates 100.
Well done.
The game is now over.
ringo:tutorial mike$ 

Next time: darkness and light!


posted by [syndicated profile] wavewithoutashore_feed at 04:47pm on 17/10/2017

Posted by CJ

A little warier than last year. I am doing 3 things, first of all having a pond ‘turnover’ device, a little heated pump that will keep circulating a stream of water up to outgas CO2 buildup and then to return to the depths…and a regulation hole-creating pond heater that simply floats at the surface and makes sure an area stays open.

I’ve positioned both of these where wind cannot carry them out of sight under the bridge, so I will KNOW visually if the power is off to that line.

And I’ve put the black 6′ circle of fabric on a floating ring in place atop the fishes’ sleeping hole. So they can start to rest and calm down. If they don’t settle in a safe spot, they can keep swimming in confusion as the cold puts their conscious brain to sleep, and the end of that is freezing to death close to the surface.

Because the freeze-depth in this area barely reaches 6″ down, that means the dirt deeper than that stays warmer than 32 degrees F, and that means it keeps the water down there above 32 F, too. So the fish may be sleeping (it’s called torpor, not hibernation, a technicality of how the body survives) but they will not freeze. They apparently carry on some metabolic activity, and may even carry on ‘eating’ or rather drinking, just because there are algae spores in the water. I swear they come out of winter as fat or fatter than they went in, but won’t wake up and actually eat until around St. Paddy’s day. As they come out of sleep, you can feed them Cheerios or other grain-based food, but they won’t have any appetite until their stomachs ‘wake up’ and inform them they can eat now. This happens when the water (or their bodies, from the sun) reaches about 58 degrees. At that point, bio-activity starts to climb.

So probably they have had their last kibble until March. No Halloween treats for them.

Posted by John Scalzi

Today Tor Books is releasing Old Man’s War in a spiffy new “mini”-format hardcover edition: All the benefits of a hardcover book, miniaturized for your convenience! It’s available at your favorite bookstores in the US and Canada, and it’s no coincidence that it’s being released just prior to the holiday season. Stocking stuffer, my friends, and/or a nice little gift for, like, day four of Hanukkah. But you don’t need to wait for the holidays to get it. You can get it today. For yourself! And pick up several copies for friends! Distribute them like Pez! It’s the Covandu version of OMW, if you will, and if you get that joke, thank you for being a fan.

I’m delighted at this new mini hardcover of OMW because, among other things, the original hardcover run of the book, almost thirteen(!) years ago now, is actually pretty small: about 3,700 for the first printing, and about 7,700 overall. OMW really took off in the trade paperback edition a year after the initial release. As a result, the hardcovers have always been hard to find — great news for collectors, to be sure. Not so great for anyone else.

So, dear everyone else: This edition is for you. Enjoy!


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