The Pale Blue Dot

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From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

– Carl Sagan

Astronomical Observation Platform Build – Photos

Timber!The outer end postsThe Outer End PostsThe Inner End PostsThe Inner End PostsProgress!
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2012-06 – Platform Build, a set on Flickr.

Here’s some more pictures of the platform build and how it’s going. We decided on the green paint finish to help it blend in a bit withthe scenery.

Observation Platform pt.1

This week ended interestingly – I dropped the first load of money for the timber Dad and I needed to get started on our building project.

Needing a more permanent arrangement to set up my somewhat large and unwieldy 8-inch Newtonian reflector telescope and EQ5 tripod, Dad and I have been brainstorming about building some sort of observation platform. Eventually we hit on and idea of constructing an elevated platform. We considered building it around the back of one of the outbuildings at the back of our place, then decided against it as is overlooks our neighbours. We then hit upon the idea of lowering it a little placing it over an existing outside shed that it tucked around the end of the buildings away from neighbours and any issues.

Dad (an ex woodwork teacher and all-round practical genius) set about drafting out a design for it and a budget. It’s not going to be cheap, coming in at a little over £400 for the materials, but it’ll be worth it I am sure.

Dad’s excited about the project and was eager to get started. While I was out on Saturday he got the end frame that buts up to the outbuilding wall up and attached to the wall (using big ‘frame fixers’ – long screws and wall plugs) He has bottled up the cross-piece to the vertical posts using carriage bolts (a type of self-tapping wood bolt).

At the other end, he has laid out and braced the two end-posts so they are square and to length. These will be anchored to the ground using a pair of ‘metpost’ sockets concreted into the ground using quick-set post fixing concrete (comes pre-mixed in bags, just add water!).

The plan is to get the whole setup square using the two side rails and mark the post positions so we can dig holes and set the posts in exactly the right place, the concrete the anchors in place.

The Jubilee weekend has fallen right for us to put in a bit of work on this project. I’ll keep you all posted!

Pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixel_mason/sets/72157630034487568/show/

RaspberryPi – Log 2

I have a couple of pet peeves with the default Debian Linux distribution image that is given out for Raspberry Pi currently.

First, the image itself contains a lot of stuff I don’t need. I understand it’s a ‘get new people started’ image though so I’ll let it slide but I’d like a more minimal version with a lot less guff to follow in future.

Secondly, the partition layout is wrong, IMHO, for the way it works. The image is copied as a raw image to the card using ‘dd’ or a similar raw image copying utility. This places the correct partitions on the card, with the right setup for a problem free first boot. BUT… the partitions are fixed size and won’t ‘fill’ larger cards automatically. This can however be done at the terminal in Linux once booted. My issue is they made it MUCH harder by putting the Swap partition at the end of the partition map so it’s effectively wedged between the default Linux partition and the free space left at the end of the card. This makes expanding he Linux partition harder than it needs to be and long winded. If it hadn’t been thus it would be straightforward. It can still be done but it’s harder than it needs to be.

Otherwise things are going well. I have SimH working in PDP-11 and VAX modes fully. I/O speed of the SD card is dragging matters down a little but I don’t have another SD card that works (more on that later) to bootstrap from a hard disk drive. I Backed up all the important stuff off my 4GB working SD card and I’m gonna dick with the cmdline.txt on the boot partition (the FAT32 part) and see what it can do.

Raspberry Pi – Log 1

I received my Raspberry Pi on Thursday (31/05/2012). Here’s what I got so far…

Imaging the SD card in OS X is a little bit convoluted but not too hard, you need to know some unix ‘dd’ foo to do it as well as knowing the command line switched for diskutil (Disk Utility).

I am using a decently powerful Mobile Phone charger as a power supply (5v 700mA) but the board is struggling to supply enough voltage to an Apple keyboard and a USB card reader. To get around this I installed ssh-server from the repository at the earliest opportunity and used a ssh terminal network connection to work in the console.

Some powered hubs (my Trust powered USB 2.0 hub being an example) do not work with Debian. Not sure if this is a power, hardware or Debian Linux issue.

The Debian Linux build is well done but a bit weighty at almost 2GB. It does seem to wrk pretty well though. For all the guff installed, though, GNU ‘screen’ is not. Kind of a surprise but eh.

There was one glitch I had to fix:

When doing an apt-get update it failed on an error. I found in ‘/etc/apt/sources.lst’ there are 2 entries at the start of the file:

deb http://ftp.uk.debian.org/debian/ squeeze main
deb http://ftp.uk.debian.org/debian/ squeeze main non-free

One is for the ‘main’ repo only and one for ‘main non-free’. Because both are present there is a duplicate entry for ‘main’. I commented out the first line leaving the ‘main non-free’ entry. I suppose if you want only the ‘main’ repo then you can comment out line 2. Either will likely solve the issue.

There is no root access by default (I think this is true of Debian on all platforms) however the ‘pi’ account can use sudo (pretty sensible given that’s the only way to access root). Kniowing this you have 3 options:

  • Use ‘sudo’ for each root command.
  • Use ‘sudo -i’ to access a root console.
  • Use ‘sudo passwd root’ to set a root password and dispense with sudo altogether. Instead login as a user and use ‘su -’ to access a root console.

All the usual GNU gcc and gmake tools seem to be present. I have only compiled one source package so far (SimH 3.9.0) but it worked without issues.

See my next post for info on building custom SD Cards and issues I’ve had.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Introduction

I loved Deus Ex, but it’s been 11 year since Warren Specter’s epic cyber-punk future thriller hit the PC platform. Deus Ex Invisible War, it’s sequel was a great game in it’s own right but in some ways failed to totally deliver a comparable experience, instead taking a slightly different approach which some ardent fans didn’t take to as well. With nothing on the radar since 2003 and rumours of a third title coming and going with the wind ever since, I was overjoyed to finally hear solid confirmation of a new game in the series a couple of years ago, coming as a joint effort between Square Enix and industry newcomer EIDOS Montreal. As 2010 rolled by, trailers expertly animated and produced at Square Enix, famous for their work on the Final Fantasy series, really had people thinking and buzzing over what the game would be like, but so many games have great trailers and are let down on actual gameplay so when gameplay details started to appear I was relieved to see some innovative ideas and interesting twists. Still, when release day finally game around I was excited but part of me was also part of felt great trepidation in case the game didn’t live up to it’s hype or it’s progenitors.

Story & Characters

The story is set 25 years prior to the original Deus Ex, in a near future world where humans have developed mechanical and electronic augmentations to ‘improve’ people’s lives. However the surgery is expensive and the augmented patient is tied to a life taking the drug neuroprozyne to prevent the limbs and implants being rejected, a painful and debilitating condition. Along with the rush of new technology, society becomes divided about wether or not human augmentation is ethical or necessary, and conspiracy and counter-conspiracy rage. Leading company in the world of human augmentation, Sarif Industries, lies on the brink of going public with a breakthrough discovery that could change the face of humanity when a mysterious force of augmented super-soldiers breaks into their Detroit HQ, laying waste to the labs and apparently murdering the scientists responsible. Physical Security chief Adam Jensen attempts to stop the marauding force but is mortally wounded. Sarif are forced to heavily augment Jensen to save his life.

As a story experience it’s brilliant, thought provoking and challenges your perceptions and your trust at every turn. The context of it as a near-future prequel too helps it’s cause somewhat, the technology involved is only a few steps away from our own and that itself touches a few raw nerves, especially for tech gear-heads like me. The spoken dialog is rich and varied with a lot of options and outcomes. While not as polished as Bioware’s recent efforts, it’s not by any means bad or poorly produced and most of the voice actors are both convincing and compelling. I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil it, but if you love a good cyberpunk storyline, and/or fondly remember the original Deus Ex, or enjoy other works like Ghost in the Shell/Stand Alone Complex or The Matrix, you’ll love it, even if you are new to the story.

As I mentioned, the dialogs with characters are well scripted and well voiced, and you are often offered a range of responses that affect outcomes. Adam Jensen as a character is a real bad ass in looks and moves but you get to decide how he reacts to situations, there is not a sense of having a character forced on you which is nice, because you can opt to react to a lot of situations and dialogs in very different ways.

The story characters are mostly well thought out and played. They try to gain your trust and understanding and their individual interactions with the player focus a lot on their own personal agendas and trying to get you to go along with it. Ultimately your experiences boil up to a tough decision based around what the key characters have tried to make you believe, it’s up to you to make up your mind.

My only criticism, having read the companion ‘Icarus Effect’ book that played out alongside the early events in the game, that the appearance and personality of the key adversaries that make up all but one of the boss fights in the game are very short of background or explanation. I suppose the game is from Jensen’s POV and he knows nothing about them to start with and only runs into them a few times across the arc of the game but I’d have liked a little more back story for them, maybe by way of a few cut scenes etc. just to demonstrate their character and their relation to the forces at play in the game. Again, it didn’t ruin the game but having read the Icarus Effect book a lot earlier I felt a lot more feelings towards those particular characters that I think I would have done otherwise. If some of that back-story and character had been included in the final game it might have enhanced your perspective of them. You can always read the book, I suppose! I wonder if some DLC will crop up as a result of the events in that book too… not gonna say any more.

Like previous games in the series the overall game I found the game somewhat cold as a player. Although Adam clearly has a lot of feelings for his partner, Megan Reed, the feelings are already developed prior to the gamer stepping into Adam’s shoes. I have taken in-game relationships very seriously in Bioware’s games because of the way they develop as the player progresses and make you feel the bond develop between you and another person, but that wasn’t the case here. There’s also non of the side-quest horse-play you get in Bioware games either which I think was a slight missed opportunity (the situations are there where it could have been, but I won’t elaborate too much). There was one part where I did feel kinda sad at losing someone but I’ll also not elaborate there too much.

Gameplay

As a gameplay experience the game is challenging. A large variety of weapons from a simple 10mm handgun, SMGs, combat rifle, sniper rifles and right up to grenade launchers and plasma rifles enable you to deal a wide variety and scale of damage. Some of the weapon upgrades also turn dime-a-dozen weapons into high-powered and trusty arms you’ll want to hold onto, one of the best examples being the Revolver handgun, which alone is powerful and deadly, but combined with a Explosive Ammo package can be devastating, resulting in multi-enemy knock-downs and even useful in a tight spot for taking out light automated defences.

Augmentations, earned via Experience and Praxis points through the game, truly do add some wide scope to supplement and enhance your chosen tactics. From becoming practically invisible (for short periods), to devastating multiple targets as they converge on your position, to falling from a high building and landing with the grace of a butterfly. The variety of augmentations really adds a novel and interesting scope to the game.

A third weapon in your arsenal is the ‘take-down’ which uses your augmentations to speed up your reactions and strength to allow you to either knock-out (non lethal) or kill an enemy (usually bloody and with large knives that Adam has in his augmented arms). While this is not usually effective in open combat where firearms are in hand, the stealth abilities or ability to spring one on unsuspecting enemies give you many golden opportunities to utilise the feature to take-down a enemy or two (the double-take-downs are especially fun). The camera zooms out to 3rd person and shows the moves in a Matrix-style bullet-time moving slow-mo showing your high speed parries, swings and blade-work in full glory. That brings me to points at which you switch from 1st person to 3rd person views. I watched the Developer expose while I was waiting for the release date to roll up and they mentioned this and I thought it would be really disconcerting, but actually it works seamlessly and very well *most* of the time. You go into 3rd person while in cover (see below) and also when doing take-downs and some augmentation actions. It’s seamless and automatic and looks fantastic. My only criticism is that when it zooms back to FSP mode it sometimes leaves you a little unsure which way you are facing, which can be an issue sometimes using one ability, the Typhoon, in a crowded room of enemies.

The cover system is in my opinion the best I’ve every played with. It’s assigned to the right mouse button (on PC) so it’s easily accessible, which is good because you use it all the time as was the case in Mass Effect 2. It works very well, allowing you not only to take cover behind pretty-much any flat surface, but also dive between objects and round corners, with clear onscreen prompts showing when it is possible. Again, I only have one bug-bear with the cover system, and that’s if you want to use a scope or your gun’s iron-sight you have to pop out, then sight the gun, which with the scoped rifles can take practice so that you don’t spend too long looking for the target and get spotted. It’s realistic though, I suppose, so it’s not something I’m going to mark the game down on.

Overall the game plays very much like a cross-over between FPS and a Mass Effect-style action RPG very much as the original Deus Ex did. If I’m 100% honest, I’d have preferred the whole game be in 3rd person perspective like the Mass Effect titles, as it helps connection to your character, but I don’t think the FPS/3rd Person approach was badly worked and it was effective in giving you glimpses of Adam Jensen in action. Also you got some good shots of your character in cut-scenes and spoken dialogs which really helped you connect with him.

Conclusion

Simply put, Deus Ex: Human Revolution did it for me. It created a successor to one of my favourite game series of all time that not only evoked the feelings that the original Warren Specter title did in 2000 but also created a new chapter and a new part of the world that is equally deserving of fans’ and game players’ attention. The game oozes the same thought provoking, multi-dimensional gameplay that propelled the original game to the top of the gaming scene 11 years ago with some excellent modern touches, beautifully styled modern graphics and really challenging gameplay. The story ducks, dives and double-crosses like the original but brings new and original material and characters to the table in an enthralling and very much self-supporting storyline. It’s an excellent game and I urge anyone, Deus Ex fans or not, to give it a shot, it deserves your attention!

Go Endeavour!

Suddenly a few thousand miles to Florida and back seems insignificant compared to the speed Endeavour got off the ground. The sooner parabolic passenger flights become a reality the better! I can’t wait to get to the USA in 2 hours!

As Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly and his crew of 6 astronauts lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center today a great range of emotions flooded over me. Part of me was happy and filled with pride to finally see Endeavour soar into the clouds above the Space Coast for one last time, embarking on one of the most important Space Shuttle flights since STS-125′s bold adventure to repair the Hubble Space Telescope one last time. In some small way I feel part of Endeavour’s final adventure, more so than merely watching over the internet or watching a list of Tweets flood by. I was *there*. Okay I didn’t see Endeavour launch but I was on the ground at Kennedy Space Center, I have pictures of Endeavour on the pad at 39A.

Part of me was grinning with joy for the people I enjoyed one of my most amazing life experiences with who made it back to see Endeavour lift off from the pad and roar into the sky. Every last one of them had been as excited as I was to see the launch, even seasoned veterans. I remembered with glee not only the multitude of wonderful glowing personalities, but also the amazing time I had in Florida and even kicked off a few well known memes on Twitter.

Then there was what was left. The bitter dregs. As small as I have tried to keep it, part of me is still sad that I wasn’t there to see Endeavour fly for the last time. Still sore that I won’t ever get to see a shuttle launch in person, feel the ground shake and the shockwaves in the air. It’s selfish to dwell on it, there are many worse things in the world, but now of all times I can’t help myself a little. I guess I’m only human, it’s only natural to get reflective sometimes, right?.

Still, I’m very lucky to be able to share all that’s happened with great people in great times. I leave you with Commander Mark Kelly’s words at T-9 minutes:

“On this final flight of space shuttle Endeavour we want to thank all the tens of thousands of dedicated employees that have put their hands on this incredible ship & dedicated their lives to the space shuttle program. As Americans we endeavour to build a better life than the generation before and we endeavour to be a united nation. In these efforts we are often tested. This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment, and exploration. It is in the DNA of this great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop. To all of the millions watching today including our spouses children, family and friends we thank you for your support.”

Successful ‘dry run’ opens door for Arianespace Soyuz launches

Following a successful conclusion to their ‘dry run’ test of their new Soyuz launch facility at Kourou, French Guiana, Arianespace have declared themselves ready to launch their first unmanned Soyuz launch vehicle as early as the 3rd quarter of 2011. The exercise, which took place between April 29th and May 5th of 2011, involved a full assembly, roll-out to pad, payload integration and simulated launch. Arianespace had hoped to fly a Soyuz commercial launch this summer, but subsequently decided to wait for the launch of a pair of Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

The Soyuz 2.1b platform will provide unmanned medium-lift capability for Arianespace, supplementing it’s already proven and robust Ariane 5 heavy-lift platform and joining their capabilities alongside the small multistage Vega system. This broad range of capability places Arianespace as one of the worlds leading commercial space operators. Although initially intended as an unmanned launch facility, the Kourou Soyuz facility has been constructed to facilitate human-rated launches should the need arise in the future.

The Galileo satellite navigation system, two of the parts of which are scheduled to launch on Soyuz from Kourou in October, is a joint project between the European Union and European Space Agency (ESA) will be used to enhance satellite navigation in European countries and provide Europe with an independent system not dependant on existing US and Russian military GPS systems, which can be blocked from commercial use during times of conflict.

More information on Ariancespace’s Soyuz launch facilities are available at:

http://arianespace.com/news-soyuz-vega/2011/2011_5_5_soyuz_update.asp

A Week that changed my life…

As I watched the Florida coastline disappear from view as the BA flight I boarded not an hour earlier climbed into the clouds. At this time, with the early chapters of Mike Mulane’s ‘Riding Rockets’ echoing through my mind, it began to dawn on me exactly what the past just-over-a-week had been. One of the most interesting, exciting, mind expanding weeks of my life had just passed. A lump formed in my throat as I realised just how much I would miss the people I’d forged new levels of friendship and camaraderie with over the last 8 days, but then I remembered how we all met in the first place.

I get a lot of flack from people who don’t get Twitter for being on Twitter. Plenty of stock jokes about it being full of people tweeting when they go to the bathroom or what they had for breakfast… but over and above the usual jibes some many people genuinely think I’m wasting my time. I know I’m not and that’s what keeps me there, in spite of the background noise and Twitter’s occasional ‘quirks’. What I experienced in Florida re-affirmed that absolutely. Rarely in my life, outside a family gathering, have I received so many warm greetings, handshakes, hugs and outbursts of welcome and gratitude, both from people I shared a special bond with and also from people I didn’t necessarily expect it from. I can’t express in mere words how it feels to be appreciated by such a great cast of people. I mark myself as truly fortunate to share my life with so many amazing and varied personalities.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “you didn’t even get to see Space Shuttle Endeavour launch! You went all that way for nothing!” You couldn’t be more wrong if you’d just denied the presence of gravity. I went to the Space Coast for a gathering of people, great minds and great friends, centred around the possibility that we could all share the experience of watching Endeavour soar to the skies. In the event, Endeavour decided she wasn’t ready to take her last ride just yet. There will be time for Endeavour to launch later, and I’ll be watching on NASA TV like usual. It didn’t matter though. The people were there and that was the real show. A meet-up and BBQ party couldn’t contain the infectious enthusiasm of those present, in the end it ended up spreading out into 5 days of meet-ups and countless conversations.

Experiences like it are rare and wonderful. I’ll always cherish my memories from this trip and the friends I have made. If the chance ever presents itself to anyone reading this to meet  people like these then do it, even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s worth it!