So many words, so little time....

Monday, June 30, 2003

Real-World Imaginary Places

The world isn't what we all think it is (and no, watching the Animatrix didn't turn me all Zen today). How many TV shows and movies have you seen showing a far off place? How many of them do you think are realistic? How many of us know anything but the movie? I read this article that someone wrote about how literature by and from LA wasn't a good portrayal of the place. I found that an interesting concept. You see, I firmly believe that the city and its environs are imaginary. Not to mention several others like New York and Washington, D.C.

I went to L.A. once in high school, but all I saw was LAX, Disney Land, and a my very first freeways. Definately not reality. Since then I have taken a working trip to San Fransisco, which I'm still not certain I really believe in. Like table-tapping, it could all be smoke and mirrors. Hell, I know Fisherman's Wharf was (though I believe in the Ghiradelli factory with all my heart). We stayed in a place that looked like the Hotel Monolith on the outside and the Barbie Dream Hotel on the inside. I touched an actual palm tree down in that park by Chinatown, and I'm almost certain they aren't plastic. I didn't take a core sample so I can't be absolutely positive.

L.A. is several times more pretend, and New York is entirely fictional. How much of the world has only seen New York through the eyes of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "NYPD Blue"? How many people only know L.A. via "L.A. Story" and "Pretty Woman"? I have seen downtown L.A. reduced to an expanding circle of red-hot rubble in Independence Day, and seen the Empire State building speared with a huge green alien laser beam. How do you compare and contrast that with news coverage of the Loma Prieda Earthquake or 9/11?

For those of us from off the beaten path, we have it a little easier. If a movie is ever made about our hometown, we all already expect it to have absolutely no resemblence to the real thing. Ask a Minnesota native about "Fargo". Ask an Alaskan about "Northern Exposure" or "Mystery, Alaska". I was talking to a friend of mine from Hawaii about watching the movie "Pearl Harbor", and he said it was really weird watching them blow up his house (not really, just where his neighborhood is today - from what I understand his house was built after the war entirely). But for those of you living in New York and L.A. and laboring under the sheer weight of all of the imagination of our media, I'm not sure how you do it.

How does it feel when half the T.V. lineup is from your hometown? Doesn't the very weight of it overpower the reality of the place? You would be watching all the time looking for some hint of the things you know and see. But things would never be wholely realized. How long would it be before you began to believe what other people were saying and showing about it? How long before the streets you walk to work each morning start to take on the cliches and patterns of the stories?

I understand turn about is fair play; you guys probably think Seattle is full of Kurt-Cobain-lookalikes and Starbucks coffee bars and Frasier's radio show. Well, we have a hell of a lot of Starbucks, that's true. And I'm sure there are quite a few real Rodeo-Rejects running frantically around L.A. There is always a germ of truth in these observations. But I know if I wrote an essay about Seattle, it would never cover the whole place. I would make some hopefully witty comments about the local costume (North Face jacket and a commuter cup from your favorite coffee house), or the fact that someone forgot to tell the city planners you're supposed to build on the flat parts of the land, not the sloped parts. But it would never come close to describing the reality of the place. And those of you from far off places probably wouldn't be any closer to knowing what this place is really like.

Saturday, June 28, 2003

What a Real Girl Wants...

Tonight's cinematic selection was "Kate and Leopold" (my mom made me do it!). Oh my [deity of choice]! The only thing that got me through it at all was the fact that I would pay full price to watch Hugh Jackman do his laundry (which he did on a couple of occaisions - and the dishes too), and Liev Schreiber's impassioned description of seeing the fabric of time. It was a creative graveyard, but strangely enough it had some of the most weirdly sensual moments I have ever seen on film.

I hear what guys want. Jeff Foxworthy broke it down to, "I want a beer, and I want to see something nekkid." Several guys I have talked to think that's pretty much dead on. I know you think women are quantum encrypted, but this isn't so. Not really - I can give you a partial key. They want someone who will stay with them and make them feel like they are wonderful.

That really is it, guys. Just that simple. They want someone who will be there, and do the things it takes to build a life together. And they want someone who, no matter who or what they are makes them feel wonderful. Girls don't want a jester. They don't want Superman. Landscape is nice, but not really necessary if the guy has the other traits. Whoever wrote the script for this film had that figured out.

The sexiest scene in the film was not the mashing scenes or the rooftop dancing thing, or him charging up on that white horse. Those were nice, but not quite there. It was him standing in that living room, describing the Pirate King to that little boy. Yes, that's right. It was him standing there in that purple t-shirt with his elbows akimbo and the remote stuck in his belt in place of a dirk. A lot of women either have or want children. A guy who likes and can deal with kids is incredibly sexy. But it was more than that. It was so goofy it felt real. You see, people who live together see more of each other than the cleaned-up office version of you. They see that incredibly ugly yellow sweatshirt you've been using for pajamas since college. They see you dancing around the bathroom trying to kill a spider. They see you dribble coffee down your chin when you bump into that one stupid corner of the counter in the kitchen every morning. There is some seriously goofy stuff that goes on in real life. When you see one of these leading men doing something so completely silly as stuffing the remote in his pants in place of a scabbard while he was using it as a play sword, well, it taps into that whole thing.

And who wouldn't feel wonderful cuddled up to him on that wicker couch listening to that old gentleman playing the soundtrack from Breakfast at Tiffany's and then carried and tucked into bed? Or when he helped Patrice carry all those drinks in the club? There hundreds of ways to make a girl feel like she is the most wonderful creature living. And most of them are free. Unfortunately they are all different for each girl. This isn't insurmountable - all it takes is looking at what your girl likes and wants, and helping her get it.

One of the most eligible guys around my circle of friends isn't even real. He's a character out of a video game. I know I'm a geek, but I'll tell all you guys trying to hide your jones for the new-and-improved Lara Croft (whom we will be discussing tomorrow after I've played some-it arrived today) a little secret. We girls have our own digital siren. Sadly, it isn't who you might think it is. It's Sir Auron, from Final Fantasy X. And you say, "What?!" Well, let me explain. He's reasonably good looking if you do the tall/dark thing. He is very powerful both physically and in personality. He treats women like they have brains and use them. And a guy who will come back from the dead just to keep a promise, well, that rings bells all over town.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

You might be a geek if...

Working on a sort of "Check Your Neck" joke, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy. I only have a couple so far:

If you have ever answered a quote with another quote....
.... you might be a geek.

If you know what a "developer's shower" is....
.... you might be a geek.

I'll keep working on it. We'll see. I've been concentrating on reviewing The Hulk and X2: Wolverine's Revenge for grrlgamer. Excelsior!

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Graduation and It's Not Easy Being Green

Well, it's official. We all graduated from elementary school: the girls, me, and the school principal. The girls are off to jr high in the fall, he is off to a different school, and I have no idea where I'm going. I have pictures, Mom, don't worry. Another bloody slideshow, too. Lots of milestones, I guess.

I saw The Hulk, finally. Interesting flick. I wish I could say it was the most amazing thing I have ever seen, but I can't. There are spots of pure magic, but then there are some really saggy spots. There is just no amount of slash-and-dash editing that could rescue some of it (that interminable shot of those helicopters carrying Bruce in that container, for example).

I like that they did bring over that he didn't just kill everything standing. I loved watching him dump those guys out of the turret carriage of the tank before he used it to bash the holy living crap out of the other one, but I wish those helicopters hadn't just laid down on the ground like that. The pure destruction scenes were the best parts of the film. Those cars sliding down that hill in San Fransisco looked wonderful.

The Hulk himself looked awesome. I do wish they had toned down the color in a couple of spots. I mean, there are a couple of times where he shines out Xbox green. Other than that it was hard to quibble with. The movement was spot-on; the flea hopping thing comes off a lot cooler in the comics but was well handled. I loved the detail work - the dimples in his skin from the bullets bouncing off him, that cut he got from the explosion that healed over in front of our eyes. The way they managed to keep just enough of Bruce in his face to make it almost credible when Betty recognizes him on sight (I said ALMOST). The transformation scenes were painful to watch, but well balanced between showing the process and lingering over every detail. Thank a gifting God he didn't come out as the Gray Hulk in this one - they are going to have to figure out how to deal with the constant stream of Parker-esque one-liners he spews.

I didn't find Bana flat, as some others have intimated. I deal with a lot of geeks who are walking wounded, and I'm afraid far too many of them are like that. Sam Shepard did a great job, and no one does dewey-eyed ingénue like Jennifer Connolly. But Betty really seriously could use a spine. For that matter, so could her father; he had a LOT of stars on his collar to just lie down in front of that contract company. That blonde guy from "Atheon" was such a nonentity, and a moron to boot. David Banner was incredibly creepy and incredibly well-played, but I really wish they had made his ending a little more explicit - that was the start of a VERY long conversation on the way home with the gang and it was different enough from the comics I read that I had a hard time answering the questions. The opening credits some others have complained about make a hell of a lot more sense if you know anything at all about genetic science - they were a montage of David's notes and experiments about what he did to himself - I thought it was a great way to avoid 10 minutes of geek-soaked exposition which is how most directors would have handled it. The gamma dogs (referred to as "fruppies" at my house after the game - the only one in the game is the doberman one which my girls decided looks like a cross between a frog and a dog) were well realized as well. The poodle was a great touch; I don't know about getting him mashed through Betty's windshield, though. Ick.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

The Weekend Edition

Well, ZillaJr has had his first formal dance. He skewered his date with the corsage pin in fine style, apparently. Takes after his father more than he knows, I think. I seem to remember a certain bit of awkwarness on our Prom-night. I'll have to give some lessons, I fear. It was funny to watch the slide-show they do with all of these. They included baby pictures in this one, juxtaposed with a current shot. So now I have cute little baby images to go with all the size 14 sneakers that fill up my foyer on the weekends.

The build went off. I won't say without a hitch. But it is live, for better or for worse. skateZilla's first day at work did go off without a hitch. The girls are STILL primping; they would be in there now if I hadn't taken a bull-whip and got them into bed. Talked to momZilla on the phone tonight. She is doing well, and her little dog, too! We had the obligatory, "Send me pictures or else!" conversation.

I am too tired for bittersweet reminiscence tonight.

Friday, June 20, 2003

They drive me crazy, I drive them everywhere else....

This is Friday night for me. Basically, I drive the houseapes to various activities, and usually have just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before I have to start the round again to pick them up. Gotta love it.

Nothing exciting going on. We are doing a full live build this weekend at work, which is going and replacing the entire site from the databases up. We are deploying a feature that requires signifigant changes to all tiers, and so the safest way to do it is just to do the whole bloody thing. This is about as much fun as a bullfight in a phonebooth. Of course, it is more fun than the witch hunt, uh, I mean bug-hunt that would ensue if we tried to integrate this on the live servers.

ZillaJr is going to his first formal dance Saturday night, and the girls have already started primping for their sixth grade promotion on Monday. skateZilla starts his first job tomorrow. The bathroom is already thrashed. I wonder, sometimes, where the time went. I clearly remember when I used to dream of this time, when they were all in diapers and I was in college and about ready to loose my mind. 12 years downrange, I know that only the names of the problems change. Instead of diapers and broken strollers and what was spattered all over the dining room, I deal with the driver's license test and the broken heart and the missed check-in. Sometimes I wish I had those more concrete problems back. I mean, if I could invent a wipe to fix broken hearts....

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Game Previews, Movies and Geeky Wibbles

We've all been drooling over the Halo2 trailers for some time now, but things just keep looking better and better for this fall and winter. Holy Mary Mother of Pearl! Have you seen the wonder that is Fable? Peter Molyneaux has done it again! Imagine Black and White's incredibly complex reactions to the choices the gamer makes, only in the context of an RPG. The dark gritty streets of Deus Ex are back in Deus Ex: Invisible War. Final Fantasy X-2 looks beautiful, as long as you can handle all the player characters being half (or less) dressed females. I guess turn about is fair play, guys. If you play this, you have to play it as a girl. All you guys who have played all those hours of Tomb Raider should have no troubles. Still no Auron, though. Speaking of Tomb Raider, this one looks so good I might have to give it a stab.

I finished The Hulk. Interesting game. The sections with the Hulk himself are pure poetry. Whoever did his move animations is my new pagan god. The movement is simply amazing, and so intuitive. You really can take out buildings or whatever, and it all feels so organic. They physics simulation was worth every penny and erg they invested in it. Going cell-shaded for the graphics was an interesting choice; it was so complex it looked more like a paint-by-numbers but somehow that worked. Banner is really a non-entity, but he has always seemed so to me. Whatever you do, don't set off the Gray Hulk without a little caveat - he turns into a Stan Lee Chatty Kathy doll! He's like the Thing that won't shut up (except he's gray instead of brick-colored). I can't wait to see the movie, though. Some of the reviews panned it pretty hard, but we'll see. Xmen and Spiderman earned it a free pass to one viewing; we'll see what happens after this. Definately pick up the game, though! Lots of bashing fun.

Oh, and for the four people who emailed me asking me what "wibbles" are, well, they are what happens when a geek just goes completely syncope over something and sort of starts vibrating in place and they make a sound sort of like "wibble". You people need to hit the archives for User Friendly and start reading like mad. Well, actually, you need to do that anyways. There is some HYSTERICAL stuff in there.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Random Idea Generator

I have Weird Al going on the system, and the yahoos are in bed. Yay! I've been inundated with bumper-stickers today. I guess it's my fault. I started an "Everything I Ever Needed to Know..." thread on the Fray and now I'm paying the price. Here are couple of my favorites...
We have enough youth. How about a fountain of SMART?

There are only 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary, and those who don't.

Go away or I will replace you with a very small shell script.

A good friend will bail you out of jail. A true friend will be sitting right next to you saying, "Wasn't that a blast!"

Great coders are like efficient poets. Without all the mood swings of course...
I googled around a bit and it looks like half of this was cribbed off of a site called www. (which I have now discovered and now is going to thrash my budget seriously - big geeky wibbles going on).
Geek Glossary


In the ROFL vs ROFLMAO wars, this one bears away the flag. It stands for "Pounding On My Desk Trying To Suppress Hysterical Laughter Because No Way In Hell Can I Explain This To My Boss If She Hears Me And Comes Up Here". I've never heard anyone use this thing outside of here. If you want to use it, I recommend including the definition - this thing is about as bad as decrypting a Geek Code. The first use I found can be found on Slate's Fray here.

Monday, June 16, 2003

The Accidental Plagarist

Over the last year or so several of the illuminati and quite a few of the media lions have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. Their published works contained whole paragraphs and pages from other people’s published works, and this went over like a lead balloon. We all sneered – we have all been taught that plagiarism is a sort of cheating and that it is wrong. I’m not excusing any of that, but it does bring up a point.

In the case of myself, and many of my friends, our geeky tendency to reference other people’s work as shorthand for conversations leads to a huge amount of un-credited reference. A true dyed-in-the-wool geek can have entire conversations that consist of very little but references to pop culture. There is a saying around Microsoft, “Every conversation in the place will end up including a reference to one of five things: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Monty Python, or a computer game.” From my experience, they aren’t too far off. It works like this - someone starts off by using a euphemism from Monty Python to describe something, and then someone else answers with another one, and then the whole thing slowly devolves into a quote-fest, usually relying only on the other person’s knowledge of the quote to acknowledge that these things are from someone else’s work. You can start off talking about N-tier server architecture and before you know it you are discussing “tracts of land”. Sort of like that Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode where Captain Picard has to find a way to communicate with a race no one else has managed to before because their entire language is references to stories. (And there is our obligatory Star Trek reference.)

Not only that, but as we use the phrases, the association between the phrase and its source weakens and finally disappears. At that point, the person can and usually will fall into the trap of using the line and thinking it is theirs. This can have embarrassing consequences if someone else points it out. I have had this happen more than once – I have a brain full of junk, and if I start dredging around in there I will get things back that I don’t remember came from somewhere else. Just recently, in fact, I had an incident that illustrates my point. I had been involved in one of those you-add-a-paragraph stories on a bulletin board called the Fray. It had a Sam Spade-like motif, and we were happily going on. I added a section that I thought was pretty cool. Unfortunately, as was quickly pointed out to me, most of it was lifted from a series of Calvin and Hobbes comics. After I took a round drubbing for it, we decided to keep the section and move on. I felt really silly, and more than a little awful. I hadn’t done it on purpose. I literally hadn’t remembered that I knew that, it just came up as I cudgeled my brain for Mickey Spilane-like references. I tried to console myself by remembering that even Galileo admitted that he “stood on the shoulders of giants” in his work – it was based on what came before. I still feel kind of icky about it.

In this world of information saturation, where is the line? Where is that grey area between plagiarism and reference? Unless we have disconnected ourselves completely from the media stream, how can we know what thought are truly ours, and what are other people’s that we have just known so long that the ownership reference has worn off? Is it wrong to say that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” when you suspect the server is doing something weird in its raincoat without directly attributing that to Shakespeare? When discussing the feminine anatomy, is using the phrase “tracts of land” without labeling it from Monty Python okay? What if you know everyone in the room is going to recognize it as a quote? Does it matter if it is in print (or email) or verbal?

What do you think?
And now we return to our regularly scheduled program....

The Weekend Edition didn't happen this weekend due to a BENOFTMUE of Olympic proportions. Things are settling down now.

Geek Glossary


Stands for: Thanks In Advance

Mostly used as the closing of an email or posting that contains a request for some action by the reader. It implies that they are going to do what you ask of them and you are thanking them for the action. I don't use it - personally, I think it is rude as all hell to assume people are going to do stuff just because you ask.


Quote of the Day

"I love deadlines. I love the whoooshing sound they make as they go by."
  Douglas Adams

Friday, June 13, 2003

What is the Recommended Daily Allowance of hormone-soaked teen angst? Does anyone know? I fear I have exceeded it by a very large margin today. I feel thin. Stretched. Like butter scraped over too much bread. Yes I know I'm quoting, but damn it, it is a good line and it describes how I feel. I keep looking for those cool diamond-shaped grill marks on my back.

These weekends this close to the end of school are my working definition of the Gates of Hell. They aren't Hell - that doesn't come until after school gets out. These are sort of dry runs, like false labor. All the stress and annoyance but for just a couple of days so you get a glimpse of what those two-and-a-half months are going to be like, but not enough time to put anything in place to help deal with it.

I was talking with a friend of mine about The Matrix: Reloaded. People seem to have a problem with proportion with these. The first one was so amazing. And this one was supposed to be the best thing since frozen pizza and we have been waiting so long for it. Everyone was poised for some great epiphanic moment.

The problem is, it wasn't. I didn't think it was that bad, but Lord, it wasn't great. It certainly wasn't better than the last one. However, it is hard to say that without getting buried in a pseudo-religous debate with some frothing member of the Please, Please, Please Get a Life Club who wants to launch a denial of service attack on you just because you disagree.

Don't worry, this too shall pass. The next big thing will come along, and everyone will go all organ-grinder's-monkey all over it.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

I'm sitting here staring at a white box that I'm supposed to fill with something semi-witty. Sigh. All it is really doing is filling me with dread.

I killed all the spam in my inbox. Participated in a lively discussion about the nature of online gaming on the Fray. Got this frickin' test script straightened out for tomorrow. Yahoos are in bed. It's almost tomorrow.

I think I'll close with my favorite quote:

"Sleep deprivation is a great weapon towards redemption."
   attributed to Mao Tse Tung

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Geek Glossary


Too Much Information
If the first thought in your head after you hear something is "I didn't need to know that", well, it's T.M.I.

Usually used as a noun, as in: "That was TMI, man." or as a declarative: "T. M. I.!"


I haven't even properly introduced myself. How rude! Here's a little note to let you know who's behind this particular random act of text generation.

I am a 33 year old single mom. I have four kids. My sons are 15 and 14 respectively, and my twin daughters are 12. The kids each have a sort of code-name I use for online stuff. My eldest son is ZillaJr, the younger is usually referred to as skateZilla (or sometimes the MadScientist). The girls use girlZilla and babyZilla (their choices, not mine).

I work as a software developer for a small company, sort of as a chief-cook-and-bottle-washer. Basically, I work from the client side towards the middle, and my office mate works from the database towards the middle, and we sort of overlap somewhere in the business logic. Works out pretty well. I draw the pictures and make the pages and controls, and she builds the databases and the stored procedures and we work together in the middle tier.

For fun I write. A lot. I write here, I write on Slate's Fray, I have a novel in the works with a friend and three others on my own (one of them might just go screenplay on me, though). I write for an online gaming magazine called

It's odd, trying to figure out where to draw the line. I mean, I could go on and on about my life and the enthralling fun it is some days, but to be honest, it really isn't of interest to other people. Besides, if I wanted to do that sort of perniscious autobiography, I have a diary for that sort of thing. Why type it twice?

The last two days have been pretty high on my this-sucks-o-meter. 'Nuff said.

Monday, June 09, 2003

Drumroll, please.....

Persephone's Favorite Latin Phrase:

Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?
  Is that a scroll in your toga, or are you happy to see me?

Gotta love Latin.

The Weekend Edition
Well, I wish this was interesting. Fact is, we spent most of the weekend getting wet. Or them trying to convince me it was time to go get wet. They opened the pools in our apartment complex this weekend. No one drowned, or even came close, which was nice. Until this year, there was always that first day when they had to get their water-legs back, and that could get interesting. This year, they seem to have it firmly in hand.

In order for the kids to go, I have to go. I spent most of my time either watching them in the pool or in the house with all the shades drawn recovering from the effects of the sun. We are all bleached and peeling. I'm afraid I don't tan, I thaw. I get to go through all the fun of being red and sore and what have you, but it never turns into tan. I have a cordless phone that reaches to the pool, and me and my laptop are going to get a lot done. This is summer for me.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

Still playing with the codebase. Blogger won't take structured graphics. Drat! I'll have to double-check and make sure it isn't because I did something stupid. I was hoping to slightly bend the rules about graphics with it. Of course, they probably already had at least someone try this before.

Friday, June 06, 2003

It's FRIIIDDDAAAYYYY!!! Ick. Yahoos are off school for the weekend (our school district doesn't get out 'til the 23rd of June, if you can believe it! - the dark seamy underside to having all those silly random days off through the course of the year). ZillaJr just found the "Fork of Horripilation" playing Morrowind. I love finding these things in games. It is a great little glimpse into the mind of the developers. A friend of mine once found something called a "creeping feature" in Diablo II. I guess we know what the creature designer thought of the schedule at that point.

The bank clock I pass on the way home was reading 101 degrees when the traffic was stopped. Of course, you have to take that thing with a grain of salt. It likes to say things like it's 47:01 am. It doesn't do it all the time though, so it is a sort of Zen-Surreal-Existensial thing. We watch it pretty carefully on our various rides. They fixed it a few months ago - that was a scary thing. I had looked forward to our little glimpse of the unexpected on our various travellings around town. That didn't last too long, though. It was back doing its random magic a few weeks later.

I just added a truly "unique" link to the Uhhhh.... section of the Links Bank. The Duct Tape guys actually tape people to the walls and ceilings for fun, take pictures, and then post them one the web. This one needs a big DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME stenciled across each image, though. This can be dangerous. They have a lovely warning page on their site you shouldn't miss. Oh, and be careful to be fully dressed - pulling duct tape off of your perma-sweater is no joke, guys.

This blog really hasn't found it's feet, yet. I mean, I'm still really working on the templates and stuff, and just posting. I haven't decided what this is really going to be "about" yet. Are we talking ideas? Are we talking random stuff? Is this just going to be a collection of "features". Heck, I don't know. We'll see. And yes, Persephone, I'm still working on your translation. Hopefully that will go up later tonight.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Just a quick note - in ship mode here at work and am going slightly crazy. We are up to our eyebrows in alligators and some idiot keeps shouting we need to drain the swamp.

Got some mail asking me what the deal was with the comic above. Lethargic Lad is an online comic from (duh!). Basically, it is a very ironic silly twist on the classic superhero comics. Lots of good, ironic, geeky fun, updated weekly. The comic is a link back to their site.

I know I said I would, but don't yell at me Persephone. I haven't had a chance yet. I'll add your latin phrase as soon as I can get a sec to translate it.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Who says Latin is a dead language?
I don't think Cicero planned for these....

Minutus cantorum, minutus balorum, minutus carborata descendum pantorum.
   A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.

Non curo. Si metrum non habet, non est poema.
   I don't care. If it doesn't rhyme, it isn't a poem.

Te audire no possum. Musa sapientum fixa est in aure.
   I can't hear you. I have a banana in my ear.

Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari?
   How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Lex clavatoris designati rescindenda est.
   The designated hitter rule has got to go.

Si hoc legere scis, nimium eruditionis habes.
   If you can read this, you have too much education.

Lagunculae leydianae non accedunt.
   Batteries not included.

Quidquid latine dictum sit altum viditur.
   Anything said in Latin sounds profound.

Sic hoc adfixum in obice legere potes, et liberaliter educatus et nimis propinquus ades.
   If you can read this bumper sticker, you are very well educated and much too close.

You can't say that in Latin.
   Illiud Latine dici non potest.

Oh, and the Links Bank is growing. Still peeling things out of my favorites list to share. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Is Space Really Black?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins announced to the world at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2002 that if someone managed to go outside the universe, and take a few steps back and look at it, the universe has a color; a rather prosaic sea green. This of course was reported in all the major newspapers, and everyone had a field day with the jokes. Then, wiping egg off their faces, in March those same scientists had to announce that they had rendered the data incorrectly, and in fact it was a sort of beige charmingly named “Cosmic Latte” via suggestions from email.

This started a rather heated argument among astronomers and physicists. Many scoffed, claiming the whole concept ridiculous. The issue still remains unresolved, but an interesting side-argument came up. In the course of investigating things, several news agencies and science pundits “discovered” that most if not all of the seminal images published by our astronomers and space agencies have been doctored. The cosmos has been colorized.

Gasp! Clutching their collective pearls, the journalists questioned further. Astronomers and scientists were quite matter of fact about it. The Hubble cameras (and many ground-based telescope cameras) are actually black and white. No color comes out of them at all. The colors themselves are not gotten from the subject – they are assigned to areas of different wavelengths by a photo processor, after the fact. Color is added in a multi-pass, multi-filter process that separates the various wavelengths of light in the image to highlight the delicate interior structures of the subject. Sometimes they are based on the rough correspondence between the frequency the filter captures and the color perceptions of the human eye, but not always. Hydrogen doesn’t really glow red in space – it is a convention used by most photo processors to highlight that particular wavelength that hot hydrogen radiates. When the image is assembled, the different filter colors and some delicate Photoshop work dictate the colors of the composite image. And when something is being recorded outside the visible spectrum (X-ray, infrared, etc) all bets are off; the photo processor building the image chooses the colors according to their own tastes and a set of nomenclature traditions – red for lower frequencies and blue for higher.

This has plagued us since the beginning of the photographic astronomy, and was carried right along into the space program. The cameras that are used on the space missions, particularly the early ones, were less than fabulous. Weight limitations and the technology of the time kept them very low-grade. The cheap webcam sitting on top of my monitor has nearly twice the resolution of the wide-angle camera on board Voyager 1 (1500 TV lines or 800x800 pixels). Considering the hardware they are working with, the images are stunning. Who can forget that shot of Io, silhouetting that volcano spewing sulfur thousands of miles into space?
The filters are included to help us see the images better, and to clarify structures within the object you are viewing. If they didn’t take the filtered images, you literally wouldn’t be able to see a lot of what is going on. Space would be full of gray smears and blobs, sort of like what comes out when my kids get hold of my camera.

This hasn’t exactly been kept secret. Most scientific journals supply exactly how the image was obtained and what was done to it along with every photo. Even the worst of them includes a “false-color image” tag to indicate that there were some chromatic shenanigans. The NASA Planetary Photojournal gets into mind-boggling detail of what filters are used, sometimes even including what cameras and lenses were used to obtain the image, F-stops, exposure times, you name it.

Other journalists haven’t been quite so conscientious. MSNBC ran an article about the first four images released from the new cameras installed on the Hubble last year, and not once is it mentioned in either the text or the captions in the article or in the related slideshow that all four images have been color enhanced before release. For example, according to the official Hubble images site, the image they call the Watercolor Nebula is processed. The description of the processing reads, “The color image is constructed from four separate images taken in these filters: blue, near infrared, hydrogen alpha, and doubly ionized oxygen”. It doesn’t state what color is used to display the three filters that don’t have an implied color. (Just for the record, MSNBC also titled the object incorrectly. According to the official Hubble images site, this image is actually a piece of the Omega Nebula, which is also called the M17 Swan Nebula.)

The “loss” of the process information as the images are passed around our media has created some issues. These images are the only real connection most laymen have with space. If they don’t get them from a source that carries all that propeller-head stuff about how they are made along with them, they may never know that this has been done. They are making assumptions and following through on what may be inaccurate data.

During the making-of documentary called “Quest for the Titan” that accompanied the release of the movie Titan AE, the directors of the film claim that the Hubble images as released were the inspiration for the highly stylized and colored backgrounds in the movie. They then displayed several of the images they were referring to. All of them, including that ubiquitous image of the Eagle Nebula, are filtered and “false-colored” images. When I watched this for the first time, I thought it was hilarious. Now I’m not so sure. Those two and many others just like them are basing their artistic vision on a polite fiction.

Thinking about it a bit, I realized this goes even deeper than whether or not the Orion Nebula is really red. We actually don’t even know that space is black. Every movie from “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” to “Apollo 13” was made with a flat black space view, with stars sprinkled on it. This assumption made by a technological challenge, not necessarily the truth.

The photographic process, either chemical or digital, doesn’t really handle black. Once something gets below a specific level of brightness, it simply doesn’t register on the film or vidicon tube, and is rendered as black. However, space isn’t black because it is a sea of a substance that reflects nothing and is therefore viewed as black. It is black because it is the total absence of anything that reflects. This doesn’t mean that space is necessarily black, but rather that we can’t register what it really looks like on instruments. Not only that, but the images created from that process are “built up” by adding together colors of ink or dots of light to form the shapes and colors we see. There is no way to differentiate between “here is absolutely nothing” vs. “here is something painted black”.

But to the human eye there is a difference. The human eye is much more sensitive to color and depth of field than even the best cameras, and that we have a peerless image processor called the human brain putting it all together for us. For a graphic example of what I am talking about (if you are lucky enough to be in a latitude where it is possible) look at the northern lights with your naked eye, and then look at a photograph of the same display. You will be amazed at the subtleties you picked out versus what the camera recorded.

Humans have seen space, and many astronauts have tried to explain what space looks like to the human eye. So far, they haven’t had much success. They usually end up with a defeated, “you would have to be there” type of statement. Some have tried painting, like Buzz Aldrin. Others have tried poetry. But still we see flat black with small white pinpricks.

I’m not sure it is possible to recreate the visual impact of absolute visual emptiness using a process that depends on adding things together to create the representation. I tried thinking of it like one of those new-age whale pictures, with depths of emptiness shading black upon black like the blue of the water, but I realized that is also a faulty metaphor, caused by an additive process. On the other hand, I’m not a trained filmmaker, either. Maybe if we sent one of those camera guys who thinks in F-stops and focal lengths up there to the ISS with his equipment and stood back and gave him a clear shot, he could figure out a way to let us see it.

Monday, June 02, 2003

The Geek Glossary
Ever try to figure out just what those guys in the IT department are really saying? Well, we can help. At seemingly random intervals we will try to shed some light on some of that geek-speak creeping out from behind those huge monitors.

Stands for: Big Event NObody Foresaw That Messes Up Everything

Those lovely events that into every life must fall and seriously thrash your carefully tuned schedule. Usually reserved for acts of Deity or upper management.
Used as a noun, as in: "This re-org is a major BENOFTMUE!"

Just a quick start. To be perfectly frank, I'm trying to figure out how to use this software, so this post isn't going to be a sterling example of the genre. Hang on a sec and I'll be right with you. ;)