Saturday, July 30, 2016

Best of Pokémon

I guess with Pokémon Go becoming the defining moment of pop culture this year, now would be a good time to talk about the visual design involved in the long-running franchise. I haven't jumped on the Pokémon Go bandwagon but only because my phone's too old to run the app.

I've only played the original Pokémon Red from the original Game Boy, but from what I understand, the basics of gameplay have remained through the years, though the number of species has grown from 151 to over 700. Though "species" is a word I hesitate to use because of one of the series' most fundamental aspects, the poorly named "evolution."

(All images taken froBulbagarden.)

What the series calls evolution would be better called metamorphosis, as a single creature changes its form dramatically over the course of its life cycle, like a caterpillar to a butterfly or a tadpole to a frog. For example, I like how the weak Magikarp, resembling a fish, transforms into Gyarados, a powerful creature resembling a Chinese dragon. There aren't many works of science fiction that come immediately to mind that use metamorphosis, and I think the basic concept is something with a lot of potential when creating a fictional world.
However, this means that Magikarp and Gyarados are the same species, just at different points in its life cycle. So the number of Pokémon species is likely a lot lower than the number of what people call "Pokémon."

Another aspect of the series that appeals to me is the creatures that are part animal and part plant. Most of these are "Leaf-type," such as the Venusaur family, or Oddish and its evolutions, which make me think of Pikmin (heeeey...)

I've always wondered what kind of conditions would give rise to motile plants. Even on Earth, in regions with wildly varying seasons, plants would rather stay put and go dormant than move. (Maybe that's for the best...)

Vulpix and Ninetales make me wonder why we never see animals on Earth with more than one tail.

Nidoking and Nidoqueen bring to mind the concept of sexual dimorphism, where the males and females of the same species look markedly different.

Metagross just looks cool; a giant quadruped crab.

Gigalith looks similar, with an exoskeleton that seems to serve as camouflage in a volcanic environment.

As does Scyther, with its exoskeleton and massive claws.

For some reason, though, my favorite Pokémon is Lapras.

It has no evolutions, it's just a plesiosaur with a turtle shell, that's capable of being domesticated and ridden across the ocean. The only way it could be better is if it could fly. A simple yet creative design with appeal to one's inner child, and in my opinion, a good example of what makes Pokémon so popular.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Anatomy of a Creeper

Minecraft is known for many things. Unbridled creativity. Wasted time. YouTube videos. Aaaaand these guys:
It's not every day a programming mistake turns into a franchise mascot, but when a programmer accidentally mismatched the height and length of a pig, the Creeper was born.

They're best known for hissing and exploding, wrecking your stuff and ruining your day. Obviously video game logic at work, but could there be another explanation?
That's not quite what I had in mind, but A+ for effort.
Why does the creeper explode? Maybe it's not on purpose, maybe a real-world creeper would explode by accident because of a buildup of methane? Maybe creepers build up flatulence but are bad about...releasing gas?

In Minecraft, it's possible to kill a creeper without setting it off. And guess what they drop? Gunpowder.
Gunpowder item.png
Gunpowder, in its most basic composition, consists of three chemical components: nitrate (supplying oxygen), carbon (supplying fuel), and sulfur (lowering the ignition temperature while also supplying fuel). So while I don't know what the ins and outs of the production process might be (and to be honest I don't want to think about then too deeply), it's not impossible to imagine a scenario where a creature produces a buildup of organic gunpowder in its own body.

But why would evolution select such a creature with a disposition for self-destruction. Well, in Minecraft, it's possible to breed passive "mobs" like cows, pigs, and chickens, but good luck breeding hostile mobs. So we really know nothing about their "society." Maybe they're secretly a hive-based species? Bees die after using their stingers, but because they do so to protect their hives, it's a factor in favor of species survival, not against. And Telltale's Minecraft: Story Mode does see them attacking in groups. Plus, you could also consider the fact that Creative Mode lets you spawn creepers from eggs:
Presumably laid by a Yoshi.
True, you can spawn any mob from eggs, but it's all we have to go on. Still, it all makes a kind of sense. A creature that is hatched from an egg in an underground hive, explores the environment while camouflaged to look like foliage, and explodes if its hive is threatened. That definitely sounds like a creature out of a pulp serial. If any Minecraft modders are reading this, I'd like to see a new mod where the player can stumble across an underground creeper hive, and if they're strong or clever enough, fight and slay the Queen Creeper. I'd play that game.

(Edit: Turns out Game Theory addressed the same topic in a lot more depth. His conclusions differ from mine, but I still think it's a great video, definitely worth a look.)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Naming The Most Interesting Exoplanets in the Galaxy - Part 1

So the first wave of official IAU names for extrasolar planets went really well, but it ignored a lot of the really cool planets. I can understand why this was done, instead focusing on planets with enough evidence of their existence to be declared "confirmed", but it seems to me that it's the interesting ones that merit naming the most.

With that in mind, the following are some of my proposals for names for discovered exoplanets, based on the few details we know about them. At some point I hope I can make a poster of them or something. Keep in mind that I'm not necessarily advocating these names be made official by the IAU just yet; our understanding of these planets is constantly evolving, and most of what we "know" about them is really conjecture. But my last piece was about figuring out whether Starkiller Base was terraformed; our main priority here is speculating and having fun with scientific rigor a close second at best.

Image source: NASA

Designation: WASP-12b
Constellation: Auriga
Distance from Earth: 871 ly
With one of the tightest orbital paths known, orbiting its sun in just 26 hours(!), tidal forces stretch this planet into an egg shape. Hence the name.
You know, because...Easter eggs.

Image Source: NASA

Designation: PSR J1719-1438 b
Constellation: Serpens
Distance from Earth: 4000 ly
A pulsar planet that is believed to be composed of solid diamond. Thus, I think it should be named for the Greek god of wealth (from which we get the word "plutocracy.")

File:J1407b seen from its exomoon.png

Designation: J1407b
Constellation: Centaurus
Distance from Earth: 116 ly
Remember that Super Saturn discovered last year? The term "diadem" basically means "crown," so I think that fits this planet's most prominent feature.

File:Artist’s impression of Corot-7b (alternative).jpg
Designation: Corot-7b
Constellation: Monoceros
Distance from Earth: 490 ly
This is a planet that could have extreme volcanic activity or even seas of lava, so I named it after Mount Yasur, a volcano in Vanuatu.

Source: David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Designation: Kepler-36b
Constellation: Cygnus
Distance from Earth: 1530 ly
OK, I admit I picked this name as a reference to Mustafar from Star Wars Episode III. But when I first saw the above artist's concept, I was reminded of this shot from the movie:
"That's no moon." No really, it's not a moon, it's a planet.
Volcanic planet backdropped by purple gas giant? Too on the nose to pass up. This is only reinforced by the supplemental material which confirms that Mustafar is not a moon of that gas giant, but stuck in a tug of war between two gas giants, tidal forces producing extreme volcanic activity. With the Kepler-36 system, there seems to be only one gas planet involved in this gravitational tug of war, but that's still close enough for me.
Not sure what to name the other planet though. "Mustafa" is a common Arabic given name and an epithet for the prophet Muhammad (meaning "the chosen one"), so maybe we can complement that by giving Kepler-36c a feminine name of similar significance: Khadija, the name of Muhammad's first wife. I think this works because it paints this solar system in a more positive light, seeing the volcanism not as a state of destruction but as a thing of natural beauty in the universe.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Starkiller Was Probably Terraformed

So I got Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blu-Ray, and after a rewatch something occurred to me: Starkiller Base isn't as big as it looks.
Not to scale, but closer than you think.
Recall the scene in the Resistance base when a holographic size comparison is given between the Death Star and Starkiller. The latter only appears to be six times wider than the former, give or take.

Now it's never specified whether they're talking about the first or second Death Star. According to the recently released nerd-guidebook, Ultimate Star Wars, the first Death Star was 120 km in diameter, and the second was 160 km. So we can estimate that Starkiller is 720-960 km in diameter.

How big is that? For comparison, Earth's moon has a mean diameter of 3474 km, and Earth itself clocks in at 12742 km. Nothing in our solar system that small has any atmosphere to speak of. Yet as is so common in science fiction, the surface could easily be mistaken for Canada.

Now maybe planets are just smaller in movies directed by J.J. Abrams? It would explain some of the plot contrivances in his Star Trek movies. But let's just this once give Abrams the benefit of the doubt and try to explain this. I think that this planet was terraformed as the weapon was constructed around it. Why? Because the only native life we see on the surface is coniferous forest. Exactly the kind of plants you would use to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen if you knew the artificial environment you were establishing would be very cold (say, lacking sunlight for long periods of time). I mentioned last time I discussed this movie that I thought the planet's environment made sense because of periodic lack of sunlight, and this conclusion seems to resonate with that one.

Suppose Starkiller began as an airless, lifeless rock. This makes sense; when you've drawn up the plans for a superweapon built around a planet, you need a very specific set of geological properties in order for your giant gun not to blow up in your face upon the first firing, and the First Order seemed very confident that this would not occur because the planet had not been evacuated before it destroyed the Republic capital.
So naturally occurring habitability is going to be a low priority.

In fact, now that I look again, that trench they gouged out of the planet looks much too deep to not have hit the planet's mantle if it were a copy of Earth. Smaller bodies lack geological activity, so that's another point in favor of my theory; the First Order probably needed an object small enough to be completely solid.

Furthermore, since your weapon needs to be mobile (a fact we can assume even if we don't take supplemental Star Wars material into account because it eats stars for ammunition), smaller is better. I don't know how hyperdrives work, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that more massive objects are harder to move in hyperspace, same as in normal space.

So how did we get from barren moonlet to Canada? Well take another look at that big trench they dug into the planet. Where did all that rock go? I imagine the Star Wars galaxy has technology where one can reduce mined rock to its constituent molecules or atoms, then separate gaseous elements from the silicon and metals, and release those gases - carbon dioxide, molecular nitrogen and oxygen - into the environment, generating an atmosphere. Then those trees I mentioned earlier were planted to ensure all troops, staff, and radar technicians would be able to breathe indefinitely.

So there you have it: terraforming exists in the Star Wars galaxy. Now you can point to this whenever someone asks you why there are so many livable planets in the movies.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Ages of Myst

How to describe the Myst series...
Needs more love.

Myst is that series that people remember as being a killer app for the CD-ROM format back in 1993, but that few can actually attest to having played. How many people do you know who have actually played one of the games, let alone all of them? (And people on the Internet don't count. Yes, that includes me.)

My experience with the series goes back to the late 90s or early 2000s. My sister and I were staying at my aunt and uncle's house while my parents went off to do...something. It was a long time ago. I spent that whole afternoon rotating between different games on my uncle's computer, trying to find one I could actually play with my minimal skills. One of these was Riven, which as far as I could tell, was a game about exploring a tiny section of an island, with hopelessly locked doors at every turn, and for some reason came on no less than 5 CD-ROMs.

It wasn't until I was in middle school that I asked my uncle if I could borrow the game. He obliged, along with a small strategy guide that I ended up using heavily. That Christmas I got the first 3 games in the Myst series on DVD-ROM, and over the years following, I eventually played through the remaining games in the series (which hasn't seen a major release since 2005, so I'm not going to beat around the bush regarding spoilers).

It's disappointing that this series gets disregarded mainly due to being a game in a genre that hasn't aged well. That much is true; point-and-click adventure games have largely died out (though to my knowledge they were never that big to begin with). It does deserve more credit though, as a work of fantasy fiction.

Most people think of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, or something in that vein, when they think the word "fantasy." Medieval castles, knights, elves, dwarves, goblins and dragons. This is a pretty narrow paradigm for a genre. I'm not saying this is a severe problem today, but I do like to see a fantasy work like this one which tries to do something truly original. The central premise of the games is the fall of a civilization known as D'ni (pronunciations vary). The D'ni possessed The Art, through which they would write books in which they would describe worlds. They could then use these books as portals to the very worlds they described. According to the lore, the D'ni did not create these worlds (although some characters have beliefs to the contrary) but were linking to pre-existing worlds created by the Maker, who gave the D'ni this art. This extreme application of Murphy's Law to the multiverse basically gives the producers of the series license to come up with whatever surreal settings they want, and they use this license well.

Instead of a top ten list like I did with The Clone Wars, I'll just go through the series, one game at a time, and describe some of the worlds I like, and maybe a few I don't like. Strongly.

A simple yet elegant premise: trees growing out of the water. I'm a little surprised this concept isn't used more often.

Something of a hodgepodge location, but with interesting features like red-leaved trees and a "stone forest" that makes whistling noises when the wind blows through it.


A comparatively mundane-looking world at first glance, with jungles and forests, until you realize the water...doesn't behave normally. Look at that screencap again and you'll see there are holes in the water.
Basically, the water in this world is permeated by colonial bacteria that tend to avoid heat sources. Thus you can have holes or even minecart tunnels (yes that actually happens in the game) in bodies of water if you arrange heat sources a certain way. Again, it's a simple concept but I'm surprised it hasn't been used more often.

No name given, as the guy who wrote its Linking Book wasn't very creative with names. Still, island mountains stacked on top of each other? Looks impressive. It's implied to be due to caustic oceans with a...sizeable tide.

Imagine if you took a tree and turned it inside-out. Sorta. The entire age consists of a giant tree-like structure with layered ecosystems inside.

One of my personal favorites, so naturally it's one of the ones the player barely gets to explore. Floating algae-like plants called "Lattice Trees" above a fog-shrouded ocean under a salmon sky, with a civilization living in those trees. Though in the backstory, the trees require near-constant maintenance from the inhabitants, leading one to wonder how the people were able to survive long enough to learn this.

Very little lives on this world, but the aesthetic is incredible. Glowing green minerals against forbidding mountain peaks under a forbidding sky. The whole thing is reminiscent of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II's Malachor V, though I think Spire actually predates that. There are more cloud layers below these peaks though, so imagine what the surface looks...
Uh, ladies and gentlemen, reality is out to lunch.

Yeah, believe it or not, the fact that this all exists on floating islands is actually the least improbable aspect for me; those glowing minerals are supposed to have piezoelectric properties that allow the islands to levitate in this planet/sun's magnetic field. How they are floating above a green sun is anyone's guess. Green stars don't exist to our knowledge, so maybe this is a gas giant with lots of electrical storms? Or a dwarf star with unique chemical composition? Of all the Ages in the series, this is probably the most trippy.

The polar opposite of Spire: physically mundane, but teeming with exotic life, like the timid bipedal zeftyr, and the hammerheaded flying and scavenging karnak, and the aquatic predatory cerpatee.

Giant mushrooms on a planet where the sun never rises or sets, just circles around the sky in a matter of minutes. Watch out for the alien whales in the ocean.

The great cavern of D'ni is perhaps the series' only look at a subterranean ecosystem. With a massive underground lake populated by bioluminescent orange algae that only glow for part of the day, thus creating a simulated day-night cycle.
This location is central to the series' lore, so it's a shame the player doesn't get to see more of it.

Seriously, what is up with those trees?! They look like they all have gout or something. Maybe it has something to do with how they can keep their leaves in freezing temperatures?

You can find some good wallpapers with more screenshots here:

Regrettably, this series hasn't seen a new release in over a decade, but I have some good news: Cyan Worlds, the creator of the Myst series, is releasing a brand new game called Obduction in just a couple months. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.
Obduction Logo.jpeg

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Worlds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Of Course There Will Be Spoilers)

So I guess there's no putting it off. I should discuss the planets shown in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If you're looking for my thoughts about the film itself, look elsewhere because there's not a lot I can say that hasn't been said elsewhere a dozen times over. Suffice it to say I think it was great, well above the Clone Wars trilogy and roughly on par with the Empire trilogy (that's what I'm calling them; I want something better than "prequel trilogy" and "original trilogy" that can also be adapted to encompass standalone films and TV shows). I can see why some think it parallels A New Hope too strongly but honestly I think those parallels are too superficial to be a criticism; the characters and their development differ quite a bit from what we saw in the original film, and one of the few things many praise about Lucas's films is his use of a "poetic" structure. The Phantom Menace had about as much in common with A New Hope as The Force Awakens does, and everyone criticized that movie for not being enough like the original.

Anyway, planets:

From top to bottom: Jakku, Takodana, Hosnian Prime, D'Qar, Starkiller Base. Not pictured: Ahch-To

In light of what we got compared to what I predicted over a year ago, I'm not as disappointed as you might expect. We certainly didn't get the exotic ecosystems of the Clone Wars era, but that's not to say the planets we see are bad. The producers are just more concerned with serving the plot than with eye candy.

We start with Jakku, also known as "I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Tatooine!" Like its more famous cinematic predecessor, Jakku is definitely shown to have some stunted plantlife, so we're not left scratching our heads regarding how anybody can breathe there. However, Jakku manages to distinguish itself from Tatooine with its fields of Return of the Jedi-era battle wreckage. The harsh environment of this planet exists to demonstrate our protagonist's credentials: Rey is capable of surviving on her own and defending herself, and can do so indefinitely, day after day, rather than in short bursts of heroism.
So we have here a lone wanderer, who may also be the chosen one, making a living in a barren environment scarred by wreckage of a titanic and cataclysmic war, where the economy is based almost entirely of scavenging. I wonder if Daisy Ridley has ever played Fallout.

After leaving Jakku, our heroes eventually reach Takodana, a verdant planet that astounds Rey, who "had no idea there was this much green in the whole galaxy." Not much to say about it other than the fact that from space, there don't seem to be any discernable continents; just a lot of lakes spread evenly around the surface. I'm not seeing any polar caps either, so perhaps the atmosphere is really thick to evenly distribute heat?

We see Hosnian Prime briefly before its destruction, along with what I'm assuming are either its moons or neighboring planets. Can't comment on it other than it appears to be an urban planet - though unlike Coruscant, its oceans are still intact.

After that, we see D'Qar, another green planet but one with really impressive rings, casting a noticeable shadow on the planet. Nicely done.

Then there's Starkiller Base itself, aka Death Star 3.0.  A planet converted into a mobile planet-killing superweapon that eats stars as a fuel source. The original name of this planet is currently unknown.
Perhaps something like "Ar'jjen'teenah"?
I liked the subtle visual nod to this base being a mobile sun-eater in the form of the ubiquitous snow. Because this planet has likely spent much of its recent history in the absence of any sun, doubtless it would be cold. It's not barren like Hoth; there's evidence that it was temperate with its coniferous forests. Again, nicely done.

Lastly, there's Ahch-To, where Luke Skywalker has gone into self-imposed exile. We only know the planet's name from the script, which apparently was submitted recently for consideration for the WGA awards. Appears from space to be oceanic, with only a few islands, which seem more temperate than tropical (the scenes were filmed at Skellig Michael).

So with 6 planets depicted (more if you count Hosnian Prime's moons / neighbor planets), we really don't see a lot of environmental variety. Barring Jakku, all the planets either are relatively Earthlike or once were. But I think that actually works to this film's advantage. Despite their similarities, all the planets look distinctive from each other as seen from space; recall what I said about the Twelve Colonies of Kobol all being Earthlike yet still distinct from one another. That's happening here, and it works. It makes sense that most action would take place on Earthlike planets because that's where people (human and otherwise) probably want to be. This approach is a good balance between "every planet in the galaxy looks like Vancouver" and "let's go through the checklist of biomes like we're making a new Mario game." All in all, I'm impressed. Well done, Lucasfilm. The Force is with you.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Votes Are In - The First Named Exoplanets

Well, it took patience, but some thirty-odd extrasolar planets have finally been given proper, human-readable names.

The names are as follows:

Epsilon Tauri (Ain) - Amateru
Iota Draconis (Edasich) - Hypatia
Gamma Cephei (Errai) - Tadmor
Fomalhaut - Dagon
Pollux - Thestias
Epsilon Eridani (Ran) - AEgir
Mu Arae (Cervantes) -  Quijote, Dulcinea, Rocinante, Sancho
Upsilon Andromedae (Titawin) - Saffar, Samh, Majriti
Xi Aquilae (Libertas) - Fortitudo
14 Andromedae (Veritate) - Spe
18 Delphini (Musica) - Arion
42 Draconis (Fafnir) - Orbitar
47 Ursae Majoris (Chalawan) - Taphao Thong, Taphao Kaew
51 Pegasi (Helvetios) - Dimidium
55 Cancri (Copernicus) - Galileo, Brahe, Lippershey, Janssen, Harriot
HD 81688 (Intercrus) - Arkas
HD 104985 (Tonatiuh) - Meztli
HD 149026 (Ogma) - Smertrios
PSR 1257+12B (Lich) - Draugr, Poltergeist, Phobetor

Here, for convenience's sake, are the names I voted for:
Ain/Epsilon Tauri - Namida
Edasich/Iota Draconis - Foros
Errai/Gamma Cephei - Kharoof
Fomalhaut - Labroides
Pollux - Leda
Epsilon Eridani - Ran, Aegir
Mu Arae - Lusitania, Caravela, Adamastor, Esperanca, Saudade
Tau Bootis - Asuka, Kitora
Upsilon Andromedae - Rayeta, Moltina, Dolasilla, Luyanta
Xi Aquilae - Gobidin, Ewinon
14 Andromedae - Gwendolen, Hafren
18 Delphini - Arion, Koto
42 Draconis - Victor, Byurakan
47 Ursae Majoris - Atsuta, Miyasuhime, Shirotori
51 Pegasi - Helvetios, Dimidium
55 Cancri - Scyllae, Tachypleus, Birgus, Lithodes, Uca
HD 81688 - Kimunkamuy, Heper
HD 104985 - Goban, Fuseki
HD 149026 - Opuntia, Cycla
PSR 1257+12B - Lich, Draugr, Poltergeist, Phobetor

Ultimately, my votes didn't match up with the results that closely. Yet I'm not nearly as disappointed at that occurrence as I would've expected in this scenario. Despite a lot of silly names being proposed, the end results are actually quite agreeable for me.

Some observations:
-Lich and its accompanying planets are the ones I most wanted to see named what they did. Possibly because someone put real effort into finding a common theme to the names that also tied into the nature of these planets - in this case, planets orbiting an "undead" star.
-It's a real shame we won't be calling 51 Pegasi b "Bellerophon" anymore, most likely due to a technicality. I get that scientific names should be unambiguous, but science should also be accessible to the layman. I don't think it's unreasonable to reuse minor planet names for extrasolar planets. Still, I'm grateful for the consolation that my vote won.
-"Orbitar" is basically a made-up word. I should be grateful it appears to be the only such name to win.
-"AEgir", with the capital E, is not a typo. Apparently "Aegir" refers to a moon of Saturn but "AEgir" refers to the exoplanet. So if we called 51 Pegasi b "BEllerophon", would that make you happy, IAU?
-For reasons unknown, the IAU refrained from giving a name to Tau Bootis b. It will probably get a do-over vote next time a vote is held.

All in all, I am very excited about what this vote represents. It may not seem like much to name planets we know next to nothing about, but the fact of the matter is, we know about as much about these planets as astronomers of centuries past knew about the planets in our solar system. In a way, we are living out a new astronomical age of discovery.

This initiative to name new planets could change our view of the universe. Stars in our galaxy, though far, far, away, hopefully will no longer be seen as abstract concepts but as real locations to be visited one day. I hope that the enthusiasm for exoplanetology will increase. I'm filled with new hope that giving these planets proper names will forcefully awaken a paradigm shift in how people view the universe.

I feel like there's something else I should be doing this weekend...