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!”

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.



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

Defining Shepard – Part 2

While an interesting point was raised in talking about the emotional bonds that seemed to have formed between myself and the Commander Shepard of my “Mass Effect Universe” as distinct from the individual and separate universes that exist around other the characters created by other people, someone pointed out to me another interesting point. I am going to paraphrase in order to mitigate the implied (though mostly sarcastic) hostility:

“Why do you always play as a girl?”

To save face here I am going to first of all admit that, while I do have a tendancy to create female characters, I am fully capable of playing my own gender in RPGs and in fact do so on a more than regular basis. I cannot deny that female characters make up a large fraction of my gaming avatars; some recent example come to mind*:

From the depths of Ferelden:

Vaera of the Dalish

From the mines beneath Torchlight:

Vela the Vanquisher

Leading the armies of Chaos:

Vaera, Disciple of Khaine

Why then did I chose a female Shepard in a game that is so deeply engrossing and personal? When faced with this question in the past, people often fall back on the argument of:

“Oh, I just wanted to see the Shepard-Liara romance scene in all its intended glory

This might be all well and true for some people but I have to admit that I do enjoy playing a game with a strong female protagonist. Unfortunately, games designed with a strong female protagonist in mind often fall short of the experience that I was seeking in the first place, purely for the fact that the gender of the protagonist plays some vital and attention-worthy role in the story. In my mind a strong character should be able to stand up on its own as either gender and still evoke the same emotions and responses from the audience/player. This is one of the many things that Bioware games do often and to great effect; one of the reasons that I continue to seek out their games like rare and precious gemstones in oceans of useless soil and dirt.

This does not answer the initial question posed; what is the attraction in playing a character of the opposite gender? I honestly do not believe I can give a satisfactory answer here. Why do we enjoy movies where the lead role is a gender other than our own? I dare say the vulgar repetition of bland male action heroes would eventually render audiences immune to the stories being told, in the same way that a man (or woman) forced to eat a prime rib-eye steak for every meal of his (or her) life would soon crave a breast of chicken like a newborn child craves oxygen.

Yet movies are passive and the adventures that the characters eke out are vicarious at best; gaming brings you one step closer in a way that helps you better bond with the protagonist in question. Furthering my own dilemma as presented here, many of my female characters reside in the highly social realms of Massively Multilpayer Online games. So why then would you chose to indulge in a cross-gendered avatar, especially when social interactions play an important role in the game.

Personally the answer is simple: I enjoy it and I find the change both refreshing and comfortable. I know that some people I play with will flat out refuse to play a female character for the exact opposite of these reasons; ultimately it comes down to personal taste. I would love to hear from any of you in your opinions on playing characters of another gender, both good and bad, and to those of you who emailed me in response to my last post: Thank you and I hope you continue to enjoy my ramblings.

Which brings me to ask you, kind readers:

How many of you play characters of an opposite gender? If you do, what are your reasons, and if not then why?

Comment below or email me at corsair@corsairsanchorage.com

*These are the three games that I could find screenshots for. I feel sorely remiss that I cannot find an image of my Age of Conan character, Ynnifer. That red haired scoundrel :P

Defining Shepard – Part 1

Serendipity is a beautiful thing.

When I woke up Wednesday morning the day was looking up; it was my first day off in quite some time and I rejoiced at the thought of being able to sleep in, have a nice lunch for a change, and maybe even spend a couple of hours up-side-down on a couch reading a book (my preferred reading position). In the space of six hours I received two phone calls that would change everything: someone had broken street-date on Mass Effect 2, allowing me to convince the girl behind the counter at EB to hand my copy over “nice and slow-like”; and the framers had worked their magic on my lithograph over two weeks ahead of the expected schedule. One 15 minute journey later and my addiction had reached a beautiful critical mass.

Critical Mass Effect Mass Effect Signed Lithograph

In the months since December of last year I have immersed myself so deeply within the world of Mass Effect, in preparation for the prodigal sequel, that it has started to affect me on a fundamental level. Just the other day I legitimately pondered the required energy to significantly remove the gravitational influence of a pulsar, and began a rough calculation until reality came creeping back into the foreground of my thoughts. I dare say it will not be long before I start demonstrating the positions of known Mass Relays at the Planetarium and am subsequently fired for the preaching of gross falsehoods. I listen to the soundtrack to the first game whilst reading the novelised prequels, and when I shut my eyes I sometimes inadvertently visualise the spinning Mass Relay loading screen.

The degree to which this game has entrenched itself into my cortical lobes gives us the context we need to continue. You see, every time I search for Mass Effect on the Internet, read about it in a press release or through one of my many aggregated RSS feeds, or even talk about it with other sapient beings, something strange happens. I get confused and disoriented! All of a sudden, the world has turned topsey-turvey and I grasp blindly as my brain tries to piece my shattered world back together.

To the rest of the world,

Shepard looks like this

Which is confusing because for me,

Shepard looks like this

The blatant identity crisis would be understandably crippling for Shepard herself (himself?), yet somehow I find myself thinking for her whenever confronted with this discontinuity. Seeing a male Shepard is like looking into a mirror and seeing someone else’s face staring back, even though the face is an avatar for an imaginary character. There is no logical reason why it should unnerve me so much, and yet I find it physically distressing to see “John” Shepard conversing with the Normandy’s crew instead of “Jane”.

While I applaud BioWare for their efforts in creating a game that is (largely) gender-independent in terms of character interaction and development, I find it incredibly interesting to note how severe my reactions are to resulting conflicts created in both the game’s advertising and general public discourse. The role of gender in a games avatar is a topic for another day, but for now I would love to know:

Do you ever find yourself identifying with a specific portrayal of a character in games, books, film, etc.?

Have you ever encountered this alienation when encountering a non-idealised version of these characters?

I would love to hear your comments below!


Creative Commons License photo credit: the|G|™

In this most recent binge of bettering myself I have been mustering up the motivation to do some of the things I wish I did more often. This can be shown in the fact that I have now run Jacob’s Ladder twice this week and fully plan on a third assailing of that mocking dastard this Friday. While this has temporarily halted my attempts at starting Tai Chi for purely physical limitations (namely my complete inability to hold a low horse stance without my calves deciding that this is a monumentally stupid idea and leaving), I truly believe that they both work towards a common goal.

This, however, has nothing to do with what I wish to talk about today.

I read, on average, 5 – 6 small essays every day from the various vestiges of the Internet. Some are aggregated courtesy of my compulsion to add every RSS feed ever into my google reader account. Some are linked to me in posts made by those same subscriptions. Some fall out of Wiki-loops and some even appear as a legitimate part of my studies. I often save these articles, or leave the tab open in my browser of choice until it reaches a sort of critical mass and they all collapse to form… well… a memory error. I do this because  I often want to link them here and comment about them, but this is always a cop-out on what I really want to do; I want to write the articles. So, I am going to make a concerted effort over the next couple of months to knock out a decent quality mini-essay per week. The first is definitely going to be about Communication, hence the post title. Peel an eye for that one.

In the meantime, fantastic things I have found on the internet that will allow me to close some tabs!

All credit goes to Phill for finding this one, but he didn’t post about it so I will. This is one of the most emotional and amazing videos I have ever seen. I just wish I could save it somehow.

Keeping it real with my boys in the Astro community, I should point out that this was actually discovered by an amatuer Aussie astronomy outside of Canberra. He forwarded it onto NASA who were very glad that he did so, as you can read.

Else, in the land of Astro, the Lunar Recconeissance Orbiter has spotted some pretty lucky shots on it’s way to… well… do what it did before it got there!

Any audiophile worth his salt would jump at the chance to have been this lucky. A tour of the Dolby labs is my idea of the best first date ever! In all seriousness, however, if you ever wondered what makes one sound better than another, have a quick read of this article. Sound is very much like wine…

Finally, a sneak peek into my first mini-essay, this one in particular inspired me more than most I read on a daily basis. Not long now before Internet kills the Video Star.


betty page stencil?
Creative Commons License photo credit: duncan

After yet another successful annual trip to Prevelly, I have found myself in a pre-metamorphic state. The trip itself consisted what anyone would expect from a bunch of university students desperately clinging onto the last shreds of their sanity post-exams. Discussions of philosophy, the preparation of gourmet delicacies, and meditations of self worth. Also, drinking.

In all seriousness, I have decided I require more discipline in my life. I have decided that Tai Chi will do as a viable substitute. I will attempt to update on how this is going, however one thing I would like to investigate is the possibility of blending some of the movements of Tai Chi into Fencing, possibly improving balance and reaction times. Food for thought, that is for sure. On the topic of food, I have no doubt that a post will be up very soon at my second favourite food blog, detailing the scrumptious exploits of one of the best amateur chefs I know. Let this man anywhere near fresh marron and I assure you that what follows will leave you a husk of a man who’s digestive tracts have transcended to a higher plane. Yes, it is that good.

My own escapades in that realm were met with kind words of their own, a heart 1.6kg slab of quivering meat marinated in one of my own concoctions and slow roasted over 4 hours to something that closely resembles perfection. While I feel it could have been rarer for my tastes, with the quality of the kitchens in these small cedar cabins I believe the results exceeded expectations. The marinade, however, was my real victory here. The base constituents of this culinary alchemy were maple syrup, vinegar, Cajun peppers and lime zest. Not what anyone would call traditional, in fact some have expressed their abhorrence at this aberration, yet the combination has merit beyond comprehension. I can only ask you save your vitriol until after you have let me cook it for you.

Segue: Speaking of food and discipline, I have noticed recently that while I have a fantastic espresso machine that I use every day (hourly is probably a better term) I have not yet once used the milk steamer attachment. This is primarily because I am a lazy person, and I like to be able to consume the caffeine part of the coffee as quickly as possible, such that I can get back to my addiction of the moment. Today I broke that particular trend and I must say that it is something I should do more often. For little extra effort my caffeinated beverages could be much nicer; I am simply just too lazy. All this, however, shall change very soon.