Mars Archive

1

Put Aside Banal Things

When I sat down to write today’s post, at about 6pm Eastern, on Wednesday, November 12, 2014, I made the mistake of checking my Facebook before putting fingers to keyboard. This was a mistake. Thereupon, I saw the following three things trending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social media reports Oscar winner says thing about social media. Entropy achieved.

Woman famous for being famous (and sex tape) shows off impossible ass; internet loses its god damned mind.

Thing that happened weeks ago, happens again. Now with 48 additional frames.

For fuck’s sake, people. Is this really what you care about?

Is this what it was like to live in the sixties and know that people cared more about an episode of I Dream of Jeanie than they did the moon landing? To recap for the benefit of anybody who might have missed this afternoon’s events, humanity did something profoundly cool today. The European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet, which might not sound like a big deal until you hear some of the numbers behind this mission.

The Rosetta probe, and its attached lander, Philae, left Earth twelve years ago. During its voyage, Rosetta gravity boosted around the Earth three times and once around Mars. The probe, after travelling six billion kilometers, finally chased down comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko just inside the orbital path of Jupiter. That’s about five-hundred million kilometers from Earth. When Philae landed on 67P, the comet was moving at approximately 18 kilometers per second. For anybody who doesn’t play Kerbal Space Program, 18 kilometers per second translates to 64,800 kilometers per hour. Since radio waves only travel at the speed of light, it takes 30 minutes to send a message to Rosetta and another 30 minutes for Rosetta to respond; in other words, there was no way to control this landing in real time. On the off chance all of these numbers have failed to impress, here’s a visual representation of everything I’ve just said.

 

tl;dr today is a pretty fucking amazing day for humanity. Way more amazing than a starlet’s opinions on twitter, a one-time porn star’s airbrushed ass, or a trailer for a movie that is still months away.

Take a few moments out of your day to consider the math that went into making Philae’s landing possible. Ponder the great vastness of space, and how small we are compared to all of that. Allow yourself a moment to be overwhelmed and humbled by the majesty of the universe and our ability to dip our toe into it. Humanity can do great things when we’re not wasting our time on the bullshit of oppression, war, and dickish behavior in general.

Look upward, and share the wonder I have seen.


0

Curiosity is My Apollo 11 Moment

The view from Gale Crater

Late Sunday night, or in the wee hours of Monday morning depending on where you are in the world, NASA’s JPL rover “Curiosity” did what Arnie told us to do back in 1990, it got its ass to Mars.

Huzzah for another triumph of humanity over near space.

At 10:32PDT, under the gaze of the internet, the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, the finest faux hawk in the history of space exploration, and a Dr. Carson Beckett body double, a rover that weighs as much as a small car gracefully landed in Mars’ Gale Crater. During Curiosity’s eight month voyage to Mars it covered a distance of roughly 352 million miles. And unlike NASA’s previous two rovers which fell to Mars cushioned in giant airbags, Curiosity employed a controlled descent via detachable rocket pack and sky crane. Landing at a velocity of about two miles per hour, Curiosity touched down on the red planet with more finesse than most of us employ in getting out of bed.

A lot of thoughts passed through my mind while watching NASA’s live web feed. Foremost among them was what the hell is going to happen to NASA if this two and a half billion dollar space buggy crashes and burns? I quickly pushed such thoughts away, instead letting myself reflect on how I would remember this moment if it happened. In a flash it occurred to me that baring something truly extraordinary occurring in the near future, Curiosity would be my generation’s Apollo 11 moment. And damn if we haven’t needed one.

In my thirty years I’ve seen two space shuttle missions end in tragedy, landers crash into Mars because astrophysicists and engineers couldn’t tell metric from imperial measurements, and the over-budget and underwhelming construction of an orbiting space station which is nothing close to the gateway to the moon that we were promised in the late 90s. Where are my generation’s Neil Armstrongs and Yuri Gagarins? What name is more familiar to the public, Chris Hatfield or Lisa Nowak? Where is the BIG THING that in fifty years will let me preface conversations with “I remember when…” My generation’s relationship with space flight has been one of tragedy, budget cuts, and outsourcing to the private sector.

Like everybody else, I made a few jokes on twitter while I sat and waited. When NASA cut to a video that showed how the orbital paths of Curiosity and Odyssey lined up, I cracked wise about Missile Command. For gamers who remember the 90s, I alluded to a nuclear powered rover being a cover for an XCOM Avenger intent on attacking Cydonia. There may have also been a tweet or two about finding Prothean ruins in Gale Crater. But when Curoisty made its final descent into Mars’ atmosphere, I hoped.

I hoped for more than a safe landing. I hoped Curiosity might be the sort of thing people rally behind. I hoped the collective anticipation and enthusiasm of everybody who was flooding my twitter feed might inspire others to remember that optimism and ambition are good things. And I hoped in the fullness of time Curiosity might find evidence of something that will make this world seem like a smaller place. I also got confused about the time delay between Earth and Mars, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. When the seven minutes of terror ended and the words “touchdown” came through the feed, I cheered. Then I broke out my bottle of special fifteen year old “victory” scotch and had a toast to the collective awesome that is the human race.

The shouts from NASA’s live feed, as well as my own, woke my girlfriend. I told her the good news, she smiled and went to check the non-internet news for coverage.

CBC Televsion was revelling in banalities with re-runs of Dragon’s Den.

CBC News was airing a re-run of a picayune documentary on lottery winners.

CTV 1 and CTV Newsnet were showing repeats of Olympic coverage from the day before.

Canada’s national broadcaster and Bell Media’s flagship stations couldn’t be bothered to interrupt reruns and old news to dedicate five minutes to a story that forced us to redraw the frontiers of human experience. How embarrassing for them. How sad for them to have a moment of live news befitting the likes of Walter Cronkite scooped by Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, John Scalzi, David Hewlett, and us common folk who are so paternally labeled as “citizen journalists”. How utterly tragic for “legitimate” media to perfectly prove its disconnection from the reality of our digital culture, despite pretensions otherwise via flatscreens, ipads, and title cards that include twitter handles. While the CBC and CTV slept, we were there.

And those of us who were there, through the benefit of NASA’s brilliantly executed live feed, were part of something fantastic. Who can say right now what that something might turn into, but we were there for the start of it. Generation X and beyond finally has an Apollo 11 moment. And for the benefit of those among that demographic who look at space exploration with all the cynicism this world can muster, those of us who were there will continue to hope.


0

Podcast Episode 19: The One Where We Tried It Live On Google+

Well, almost live...

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe, Beverly Bambury and James Bambury

NB: This podcast represents my attempt to do two new things at the same time. 1) Use a Google+ hangout to record a podcast. 2) Make it an open mic and live-ish affair. On the second point, it was a smashing success. Beverly, James, and I had a great conversation. On the first point, there were some unforeseen technical “hiccups”.

Regrettably, my intended plan to post this podcast in its unabridged and unedited format proved impossible. Moreover, I’m still not really happy with the overall audio fidelity that Google+ offered. As such, the technical elements of this podcast don’t quite measure up to the quality of its content. Prepare for odd noises and warbles that were just impossible to edit out. I apologize in advance. I promise things will be back to normal with my next ‘cast.

Podcast Breakdown

Start to 5:00 – My introduction.

5:00 to 13:00 – Beverly and James arrive – we talk Jesse Griffith’s Cockpit, Aaron Sims’ Archetype, and the nature of proof of concept films.

13:00 to 19:00 – Crowdsourcing creative projects.

19:00 to 26:00 – John Carter (of Mars) and the curse of the Martian movie.

26:oo to 46:00 – The Hunger Games, Rollerball, bloodsports, and cultural appetites therein.

46:00 to 48:00 – Wrap up.

Correction: At 24:45 I meant to say “The Washington Post” not “The Wall Street Journal”

Right click “Download” and click “Save link as” to download a DRM free copy of the cast. We don’t like DRM around these parts.


5

Movie Review: John Carter

Summary Judgement: A convoluted pastiche of poorly aged source material that yields an utterly forgettable plot despite the best efforts of the actors.

Directed by: Andrew Stanton

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Willem Dafoe

John Carter is probably the first time I’ve hoped that a screen adaptation would depart from its source material. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars series is, at best, a quaint reminder of how much the novel, as a literary form, has evolved since the current generation’s great grand fathers fell in love with a swashbuckling Virginia-man teleported to the red planet. On some levels, John Carter rises above its more colonial and paternalistic roots. The problem is that it does so in the most bat-shit crazy way a person could imagine.

The plot is simple yet, for any viewer not initiated into Burrough’s mythology, likely Byzantine in its complexity. I shall attempt to distill it down to component parts. Contrary to what we think, Mars, called Barsoom by the natives, is not dead; it is however, dying. Upon the surface of this world there live a number of sentient races. For the sake of this movie they come in three flavours: Red, Green, and White. Nothing says 19th century colonial attitudes like reducing people down to the colour of their skin.

Red Martians are technologically advanced city dwelling humanoids with a dark tan and some red tattoos. Green Martians are ten feet tall, have four arms, and live as nomads within the ruins of Mars’ ancient cities. White Martians, also called Therns, are pasty white, bald, and shape shifters.

At this point, I suspect anybody who has read A Princess of Mars is throwing out the bullshit flag on the grounds that the Therns don’t show up until the second novel and are not shape shifters. Quite right. This movie takes elements of Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars and glues them together without any warrant for how well they fit. Now back to the movie plot.

The central conflict within the story focuses on the warring Red Martian city-states of Helium and Zodanga – which for some reason is a mobile city that is somehow destroying the planet. The details never really get explained. Things were going well for the Helumites until the Therns gave Zodanga a technological edge in the form of a McGuffin called “The 9th Ray”, which is your basic kill-all death ray. Said ray is never really explained, despite having an origin in the book. I can only imagine how confusing the movie’s “physics” will prove for neophytes to the story.

Zodanga’s Jeddak (Martian for King) Sab Than (Dominic West), at the demands of the Therns, who come off as nothing but tired clichés of “power behind the throne” bad guys, offers Helium a truce. If Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, (Ciaran Hinds) agrees to marry his daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to Sab Than, the latter will spare Helium from destruction. Enter John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) to save the day, that is after he A – plays through the tropes of being the damaged hero who finds something new for which he should fight and B – acts his way through a god-awful twenty minute Martian remix of Dances with Wolves. The months that Carter spent learning the customs, traditions, and language of the Green Martians in the book is literally reduced to a sip of magic know-all potion.

At this point I’d like to remind you, my good reader, that this is me trying to foist a bit of order on this story. The movie itself is not nearly as considerate. Like its protagonist, John Carter makes mighty leaps from one plot point to the next, never really connecting things together in a meaningful way. Everything in the story depends on iconography (Helium=blue banners=good / Zodanga=red banners=bad) and menacing looks from Therns to fill in the background. Again, as I know the books I could grumble about the script’s complete hack and slash job. Put in broader strokes, though, I don’t know how an outsider could approach this movie and see anything other than a shallow depiction of, and do pardon the phrase, Cowboys and Indians…on Mars. Even so armed with my foreknowledge, by the time I realized it was the third act, and thus time to start caring, the big dramatic battle was over. John Carter had saved the day, slain the bad guys, and won the girl.

NB: There’s no premarital sex on Mars. You marry a girl after knowing her for a week. Or maybe that’s just how they roll in Virginia.

The film accepts as a matter of fact the now disproven science that drove Burroughs novel vis-a-vis Mars’ thin atmosphere and lessened mass accounting for John Carter’s physical strength and ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Fair enough as the story falls apart without turning John Carter into Superman. Of course, I didn’t think it necessary for the story to stop and take a moment to comment on its own implausibility. There’s a scene when Matai Shang (Mark Strong), King of the Therns, captures John Carter. The Thern not only reveals that his kind have been to Earth on many occasions, but that they should have been able to account for Carter’s physiological abilities. Duh! Really? You’d think the Earth’s mighty gravity crushing their puny Martian bones once they set foot upon the planet would have been the first clue. It’s hard to believe that Andrew Stanton, a man who has earned Oscar glory for his writing and directing, would let that bit of dim-witted dialogue slide. Suspension of disbelief is one thing; when a movie points out that I’m using it, that’s a very different matter. Such actions presume stupidity on behalf of me and the rest of the audience. For shame sir, for shame.

The acting is the only thing that offers an ounce of redemption for this movie. Bryan Cranston has a bit role as a Union Colonel that attempts to draft Carter into the Arizona Territory Cavalry. Lynn Collins is okay as Dejah Thoris. She plays a very much retconed character as compared to what is found in the novels. Yet despite being a skilled fighter and the Regent of Helium’s scientific academy, Dejah still evokes her plot fodder origins in announcing her need for John Carter to save her people and by default herself from a political marriage. I only really wrote her off as a character when the Princess of Helium expresses her wants in the form of a temper tantrum followed by an emotional breakdown in the desert. Source material or no, I don’t buy a warrior-scientist-princess having a tantrum.

As for Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, he had the hardest job of all. To my modern eyes, John Carter is a bit of a despicable character. First and foremost he’s a proud Virginian and ex-confederate officer. Nobody born north of the Mason-Dixon line within the last fifty years is going to connect with that. Although the film iteration of Carter is a man who, at first, refuses to fight, he does so not because of the horrors of war. Rather his reticence stems from the death of his wife and child while he was fighting for the Confederacy. Sorry, Disney, but that doesn’t remove him far enough from Southern roots and ideology for me to get in line behind this guy. Combine that with the fact that Carter, in the novels, has the personality of a Turnip, and there’s not a lot for an actor to work with. So Kitsch tries hard. But when the story has all the inherent accessibility a chess match as recorded in Farsi, there’s only so much a fellow can do.

All that said, I want to know who is going to go see this movie? Hard core fans of the books will likely be put off by the huge inaccuracies in translation between novels and screenplay. Neophytes will spend two hours scratching their heads wondering what exactly is going on. Being that it’s a Disney movie there’s not enough violence, explosions, or cleavage shots to really hold the “action” movie junkies either. Nor do I see watching this movie in 3D as a particularly strong selling point. If we take away all those groups, who is left?

For my time, John Carter is little more than a way to burn two hours and $20. Despite its best efforts to be the first blockbuster of 2012, the movie is only slightly more interesting than taking a nap. The plot is disjointed; the writing is dreadful, and the acting suffers because of the writing. Know that only insomniacs and the morbidly curious should pay premium money to see this in theatres.