Sunday, 1 May 2016

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2.20 - 2.21

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch Star Trek, with the 1966 broadcast of "The Man Trap." With that in mind, it seems about time I got back on the Captain's Blog and finished my run down of season two of the original series, before moving onto season three. I'll roughly alternate these with Dandy's Space Blog while I finish that too.

2-20) The Ultimate Computer
or
Captain Kirk vs. Workplace Irrelevancy

The Mission: Test out the new M-5 computer, capable of running a starship with a minimum crew complement.

Planets visited: None, although the tests take part in orbit of Alpha Carinae II, an Earthlike planet. Alpha Carinae is a real star system, about 300 light years away. In actuality a red supergiant, Alpha Carinae, also known as Canopus and Suhail, is the second brightest star in the sky.

Captain James T: Isn't happy to be summoned to a Starfleet space station without prior explanation. He's even less happy when his friend, Commodore Bob Wesley, informs him the Enterprise will be testing out the new M-5 computer. Kirk expresses severe anxiety at the concept he will be rendered obsolete by the computer, and, not for the first time, wishes he were living an old fashioned captain's life at sea. He doesn't want to lose his command (or the prestige) to a computer. His confidence in Wesley means that he knows he won't destroy the Enterprise even when it looks like the only way to stop the attacks.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: He holds an A7 computer expertise diploma and holds Daystrom i the highest esteem. Of everyone, Spock unsurprisingly has the most sympathy for Daystrom and the idea that a computer could be the best at running a starship.

The Real McCoy: Bones instinctively distrusts the M-5 and has the feeling it is wrong in its decisions before any errors come about. It's almost a Spidey-sense sort of thing. As is often the case, he prescribes himself and Kirk a strong liquor to help with the stressful situation.

Killer Computer: The M-5 is the first multitronic computer, a new generation of computers created by Professor Daystrom. The M-5 has a certain human-like capacity for thought, which Daystrom created by using his own brain engrams (which was undoubtedly a very bad idea). The M-5 is designed to take full control of a starship, running it with a minimal crew of twenty essential personnel. The captain is not considered essential, with the computer making the command decisions. Unfortunately, both man and machine are completely mad. Given the task of showing off its capabilities in war games against four other Constitution-class starships, the M-5 puts its own self-preservation above all else, and fails to distinguish between the games and real threat. It first destroys a robotic ore carrier, the Woden, and then kills several hundred people when it attacks the USS Excalibur. It drains the Enterprise's power to improve its performance, cuts itself off and places a forcefield around itself. It even kills a crewman who tries to shut it off. Eventually, Kirk convinces it to self-destruct by getting it to admit to murder and therefore execute itself (presumably, the idea that murder is "a crime against the laws of Man and God" comes from Daystrom's own psyche).

Future History: Spock mentions that there's no technology that can replace a starship's chief medical officer. A hundred-odd years after this, in the time of Star Trek: Voyager, that will no longer be the case.

Dr, Richard Daystrom is considered a genius in his time, on a par with Einstein. He's also a dangerous obsessive. At 24, he invented the duotronic computers that run starships, which won him the Nobel and Zee-Magnees prizes. In spite of the ignoble end of his career, the Daystrom Institute and Daystrom Award are named after him (and presumably the Daystrom Conference in the alternative reality of Star Trek Into Darkness).

The four starships that go up against the Enterprise are the Hood, the Potemkin, the Lexington and the Excalibur.

Finagle's Folly is a green cocktail "known from here to Orion."

Trek Stars: William Marshall is excellent as Richard Daystrom. He's best recognised as Blacula, but had a huge and varied career involving directing and opera singing, for which he deserves to be remembered.

Cliche Counter: This is the fourth time that Kirk has talked a computer to death, after the previous occasions in "The Changeling," "Return of the Archons" and "I, Mudd."

Remastery: There is significant new CG model work in this episode, replacing reused footage used for the Woden, the Constitution-class ships involved in the war games, the space station and Alpha Carinae II with new images.

The Verdict: A strong episode with a good central theme. Kirk's fear of being replaced in his job by a machine is more relevant today than ever and is a better use of a villainous computer than the usual "computers are scary!" high jinks. It's great that Daystrom, the greatest genius of the age, is an African, even if he does suffer a complete breakdown and essentially reverts to villain of the piece. It's also good, as always, to see more of Starfleet, and Enterprise's place within it.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Moon of Makemake

Astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope have announced the discovery of a satellite the dwarf planet Makemake. As yet, the moon is unnamed, having the provisional designation S/2015 (136472) 1, which refers to its year of initial observation and its position orbiting Makemake. Currently, the team have nicknamed it MK 2, although an official name will be chosen in time, most likely in connection with the Rapa Nui mythology from which Makemake is taken.

Makemake is one of five confirmed dwarf planets in the Solar System, one of four which exist in the outer part of the system, along with Pluto, Haumea and Eris. It is very like Pluto, being about two-thirds its size, and like Pluto, has an extremely bright surface. MK 2, on the other hand, is much smaller, and extremely dark. Along with its orbit, which is thought to be aligned edge-on to the Earth and its observatories, this has made it very hard to make out within the glare of its parent body.

The presence of a satellite will, as with Pluto, make measurements of Makemake easier and more accurate. It seems likely that such satellites are common among outer system planetoids. All four outer system dwarf planets are now known to have at least one satellite: Eris has Dysnomia, Haumea has Hi'iaka and Namaka, Pluto has Charon, Nyx, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx, and Makemake has MK 2. Most of the likely dwarf planet candidates in the outer Solar System, including Quaoar, Orcus, Salacia, Varda, also have moons. It appears to be an extremely busy place.

The full article from Hubble is here.

Friday, 22 April 2016

DANDY SPACE LOG 2-2 & 2-3

Season Two, Episode Two - There's Music in the Darkness, Baby

Dandy is invited to a party on an alien planet by his biggest fan. It does not go as he'd hoped.



We're Alien Hunters, Baby:

The Ukulele Man: A truly bizarre alien, the Ukulele Man is the only one of his kind. His species is born from a tree on a jungle planet, only one of them existing at any time. Physically, he appears as a skeleton with a wooden face, incapable of expression. The Ukulele Man is desperate to show people the joy and laughter in his heart. By playing his ukulele, he puts his victims into a trance, capturing their smiles forever by turning them into statues. He keeps them in his "smile collection," and occasionally tries on a body to see if the smile suits him.

Capybarians: Humanoid capybaras native to the Ukulele Man's planet. They like to chew, but they seem pretty reasonable.

Mantisians: Vicious insectoids that hatch from pods and chase Meow and QT while they're looking for Dandy.

Wiggians: Even odder aliens that chase the duo, Wiggians look like living toupees and emit bolts of electricity as they hunt for a scalp to call home.

Phenomenology, Baby: The River of Time flows from past to future through the upper atmosphere of the Ukulele Man's planet. A pororoca is a huge wave, caused by tidal forces acting against the flow of a river (the Amazon is prone to these). A large, red "satellite planet" acts upon the River of Time, causing a pororoca in its waters that reverse the flow from future to past. Harnessing the pororoca can allow travel back in ones own timestream.

He's Dandy, Baby: Doesn't take kindly to being made fun of when he misunderstands things, and flounces off when Meow and QT enter him into the Misunderstanding Grand Prix. Which, unbeknownst to him, he wins. He receives a party invitation from the Ukelele Man, who has decided Dandy has the greatest smile in the Galaxy after seeing a picture of him at BooBies. He also misunderstands that, immediately assuming the sender must be a beautiful woman. He does, however, understand the implications of the River of Time, and, enraged by Ukulele Man's treatment of his friends, surfs the pororoca to take them back to a point before they were petrified. Even after battling the Ukulele Man, he shows compassion for him in his last moments.

He's Not a Space Cat, Baby: Starts out the episode in a stupid argument with Dandy over a song rhythm, and then gets distracted long enough for him to leave in the Little Aloha. Once he realises Dandy is gone, he and QT go searching for him at considerable peril.

He's Just a Little Obsolete, Baby: His internet seems to be working well now. He's also seemingly fixed the teleporter - and it has a remote control. Both QT and Meow are captured and frozen by the Ukulele Man.

There's Bad Guys Too, Baby: Dr. Gel is infuriated by Dandy's continual escapes, and decides to use the River of Time to turn back the flow of history and capture him at an earlier point, turning a defeat into a victory. He really just misses his mum, though.

The Bottom Line, Baby: The perfect balance between strange, funny and touching, this is a cracking adventure with a memorable one-off villain. One of the best episodes of the second season.


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

DANDY SPACE LOG 2-1

A merry companion is a wagon in space, baby - and there's no better companion than Space Dandy, that Dandy guy in space. Not before time, I'm restarting my episode guide, covering the second season!

Season Two, Episode One - I Can't Be the Only One, Baby

After pulling on a cosmic string, Dandy and crew are thrown into a series of parallel universes where they meet multiple versions of themselves.

They're Dandy, Baby: The prime Dandy claims to have been a space trucker long before he hunted aliens, although he admits his memories are fuzzy. One of his many alter egos in the multiverse is (still) a space trucker, a big guy with a tan and a blond perm who has much the same outlook as the prime Dandy. He gets on a lot better with this Dandy than the first one he meets, a blue-haired show-off (even by Dandy standards) who's an incomparable alien hunter with a 100% capture rate. This version lives in what looks like a Studio Gainax/Evangelion styled universe.

Among the other millions of Dandies in the multiverse there are:

Manga Hero Dandy - an insufferable, hyperactive lunatic who screeches like Michael Jackson and appears to have stepped out of DragonBall-Z. (He rides a cloud like Sun Goku from DragonBall, or, if you're of an older vintage like me, like his Monkey from Monkey, or further, all the way back to Journey to the West.) Except he's fighting the Demon King by hunting for people with star-shaped birthmarks, which seems to be a reference to the epic JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.

Mobile Suit Dandy - clearly a parody of the Gundam series, this Dandy is a pilot for a giant mecha suit.

Space Ninja Dandy - a Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets science ninja styled Dandy, whose team use Naruto-inspired attacks.

Big Dandy - a gigantic Dandy in a hat, riffing on the Titans from Attack on Titan (but not as grotesque).

Triangle Dandy - things get weird with Dandies that aren't even vaguely humanoid appearing, including this one, which is copied from the illustration of a Master from The Tripods, as painted by Wayne Barlowe in Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.

A boy genius Dandy who is the first version who get a handle on what's going on - in fact, he expecting his alter egos to turn up.

There's also Space Inspector Dandy, She-Dandy, Bear Brick Dandy, Mascot Dandy and many others. Finally, there's the depressed Emo Dandy, who's version of QT and Meow have driven him to existential despair.

It might be significant that the first cosmic string that appears is poking out of Dandy's pompadour.




They're Not Space Cats, Baby: As with the infinite Dandies, there are infinite Meows, including, but not confined to, a giant armoured Meow (who travels with the successful alien hunter); a woman with a cat's tail (who was returned cargo of Space Trucker Dandy); a pink and blue pig, for some reason (with Manga Hero Dandy) and one who is a Schrodingerian (see below). Emo Dandy is plagued by a Meow who is a cyborg that simply repeats the same electronic mew noise over and over again.

They're Just a Little Obsolete, Baby: And thus, with QT. Most of the QTs are robots, but not all. Space Trucker Dandy's QT is green and was unlabelled cargo. Boy Genius Dandy is protected from his version of the Gogol Empire by a QT that is comprised of two gigantic robot skeletons. Finally, Emo Dandy is plagued also by a QT who is a fat old man in a pink unitard who insists he's a robot.

The Scarlet Woman, Baby: Scarlet takes exception to Dandy trying to pass of a regular cow as an alien, and takes the team aside for a chat. She suggests they try looking for a new line of work, and gives them a copy of Space Career Change magazine (naturally, most of the jobs require a degree). Frsutratingly, we never get to meet any of Scarlet's alternative universe selves.

Let's Get Our Asses to BooBies, Baby: When all the Dandies arrive in one universe, they naturally all go to BooBies. Honey can tell there's something somehow Dandyish about them all, and thinks they must be siblings. Alternative Honeys include the girlfriend of the super successful Dandy (who has impressive underboobs), and one who is a ninja in the Space Ninja team. As the multiverse begins to collapse, BooBies becomes staffed by muscular hunks in tiny outfits.

There's Bad Guys Too, Baby: We briefly see the alternative versions of Dr Gel and Bea who are hunting Boy Genius Dandy. Dr Gel is an actual gorilla and Bea is a carrot.

We're Alien Hunters, Baby:

Schrodingerians: Aliens that look like cats but have a quantum defense mechanism. They hide in a box and you can't tell if they're alive or dead until you look. Boy Genius Dandy's Meow is a Schrodingerian.

The Gorillian Empire: Boy Genius's universe's version of the Gogol Empire.

A Cow: Just a cow.

Phenomenology, Baby: A cosmic string, or dimensional fray, is a crossover point between realities in the multiverse. Every point in space is an intersection point with another point in space so cosmic strings can potentially be quite common. Unlike the string that Dandy pulled in the first episode, pulling the strings here pulls him not across space, but into alternative universes. When trying to take Boy Genius Dandy and his crew along with him, Dandy's pulling of the string causes all the Dandies met so far to appear in his own universe. More and more appear, causing the gradual collapse of causality and reality, with inconsistencies appearing everywhere. Even the Narrator is duplicated (which, given later revelations, is curious). Ultimately, Dandy repairs the multiverse by returning all Dandies to their respective realities; however, Emo Dandy is left as the star of the series.

Don't Quote Me, Baby: "I assure you, we have no intention of touching your balls."

The Bottom Line, Baby: Even for a show so full of references, this is something else. "I Can't Be the Only One, Baby" is basically made of references, and as such what I've listed above is only the start of it. Even checking my thoughts up against TV Tropes, I simply don't know enough about anime to even guess at how many shows are being parodied and referenced here. Even so, this is a tremendously fun episode, and easily a favourite. It also paves the way for the cosmic revelations concerning Dandy in the final episode. 

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Latest news from interstellar space

So, it turns out there's a huge galaxy sitting right next to ours. Well, huge in terms of dwarf galaxies. Crater 2 has an effective half-light radius of 1100 pc, so that makes it at least 7000 light years across. It's the fourth largest satellite of the Milky Way (after the Magellanic Clouds and SagDEG), orbiting at relatively close distance (only 120 kpc), so it's quite astonishing that it's remained undetected until now. It is, however, remarkably dark - one of the dimmest galaxies ever seen. A vast collection of stars just swinging past ours for billions of years and we've only just noticed. It makes you wonder what else is out there; researchers are already planning ways to search for dark galaxies.

There's also the discovery of a new category of exoplanet: superearth-sized bodies which have been stripped of their atmospheres by close proximity to their parent star. If confirmed, these irradiated desert worlds would fill a gap in the variety of exoplanets already known, and give us a look at what might lie in wait for our own Earth in the distant future as the Sun expands.

Then there's the spectacular news that Stephen Hawking is teaming up with a wealthy Russian eccentric to begin research into a new space programme. It's summarised here at the Guardian, but the upshot is that we could be receiving data directly from Alpha Centauri in the next few decades. Hawking proposes that research and technological development could make the proposal, involving a swarm of tiny spacecraft accelerated to extreme velocities by laser beams, could be feasible in ten to fifteen years.

If successful, the starprobes could reach up to a fifth of lightspeed, allowing at least some of them to make the trip to Alpha Centauri in a mere twenty-five years. Once there, they will begin transmitting data back at lightspeed, meaning another four-and-a-half years before we receive updates. Sadly, Hawking will never get to see the fruits of the project, but a future generation of astrophysicists could be studying that data for years. If successful, the project could also revolutionise exploration of our own solar system - searching for the supposed ninth planet, for example. (Personally, I'll believe that one when there's some real evidence.)