Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Phoenix Landing

This is a truly amazing image.

While the Phoenix was on its parachute descent to the Martian north pole yesterday, our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this picture.

The shot is taken looking down at the planet. The texture in the background is the icy surface of Mars.

I am awestruck.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, one of my personal heroes, was so impressed he made this video:

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 26 May 2008


Exciting news this morning, when the Phoenix lander touched down safely near the north pole of Mars just before 10am AEST.

The landing was always going to be dicey, with a freefall drop followed by a parachute deployment and braking thrusters to bring it down safely.

My workplace has all sorts of restrictions on net content, so sadly no streaming vision of the event could be seen at my workstation. Knowing this in advance, I seriously considered turning up to work two hours late, but ultimately decided against it.

I just made do with checking the liveblogs at nasa.gov and a couple of other places.

The fact that even that managed to get me psyched up gives you some idea of how much stuff like this means to me and other space geeks of my ilk.

The images the Phoenix has relayed back aren't as spectacular as those from the wandering rovers Spirit and Opportunity (still going strong after landing four years ago for a three-month mission) but this one isn't about the pretty pictures.

This one is just about the science. The discovery. Getting out there and digging in the dirt and seeing what there is to see.

Unlike the rovers the Phoenix will be sitting stationary, drilling into the Martian surface to hopefully find water ice and organic molecules.

The great hope, of course, is that it will find evidence of life. Even the tiniest hint of bacteria would be enough to show that we're not alone in the universe.

We wait with bated breath, but for today the successful landing is enough.

It reminds us once again that while we sit here huddled on our tiny world, there's a whole universe out there for us to explore.

Indiana Jones IV

When Die Hard IV surprised everyone last year by being a really good movie, it was only a matter of time before we started seeing a raft of long-delayed sequels on dusty old franchises.

Happily, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (was such a long title really necessary? I'm talking to you, George Lucas) turns out to be a worthy addition to the canon.

Like the other three, it's all about tracking down a mystical and ancient artifact.

And like the other three there are caves, booby traps, much fetishisation of history and ancient wisdom, and little to no explanation of why millennia-old mechanisms still work so smoothly.

In fact, at times it seems simply a melange of the three previous films.

Take the chase scenes from Raiders, the caves, bugs and crazy tribal nuts from Temple of Doom, the whole closing sequence of Last Crusade, replace the Nazis with Russians, and you pretty much have it.

There were also, for the hardcore fans, some more subtle nods to the previous films including a very funny posthumous cameo from Denholm Elliott.

All good fun, but on the downside I was a little disappointed that it didn't start out with a mostly unrelated side-adventure.

And a couple of times the plot required Indy to have James Bond-style indestructibility, instead of just basic toughness combined with insanely good luck.

The male supporting cast was generally solid, with Shia LeBeouf doing his best Marlon Brando in The Wild One impersonation, and Ray Winstone and John Hurt great as you'd expect.

But I was less than impressed with Karen Allen, who seemed to be wandering around in awe of her more successful co-stars most of the time, and Cate Blanchett just stood there chewing the scenery mercilessly.

Still, the gripes are small and the joy at seeing Indy back in the hat is great.

There was a cheer from the crowd when that silhouette first appeared, and it was well deserved.

4 out of 5

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Morality 33⅓

I must have my finger on the pulse. Or at least Barney Zwartz at the The Age does.

After Wednesday's post we seem to have had a veritable storm of misguided moral outrage.

Sadly, it all goes to prove my point that when morals are considered to be absolute or immutable, then rational argument and action quickly goes out the window.

First we had the condoms-with-Cruisers controversy, then Tania Zaetta's rumoured dalliance with our diggers in Afghanistan.

All this seems to have got the juices flowing for the hyper-conservative set, because on Thursday an exhibition by photographer Bill Henson was shut down by police, on suspicion of child pornography.

It was all happened pretty quickly, so like most people I haven't seen the images myself. However, I agree absolutely with the sentiments expressed in this article by art critic Robert Nelson.

The real tragedy is that a debate worth having . . . where the line between art and pornography lies . . . will not happen.

The decision will be hijacked by those who believe they already know the answer. And we as a society will be expected to toe the dictated line.

Finally, from the (potentially) serious the utterly ridiculous, this story appeared today.

If Bill Henson's experience is anything to go by, then Anne Geddes better watch out. She's next.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Morality Redux

A day after my previous post, two articles appeared showing how much we're still prone to getting wound up about sex . . . for no reason other than an inherited and irrelevant moral sense.

Exhibit A Actress and sometime bollywood starlet Tania Zaetta is accused of having sex with soldiers while on a tour of Afghanistan.

Firstly: who cares? And secondly . . . no, that's it. Who cares?

I am utterly incredulous about this. She's an adult. The soldiers concerned are adults.

As long as she makes it to her show on time, which is what she's paid to do (and there's no suggestion that she didn't) then there's no problem.

If anyone can explain this to me in terms other than puritanical outrage, I'd be very interested to hear it.

Exhibit B An enterprising idea to distribute condoms with Vodka Cruisers was quickly stopped.

Again . . . what's the problem? In what possible sense (other than again, the puritanical) is this not a good idea?

The recent moral outrage over binge drinking has been happy to use the spectre of teen pregnancy as ammunition.

And this sort of beverage is precisely what's been targeted by the new "RTD tax" to, in theory, control binge drinking.

So giving out free condoms with every purchase makes perfect sense.

I'm very uncomfortable about all of this. This sort of thing should be left at the pulpit where it belongs, and not repeated ad nauseum by the supposedly serious media.

It's precisely this sort of nonsense that leads to abstinence-based sex education in schools, and soon after that, spiralling rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008


There's an interesting discussion going on over at the "Religious Write" blog by The Age's Barney Zwartz.

He asks the question of whether morality is an evolved, absolute and/or God-given phenomenon.

My comment was this:

"I think what does knock out the God argument (assuming that argument is that God has hard-wired morality into our DNA), is that we see morality varies between cultures.

If it were hard-wired, all cultures would be the same. Why would God construct different moralities for different groups? And the "moving in mysterious ways" argument won't wash . . . sorry. :-)

The most likely explanation for all this is simply social evolution.

The practices that were of most benefit to a society, or fitted in best with a society's particular circumstances (demographical, geographical, environmental etc) become, over time, the accepted moral standard.

If there are morals that seem universal, it's just because they are somehow intrinsic to the health of all societies."

A couple of additional points occurred to me after leaving this comment.

This first was that the converse is also true: that if a practice is perceived as a threat to a particular society, then that practice becomes a moral taboo.

The second was that I find it interesting for any discussion on morality to be framed in terms of religion.

From my standpoint, the prevalence of religion in a culture acts to stymie moral development, not assist it.

Our three major religions dictate to their adherents a particular set of morals, determined centuries before and in a different country, and claim they are still wholly relevant and still must be followed.

A case in point is the Christian/Judaic/Islamic attitude towards sex.

In a small nomadic feudal community hemmed in by enemies, the family unit is obviously necessary for survival, as is the growth of the community by producing children.

Under these circumstances, it's no surprise that sex becomes primarily a means of increasing tribal numbers. It then follows that sex that does not lead to procreation becomes taboo.

The obvious outcomes of this are our major religions' attitudes towards homosexuality, and Catholicism's (in particular) rejection of contraception.

A related issue is the demonisation of extra-marital sex. Having children out of wedlock was taboo because (common to most societies) it causes complications when distributing inheritance, and so then extra-marital sex is taboo by association.

This kind of thinking also explains the apparent horror in the Islamic tradition of women who are menstruating, or who have recently given birth, when they are described as 'unclean'. They are unable, or unlikely, to conceive a child at that time, and hence have no usefulness.

Morality is clearly relative. But more importantly, it's prone to change as society and circumstances change.

And it must be allowed to change.

Any concepts of an absolute morality, which seems to be the favoured approach of all our religions, is anathema to the development and advancement of our society.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Much On Demand

I'm really starting to appreciate the much-talked about possibility that online and on-demand entertainment will replace television as we know it.

After all, why should we sit in front of inane and increasingly cheap and exploitative television, when you can be entertained by even cheaper, inaner and more exploitative stuff like YouTube . . . without the limitations of a schedule?

It's crap, but at least it's on demand.

If all you want is attention-seeking dropkicks acting like douchebags, then why commit to something like Big Brother? Apart from anything else, it's months before the final payoff. Farting pandas are done in 30 seconds.

With this in mind (actually not really this . . . we've rationalised it with high-falutin' talk about supporting new media and quality programming) my wife and I have pledged not to watch a single minute of Big Brother 2008.

So far it's worked, although there have been a couple of close calls. There was a scramble for the remote this evening when the channel innocently flicked to during the ads started up that horrible theme tune.

There's not much in it apart from the bragging rights, but quite frankly, that's enough.

I've had enough of this lowbrow manufactured controversy. That's not reality. And it's not entertainment.

Must go now. Ladette to Lady's on. Love that show.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Fun with Pareidolia

Pareidolia is an interesting psychological phenomenon. Sufferers have a tendency to interpret random images or sounds as non-random and significant.

Essentially, they see or hear stuff that's not really there.

But they don't just see it. After all, any one of us can look up into the clouds and see anything we want.

The difference for the truly Pareideluded (I just made that up) is that they truly believe in what they see. To them it's a message. Or it's a sign.

The most common (and amusing) examples are the appearances of religious icons in various earthly forms.

Recently, baked goods have been popular among the heavenly types, with the appearance of Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun, and the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich (although I always thought that one looked more like Marlene Dietrich).

Pareidolia isn't restricted to the religious fringes, though. There's plenty of secular delusionals out there too.

There was the Face on Mars (finally debunked in 2001 when the Mars Global Surveyor got this high-res photo) and just a few weeks ago, the mysterious appearance of two aliens on the wall of a house in Calgary . . . when it's not too cloudy.

Like anything too fantastic to be credible, these things are used by the insignifcant to garner attention, and by the unscrupulous to rip off the gullible.

Anyway, I decided this might be a train worth jumping on, and had a quick look around the house for something that might get me some instant notoriety.

There might even be few bucks in ticket sales.

Once I decided to look, it took me less than 30 seconds to find this on my kitchen wall:

Clearly, it's Jesus on the cross.


That'll be $12.50. And please buy a t-shirt on your way out.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Adventures in Osteopathy

My work has, very generously, been stumping up for monthly visits from a personal trainer, to take us through some stretching and strengthening techniques that go some way towards offsetting the damage inflicted by sitting in front of a computer all day.

I've had problems with my back for a long time, mainly the result of a mild inherited scoliosis and a sciatic injury from time spent working in a supermarket as a teenager. And sedentary office work really doesn't help.

Various osteopaths over the years have had a crack. Some have been able to help, and some not.

Anyway, at about the time this personal training business started, I changed to a new osteopath.

In the first visit he had diagnosed that my problem was not my back, but my hip. Apparently I naturally twist to my left, putting most of my weight onto my left hip, and shrinking my left leg to the point where the resulting imbalance puts a heap of strain (but only muscular strain) on my back.

Not bad for the first 45 minute session.

Armed with some new stretches and exercises, I went away with the notion that it might actually be possible to fix this.

Fast forward to 4 weeks later (now) and the improvement is noticeable. The pain radiating down my left leg (which I've had for years and I thought was the sciatica) has all but disappeared, and my centre of balance has shifted. To the centre.

The stretching from the trainer has helped immensely too. It's nothing too drastic in the way of activity, but it's making me feel better than I have in years.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Iron Man

The anticipation in the lead-up to last week's release of Iron Man was palpable.

It's been a long time coming. Like so many others, I've loved Iron Man since I was a kid.

There's just something about a nerdy guy who, through sheer brains and smart-assery, gets rich, gets the girl(s) and kicks some serious bad-guy bollocks, that really appeals to nerdy 12-year-olds. Can't think why.

He's sort of like Batman, but so much more fun.

So this movie had a lot of expectation riding on it.

And once the nerds of the world had shot their collective load? Was it a satisfied grin, followed by a simple peck on the cheek and rollover? Or worse, was it abject disappointment, a damning lack of eye contact and an awkward discussion about having to leave to feed the cat?

It was none of this. The verdict has been, unequivocally, that it's tops.

And I couldn't agree more. This film was everything it should have been.

It may well be the Platonic Ideal of the superhero movie.

Robert Downey, Jr. was perfectly cast as Tony Stark, even managing to impress the notoriously difficult wives-and-girlfriends demographic. Jeff Bridges was brilliant and almost unrecognisable as the slimy Obadiah Stane.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow managed to not be annoying for a whole two hours.

Jon Favreau's direction moved seamlessly between Sam Raimi stylisation and a Robert Altman-style gabfest. There is absolutely no reason why this kind of thing should work. Yet it does.

There were cool cameos, with Favreau Hitchcocking it up as a bodyguard in the opening scenes, and the obligatory appearance from Stan Lee.

But the best was right at the end of the credits (so stay in your seat) where a familiar face gives us a glimpse of what's to come next.

So excited. So very excited.

And a little sleepy.

4.5 out of 5

One Year Old(er)

I think that's the longest break I've ever had from blogging. At least, since beginning exactly one year ago today.

That's right, Portello is one year old. And hasn't it grown? Such a cutie.

But what have I been doing for this last week, you ask?

Well, I have rekindled my love for the jigsaw. We've been apart for a long time, and . . . there was a lot of catching up to do.

Actually, this rekindling was brought about by two seemingly unrelated things.

The first was a challenge from my lovely wife not to look at Facebook for a whole week. This was achieved (apart from special dispensation on Tuesday to check for birthday messages) but it meant forsaking the two Facebook activities I indulge in regularly . . . playing ScrabulousTM (aka ScrabbleTM) and doing jigsaws on PuzzleBeeTM.

The other thing was that, serendipitously and before the shakes set in, I received a birthday gift from my parents of three 1000-piece puzzles and a jigsaw case.

And that was just what I needed . . . a large flat vinyl case, padded and velcro-sealed, in which one can comfortably work on a jigsaw, and then keep it closed and unmolested by curious cats when not in attendance.

Of course even while I am in attendance, there's been a certain amount of training required.

Not walking across the puzzle. Not knocking the pieces off the table and watching them curiously as they fall to the floor. Not eating the jigsaw pieces. Not eating the jigsaw case. The usual sort of thing. They're getting the hang of it.

Anyway, here's the case . . . featuring completed puzzle:

The puzzle was very cool, actually. To make it tricky, the picture on the box was not the picture in the puzzle.

The puzzle picture is, in fact, what happens next after the scene on the box.

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

This is the picture on the box:

And this is the completed puzzle:

Lots of semi-amusing detail in there if you care to look.

Thanks, Mum and Dad.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

A Million Houses

In a move that will turn out to be either breathtakingly visionary or insanely foolish, K-Rudd has gone and stated the number of extra houses the nation needs. And the number is one million. Apparently.

Of course, the number itself is not important. What's amazing is the fact that he's actually gone and said it out loud

Past governments (you know who I mean) acknowledged there was a housing shortage in a "yes, yes, we know people are struggling and we're very concerned" kind of way . . . but they'd never go as far as putting an objective measure out there that they might be expected to deliver.

Sir Humphrey Applebly would have referred to such a move as courageous.

It almost makes you think K-Rudd intends to do something.

And why am I finding this so surprising? That's a little sad, surely.

The government steps up, acknowledges there's a problem and genuinely looks like they intend to do something about it . . . and I'm shocked.

And that right there, kids, is the legacy of 11 years of Coalition rule.

Make sure you remember that next time you vote.