Hiatus: What Have I Been Doing (Part 1)

It seems like forever since I have made a post here, and a quick scroll down confirms it. In fact, it has been over a year since I last pressed that terrifying Publish button, though not for a lack of things to say. My Drafts folder is bursting at the seams, with dozens of disparate thoughts stitched together like Dr Frankenstein’s Monster. So what HAVE I been up to? That is a good question that I had to ask myself in earnest the other day.

First of all, I just recorded another exciting* podcast with the venerable Evan Forman over at Necessary & Sufficient; this time on the names we give things that fall from space. You can listen to it here.

Ok, so recording that podcast took just over an hour. What have I been doing with the other 8759 hours in the year? My research has been keeping me busy, and I guess sleep has to account for somewhere between a quarter and a third of those hours as well. I bought myself a brand spanking new keyboard (the music kind, not the typing kind) earlier in the year and have been slowly getting back into writing some music, something I might talk about later, but there is one particular time sink (154 hours so far) that I am all too aware of. This is partly because Steam keeps a record, and passive-aggressively reminds me everytime I start playing it.

It is called Kerbal Space Program.

Kerbal Space Program

Trying to describe Kerbal Space Program to people is actually somewhat difficult, as I have found out on numerous occasions. The best I can think of is if “Lego: NASA Edition” was made by Pixar. The game essentially revolves around controlling a race of creatures called Kerbals, building up a space program and exploring their solar system. The Kerbals themselves are adorably charming, seemingly only capable of two emotions: wondrous curiosity, and crippling terror. Their space program is remarkably advanced, given their blatant disregard for safety and borderline suicidal approach to progress.

The game is still in its early stages, no where near a finished product, and yet it is already so compelling that I think about it when I am at work, I even occasionally dream about it. So the question is, apart from the Kerbals’ intrinsic charm, why is it so compelling?

The game has no objectives, no set goals, and no victory conditions. The solar system is essentially just one gigantic sandbox for you to play in. At first this notion is nearly crippling, you have no idea what to do first. It turns out that space is in fact quite big!

So lets start small. When the space race was in full swing, the early attempts were simple payloads, tiny satellites that only stayed in orbit for a matter of days. It should be simple to put a small probe into orbit, right?

Nope!

“Nope!”

Ok, so maybe rocket science is actually kind of hard. Who would have thought. After several more attempts (where: several = 13**) I finally managed to get this tiny, simple craft into a stable orbit. It is badly designed, highly redundant, and serves little to no actual purpose. I was ecstatic!

Achievement Unlocked: Stable Orbit

Achievement Unlocked: Stable Orbit

This was just the beginning, of course, and over the coming weeks I want to cover some more of my thoughts and adventures with Kerbal Space Program. There is also another big event that I am bursting at the brim to talk about, and that is PAX Australia, however for now I am going to leave you with this amazing fan-made trailer.

You can buy Kerbal Space Program from the developers, or if you prefer to keep things on Steam, it is available there as well. There are also free demos available from both sources. Once again, I warn that the game is not a finished product, and is undergoing constant and regular updates, but for the price I can not think of a better way to spend 154 hours… and counting.

*Exciting for me; I love doing these podcasts and I am genuinely honoured every time I am invited back as a guest. Whether or not you find it exciting, well, you will just have to listen and see for yourself.

**Maths is also hard.

Why We Look Up: #ASA2012

“Why do you do it?”

Almost daily I come across people who all ask me the same question. The “it” here is usually astronomy; sometimes it is my research specifically, and sometimes it is the broad notion of science in general. Ask 100 scientists and you will more than likely get 101 different answers, but I like to think that the core point behind most of our reasons is that we love the notion of discovery. There is something intrinsically wondrous about science that gives you this energy, this drive to keep pushing forwards. It fills you with excitement and a buzzing motivation to always race towards the next hill, peek around the next corner, and poke and prod and fiddle! I am the first to admit, however, that this source of energy is not infallible, and sometimes you do start to ask those same questions yourself. Why do I do this? This is inevitable, and the laws of thermodynamics would have to agree; between the friction of administrative red tape and the finite energy in a closed system, you cannot continue to move forwards unless there is some external force.

Fortunately for me, every year I get this extra push from the Annual Science Meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia (or the ASA ASM, hell, let us just call it the ASA; there are lots of acronyms here on in, you are warned!) Put simply, the ASA is an annual event where Astronomers and Astrophysicists from all over Australia get together and discuss their research, local and international trends, and the nature of the space sciences in general. It is a chance to forget about all the politics of science and get excited about it again! It is also a chance to escape and do something different for a change, like go exploring the nearby forest, get lost, scramble down a makeshift path covered in mud (while wearing your nice white conference shirt), and discovering this:

My amateur photography doesn't do it justice

Every scientist who presents at these conferences is showing of their own personal research to the world at large, and this is no small thing for them. Your research is like your child, you nurture it, you invest countless hours into it; sleepless nights, blood, sweat, and tears! So it goes to follow that when you are presenting this research, this precious things of yours, you are going to do so with the same level of emotion, passion, and drive that you have invested into it so far. This is immediately obvious to people who are attending the conference, and you can tell straight away when someone is no longer excited about their work. Fortunately, the number of people who love their work seems to outweigh those who have become jaded beyond repair. The question I ended up asking myself this recent ASA meeting, how do we convey this sense of awe and wonder and energy that we get from these conferences to the general public? How can we get everyday people involved and excited about the work that we are doing, but without everyone needing to understand every detail and minutia surrounding what is being presented.

Sometimes the answer is social media (and once again, I apologise to my friends and family who so graciously put up with the occasional flurry of “tweeting” that bombards their social media feeds whenever something exciting is happening in the world of science), sometimes it is just taking a moment to talk about our work to the person behind us in the line at the coffee shop. We have so many tools in our everyday life to communicate, and as a species we are the most interconnected than we have ever been before. This is an age where my mother knows what a #hashtag is, and my grandparents have sent me Google+ Hangout requests from their laptop in the livingroom in Western Australia to my phone in a parking structure in Sydney over 4000km away!

Every year that I attend the ASA I am reminded just how amazing the work we are doing really is, and every year I get a chance to rekindle that fire inside me that so desperately wants all of you to get a chance to be as excited as I am. For all those days in between inspirational conferences I have refilled my enthusiasm reserves by working at one of (if not the) best planetariums in the world, by volunteering for the Scientists in Schools program, and by starting up an independent project called Guerrilla Astronomy. If I can show just one person each day how awesome science can be, then I have spent that day well. I like to think that excitement is infectious, and this is one epidemic that I would be more than happy to spark and spread to all corners of the world.

“Why do I do what I do?”

“Because I want you to be as excited and ecstatic as I am!”

The Exodus Part 3 – Rebuilding

“The Exodus Part 2 – The Death” can be found here

The task is laborious and delicate, and relies heavily on an element of luck; a low-level recovery essentially requires you to virtually rebuild the drive and excise each file (in most cases) one at a time from the rubble and ruins. Before this could begin, however, I would need to buy a new boot drive, and a new destination drive to act as a triage for the recovered files. “Easy enough” I mused to myself; I have a couple of dollars spare from the move, and nothing but time on my hands until I can find a temporary job over here. This was a mistake.

Loki, the trickster god of mischief, must have heard my musings and taken in upon himself to rub fistfuls of salt into my emotional wounds. He did this in most crippling way he knew how; by destroying my motherboard’s power regulator. Who else but Loki could have cause almost every single component in my computer to die at once, with the final blow being the most expensive to recover from; a new motherboard means choosing between a new CPU or trawling the Internet to find a legacy motherboard that is compatible with my current out-of-date components. This brings the tally up to one motherboard, three RAM DIMMs, three hard drives and a grand total of 5TB of lost data, and a new CPU as a corollary requirement. It is all well and good to parrot my own advice about backups back at me, but the sad truth of the matter is that it is gets very expensive to start backing up huge swaths of data, and my machine carried a grand total of 8.25TB of hard drive capacity, all of which was full.

Here, we have two options:

  1. I could wallow in my own self pity, moping through my daily life and extolling my bad fortune to each and every uninterested passer-by;
    or
  2. I could move on, rebuild, and use it as an opportunity to learn and improve – both the computer and myself.

To be painfully honest with you and myself, a couple of years back I probably would have taken the first option. I mean, it is easier, right? The problem is, it also doesn’t go anywhere, and while I admit that is seems strange to have all these revelations come from a broken computer, I feel like this is reinforces my latest attempts at being a better person in general.

So here is to rebuilding our lives, and to upgrading our broken pasts into powerful new futures.

 

Just in case anyone is interested, here are the specs of my new machine:

  • Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H rev 1.0
  • Intel i7 3770K @ 4.2GHz  (watercooled w/ Corsair H70)
  • 16GB Corsair DDR3 @ 1600MHz
  • Corsair Force 3 240GB SSD
  • nVidia GTX680 Gainward Phantom OC edition
  • Corsair Graphite 600T Special Edition case

The Exodus Part 2 – The Death

Three days and four thousand kilometres of constant driving, and here I am in my new home; Sydney. All that was left was to unpack what meagre belongings I had managed to stuff into my tiny car and begin to set up life anew. One thing I have always taken solace in when performing moves of a smaller scale was my computer. I know this sounds silly and stereotypically geeky, but the fact is that my computer has always been a cornerstone, a rock that is reliably familiar when things around me might be changing. I derive a genuine calming sensation from seeing my meticulously ordered folder structures, my desktop wallpapers, and my opened tabs from the previous session I was running in Google Chrome.

When I turned my computer on, however, my calm was shattered by this:

Memory, all alone in the moonlight

A dreaded memory failure. I had four 2GB DIMMs and at least one of them had died, and finding out which one requires taking them all out of the motherboard and testing them one by one. It is a hastle, but it is easy enough, and RAM is as cheap as chips these days, so no big problem.

As it turned out, three out of the four DIMMs were at fault; something that is statistically unlikely but not unheard of. Oh well, a bit of bad luck, nevermind. Buy some new memory, use it as an excuse to upgrade to 16GB, and we can return to our regular scheduled programming, right?

I took this photo seconds before everything went to hell.

What fresh hell is this! A hard drive failure right after a memory failure? It certainly is not my lucky week. Hard drive failures are no mystery to me, and I have had my fair share of critical failures at the most inopportune times. The fortunate thing about this is that I know my way around disk recovery better than most; I remember one particular night in undergrad, spent with a friend in the nanochemistry building’s computational labs, frantically performing low-level rebuilds of his hard drive containing nothing less than his entire honours thesis. We didn’t sleep for almost two days, but we recovered enough of his work to submit it in time, and we learned a valuable lesson in backing up things that are valuable.

The CHKDSK finished piecing “C: Shepard” back together (yes, all my drives are named after characters from Mass Effect, this should not be a surprise) and I restarted the system.

I remember the time I knew what happiness was

Wait, what?! NO!

Not “F: Tali-Zora” too! How could three DIMMs and two hard drives all die at once? “C: Shepard” was my boot sector, and I don’t store anything there, but “F: Tali-Zora” is a full 2TB of data. To make matters worse, while Shepard ended up with some bad sectors that could be recovered, Tali-Zora was suffering from a complete breakdown of the Master File Table (MFT). The big difference here, is that losing the MFT renders the entire disk unreadable, as the MFT stores all the information on how to read the rest of the data; it is kind of like a really important table of contents that also stops the pages in your book from being cut into pieces and then shuffled, and then translated into a different language that no one in the world knows. This is a disaster, but surely things cannot get worse.

Right?

Let the memory live again

Wrong!

GARRUS! NOOOOOO!!!

Just like “F: Tali-Zora”, the next boot cycle showed that “E: Garrus” had suffered the same fate. I don’t know if it was the compounded stress of moving and then losing my cornerstone, or the fact that I had managed to personify my hard drives to the point where I had developed emotional attachments to them, but this was the last straw. I curled up in my chair and waited to die. About half an hour later I realised that it could be a really long wait, and I was hungry, so I decided to make lunch instead.

Over the course of the next five weeks, as my new house mate looking on in a mixed state of horror and empathy, I began to piece together what little fragments were left of my hard drives.

The final chapter of The Exodus coming soon! “Part 3 – Rebuilding”

The Exodus Part 1 – The Desert

I am not going to lie, it has been a while since I updated this site. I know this, and I am more than happy to own my mistakes, but let me explain.

It had been a long time coming, and a lot of my friends and family have known this; I myself had been mentally procrastinating, never fully committing to the idea that the time was rapidly approaching for me to leave. Time, however, has this funny way of moving inexorably forward at a constant rate (usually one second per second), and so it came to pass that I had to spread my wings and fly, leaving my home town behind and travelling across the country to Sydney. Of course, this is possibly the worst metaphor I could have used, as instead of flying I decided to drive the four thousand kilometres from one end of my barren country to the other, carrying as much of my life with me as I could fit in my car.

A 1997 Mazda 323 Astina.

My little blue hawk :3

For such a tiny car, it did surprisingly well holding all the necessary things I need to live on my own in a new city, thousands of kilometres from home. You know, things like my computers and my Dungeons and Dragons book. Also a couple of items of clothing. And a towel; the cardinal rule. It is at this point that I would like to reaffirm just how far apart Perth (my home town) and Sydney are from one another, and what exactly is between them.

The Exodus

4000km sounds like a lot, because it is, but it is also predominantly a barren and lifeless desert called the Nullarbor. Quite literally translating to “No Trees” (Null + Arbor) the Nullarbor is also famous for having the longest straight stretch of road in the world. Driving across this straight, barren, featureless expanse is about as much fun as it sounds; however there are some sights that make this trip worthwhile.

The Longest Straight Stretch

This is not my first time crossing the Nullarbor by car, or even the second or third, so I am well acquainted with the few stops there are along the way. The first is a little mining town called Norseman; founded during Western Australia’s first gold rush, the town is a beautiful mix of colonial Australia and country town. In fact, on a previous trans-Australian trek, Norseman was the first place that we ever attempted what would eventually become “Guerrilla Astronomy”, though at the time is was less organised and consisted mostly of grabbing people at the camping grounds at night and demanding they look at the eclipse that was happening. We had no idea or previous warning that there would be an eclipse that night, so the excitement and surprise was palpable for a bunch of weary astronomers.

Norseman. A little windy.

It was a little windy. In fact it was stormy this time across the Nullarbor, which is sad as the remote nature makes it a typically fantastic place for astronomy. One day I would love to go back and do a relaxed trip with a telescope, a camera, and no deadlines; if you are interested, let me know.

The Great Australian Bight!

Coming up to the Great Australian Bight is always a welcome change in scenery; here there are giant cliffs that mark different epochs of shorelines, each looking down on to vast flatlands that were once the ocean bed hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is always nice to sit back and take a moment to reflect on just how amazing, and how unfathomably old this land is.

Prehistoric ponderings.

Deciding that we were making much better time than anticipated, the original plans to stop at Eucla were scrapped and we pressed on into the rapidly dwindling twilight. This meant that the journey could be completed in three nights instead of four, at the expense of creature comforts like “sleep” and “food”. Eventually we ended up taking refuge and a stealing a few hours of slumber at a roadhouse in the middle of the Nullarbor, embarking once more just before the crack of dawn.

Nullarbor. Yep...

This divergence from the original itinerary had one additional drawback; in order to take advantage of the hours gained by going hard yakka across the Nullarbor, an equally arduous adventure would need to be undertaken if we were to reach the next landmark. Stopping in Adelaide would require taking a serious and costly detour south (also I really cannot stand Adelaide, and I am sorry all you Adelaidians who might take offence to this), and so the only reasonable stopping point would be the town of Broken Hill, deep within the borders of New South Wales.

Broken Hill, but not Broken Resolve. Not yet...

At this point you may have noticed something, a trend, a pattern in these images. I am wearing the same clothes and looking more and more haggard each day. Yes, I noticed this too. Leaving well and truly before the sun and the horizon had met that morning, the final leg of the journey was at hand. Unlike the Nullarbor, rural New South Wales is much busier and so keeping my attention on the road was of utmost importance.

The final dash!

As a result, and possibly from mild sleep deprivation, the last dash to my new home was bereft of photos in an effort to make it to Sydney before yet another rotational cycle of the Earth was complete. The idea of navigating the busy streets of Sydney in the dark and with precious little energy left in my body was not an attractive prospect; fortunately we made it safe and sound. This was a triumph!

… or was it?

Find out next week in “The Exodus Part 2 – The Death

Tamriel and Tattoos

Skyrim Launches in less than a week, and I think that to say that I am excited is a whole level of understatement that has never been seen before. One day, centuries from now, lingual scholars will wonder whether anyone was truly excited before. For me, Skyrim isn’t just a game, but the continuation of an experience that has spanned decades. The Elder Scrolls have been like a second home for me, a world so rich and detailed that I have literally spent hundreds of hours (and quite possibly over a thousand) exploring. To give you an idea of just how much depth this series offers, in the third game Morrowind, there are 300 unique books scattered throughout the game world. Each book has excerpts that are fully rendered, most averaging 20-30 pages long. Oblivion increased this number almost twofold again, giving way to an actual library of texts, each meticulously detailing aspects of the rich history and cultural make up of the different races and settlements of the setting, a landmass known as Tamriel.

However it isn’t just the in game literature; the setting itself is a vast series of lands, covering thousands of square kilometres between the games, and within this are desolate settlements, bustling cities, ash volcanoes, forrested valleys, murky swamps, and snowing alps. Every location has a beautiful and gradual transition, every rock is appropriately weathered, every plant thoughtfully hand placed. The world feels alive, and that is probably one of the reasons I spent so much time escaping there, at a time when the real world just didn’t seem to offer me anything worthwhile. Fortunately for me and those I care about (and who care about me), those dark times are in my past now, but sometimes I wonder whether or not I would be here, and who I am today if it were not for Morrowind and that second life I led there.

This is why, several years ago, I decided to get a tattoo of the sigil of Alduin as depicted from Morrowind. Alduin is a prominent reference throughout The Elder Scrolls lore, known by a different name to each of the races of Tamriel, but sharing a common description; the Dragon-God of Time. So imagine my surprise and unbridled joy when it was announce that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would feature none other than Alduin him/her/itself!

The tattoo itself has a story as well. It was done by the amazing Marc Pinto of Primitive Tattoos. Marc has done my other inking work, all of which is done in the traditional Japanese technique called Tebori. In contrast to “Western” tattoing, Tebori is done by hand, using a sharp implement to push the ink under the skin.

As no machines are involved the whole process is very quiet, so much that you can hear the sound of the implement piercing the skin; this is called Shakki, an onomatopoeic description of the noise it makes, and is deceptively relaxing.

Tebori is a time consuming technique, but the final results are most definitely worth it. I find that the ink stays darker for longer, the lines are more crisp and suffer edge-bleeding less, and the shading that is employed is far more uniform and smooth.

A good Horishi (trained artist) is hard to find, as the training alone takes years of dedication and commitment. An Uchideshi (apprentice) will work under a strict regimen, hand making the needles, the ink (Sumi), and keeping the studio clean and ready. At any one time, there are only a handful of artists trained in Tebori, and Marc Pinto is truly a phenomenal artist whom I have a great amount of respect and admiration for.

This particular piece took about 4 hours to complete, and the experience was amazing. The ultimate irony was that the chair had no head rest, and so my neck was sore and tired from holding it at an awkward angle. This complaint coming from the person who is having thousands upon thousands of needles puncturing his skin and depositing activated carbon underneath it.

The result was incredible and I was superbly happy with it then, as I am now. People often ask me what the tattoo is (as it is my only visible one when I am fully clothed), and often I tell them that it is either the Sigil of Alduin, the Dragon God, or the Akaviri Sigil from Morrowind (this is a long held debate among fans of the Elder Scrolls, but I won’t go into it here). When they ask why I would get a video game tattoo, often while smirking, I tell them that to me The Elder Scrolls are more than just a game. They are a symbol of creativity, dedication, and most of all they are a reminder that no matter how difficult things might have been, or how difficult they might be in the future, I was able to get through them.

So finally, I would like to say Thank You to Bethesda, and the team behind all of the Elder Scrolls games. You might not realise it, but you have indirectly helped to make me who I am today, and I cannot express enough how much that means to me.

-Tim

 

Audiological Tributes

I must be completely honest and admit that my MP3 Player (or DAP if you are feeling politically correct) probably has a musical dichotomy that sits at about 40% songs and 59% music from video games. The residual 1% is podcasts and audio-lectures, but that is a whole other story. When I realised this shocking fact yesterday morning, I wondered if it was really necessary to have so much ambient, lyric-less music on a device that I primarily use to distract myself from the world at large. However I also realised that, of the vast repository of video game music that I carry with me every day, a decent portion of it is not actually ambient, and some isn’t directly from the game at all!

As it turns out, some of the tracks that I listen to the most often are in fact tribute songs to games; not cheesy parodies that reference someone playing the game, but real and genuine songs that reference the world that the game takes place in. I suppose it somewhat shocked me to realise just how much this happens. In fact The Witcher (in its secondary incarnation) comes with an entire album of such tribute songs written by bands who genuinely love the world described by the books and game. One of these bands is a very famous Polish metal group!

While heavy metal might not be your cup of tea, the album is laced with samples from every genre from Reggae to A Capella to Grunge Rock to Classical. The fact that so many artists were inspired enough to write music based upon the world of the Witcher was astounding, but it doesn’t stop there. The cross-pollination between gaming and music runs deeper than you might initially think, though the parallels have precedence, especially in the realm of movie-song tie-ins. Another favourite of mine is the closing credits track to Mass Effect, a song by post-punk group The Faunts called M4 (Part 2):

This piece does not just play over the credits, but the theme and mood of the song perfectly compliments the final moments of the game in such a way that rarely leaves me with a dry pair of eyes. In addition, if you listen carefully during the bridge/outro, the melody line is eerily reminiscent of the Mass Effect theme music itself! The two work together so well, using similar instrumentation and cadence that manages to extend your immersion well into the credit sequence as you reflect on what just happened in the games final moments. This is a perfect example of game development at its finest; dare I say a work of art.

Of course, another example that immediately jumps to mind is mildly camp rap that plays over the closing credits to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This one… I’m not so proud of, but a scientist knows he must not introduce a selection bias when presenting data.

There is, of course, one more venue that I have not yet discussed, and that is the fertile plains of homebrew musical recreations and craftings that grow at the holy mecca of OCReMix.org. I have not omitted it by accident, nor out of spite. I plan on talking about that very soon in Episode 3 of the Anchorage Podcast (coming soon!); three episodes down and two to go before I have my 5 episode buffer that I believe will allow me to continue posting them on a regular schedule.

Lastly but not leastly: Please take a brief moment out of your hectic life to vote for me here at the iiNet Top Geek competition! Shameless self promotion? Sure, but it is my party and I will cry if it so pleases me.

Do you have any favourite game soundtracks? Do you ever find yourself listening to a soundtrack outside the act of gaming?

Post below or to corsair@corsairsanchorage.com