Thirty-five years before Cassini's mission to the planet Saturn, NASA's Voyager 1 probe flew past it and took some photographs on the way as part of its Grand Tour of the outer Solar System. It didn't take a lot of photographs, as it was travelling at 34,000 miles per hour at the time, but it was able to take multiple exposures of Saturn's moons. At the time, little was known about Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, and Voyager was well over half a million kilomtres away from it when it took its best photo. The angle of illumination at Voyager's closest approach didn't reveal anything particularly unusual about Enceladus, and it wasn't until Cassini arrived at Saturn decades later that scientists began to realise what an extraordinary place it is.
But in a recent meeting discussing images of Pluto returned by the New Horizons probe, the Planetary Society's Ted Stryk started wondering whether there might be smaller images of Enceladus in Voyager's wider-angle views of the Saturnian system; images that might show the moon at more favourable lighting angles.
The computer technique of "stacking" multiple images of a celestial object to reveal additional detail has become very sophisticated since the 1980s. Amateur astronomers now regularly photograph the planets with an image quality that would have put a large observatory to shame back when the Voyager probes were launched in the 1970s. You can even download the free stacking software Registax and have a go at processing your own astronomy photos. So Ted trawled through the Voyager data until he found a few long-range photographs of Enceladus, loaded them into his image processing software, and sat back to see what the combined images might reveal.
Lo and behold, the stacked images taken back on November 13th 1980 show the plumes from Enceladus's geysers, right where they should be, at the moon's south pole. It's an extraordinary result - and it proves that Enceladus's geysers have been spouting for decades.
Yesterday lunchtime I noticed that Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds movie Thunderbirds Are GO was on Film 4, so I fired up the new TV and sat back to enjoy the fun. Maybe it's because I hadn't seen the film in a while, but I noticed a number of things that had passed me by in previous viewings. The first was just how outrageous David Graham's mangling of aspirant aitches was as the voice of Lady Penelope's butler, Parker:
It's a harmy 'elicopter, m'lady, and no doubt it's 'eavily harmed.
You may not know that Parker's voice was based on a real person; Graham based the character on a wine waiter at restaurant in Cookham that he was taken to by the show's creator.
Then, as I was watching Scott Tracy talk to the crew of the Mars spacecraft, Zero X and its navigator Brad Newman started talking, I realised that he sounded rather like the late UK comedian and game show host, Bob Monkhouse putting on an American accent. It can't be, I thought to myself as I scurried over to the computer to check on IMDB. I'd have known that, surely? But when the cast list appeared on my screen, there he was - and he also plays the master of ceremonies during Alan Tracy's dream sequence that features an uncredited appearance by Cliff Richard and the Shadows.
Last week's balmy weather has ended, and we're back to the sort of temperatures we should be getting at this time of year. I even put the heating back on for an hour this morning to take the chill off. But it's light outside when I set out for work in the mornings, and it's light outside when I get home, and that has definitely elevated both my mood and my energy levels. By yesterday teatime I'd done the ironing (once I'd descaled the iron, which was refusing to emit any steam), sorted through my mail, cleaned the living room (the dining table is no longer covered in paperwork and receipts), chucked a bunch of stuff into the recycling bins and even found time to play a bit of guitar into the bargain. The house hasn't looked this tidy since before Christmas.
The temperature outside this week has been in the 20s. It was 26°C in the conservatory on Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday I gave the lawn the first cut of the year (and I had to go for a sit down afterwards; the grass was nearly six inches high in places, and shifting it was hard work). I saw a pair of house martins on the way home on Friday, and I heard a chiffchaff when I parked in the car park at Dursley yesterday afternoon. Last night the heat and humidity was enough to trigger a pretty decent thunderstorm. I have even switched my central heating timer back to "off."
Over in the US, some friends of mine are still getting snow. And it hailed so much in Oakland this week that the place looked like a ski resort. But here in the South West, I think we can assume that we are officially done with winter.
Just don't mention that the forecast by next weekend is for overnight temperatures here to be back down around the 4°C mark...
I got very excited this week when Amazon announced that the producers behind the Westworld television series are adapting William Gibson's most recent novel The Peripheral for television. As horrific indictments of late-stage capitalism go, the book is an absolute doozy and I can't wait to see how this pans out playing on a network that's run by a company whose employees are so pressured for time that they'd rather pee in plastic bottles than take time to go to the toilet...
Ten years ago today I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn't pick up NASA TV on my television set. Last night I discovered that the new telly can receive NASA TV in UHD from my big satellite dish, and very nice it looks too.
It's been a very busy week-and-a-bit. We ran the first pilot of the simulation I'd designed for Coventry University last Monday, and the 5 am start to get to their London campus in time for a nine o'clock briefing was one heck of a shock after ten days' worth of lie-ins.
Things ran more or less as planned, though, and the customer seems happy with the results; once things have been tweaked in accordance with their feedback and suggestions, they will be able to run it as and when they like with no external support required. I'm particularly pleased that all the materials required for this simulation can be either reused or recycled, which was not the case with the event that it's designed to replace.
I was away at the weekend (see below) and I think I was more nervous about playing Stick live in public than I was about helping to run Monday's event. On Saturday morning as I got ready to drive into London, I could really feel the anxiety levels peaking, but I ploughed on through them and - of course - ended up having an absolutely brilliant time. Den's friends were all lovely. The party attendees included several FAWM people who I've known online for years and have even recorded songs with, but whom I had never actually met in real life! Once I was on stage, any remaining anxiety instantly switched to adrenaline (who needs to rehearse, right?) and I was fine. I didn't properly come back down from the resulting buzz until I got home from work yesterday, at which point I rapidly shut down completely. I ended up having a very early night and was in bed before 9 pm. As soon as my head hit the pillow I was out like a light. I reckon I could do with another day at the weekends to cope with weeks like this...
So it was that on Saturday night I found myself back in East London, hanging out with a whole bunch of really lovely people. It was my friend Den's 50th birthday party, and I had a great time (and many thanks to Suzanne and Rory for providing accommodation for this weary traveller!)
This was in no way your humdrum, run-of-the-mill birthday party. Oh no. The function room where it took place had a proper stage, and full use was made of it throughout the evening. Many of the people there were involved in the performing arts in one way or another and they had picked one or two of Den's songs to perform for everyone else. It was a wonderful idea and it worked brilliantly (the fact that Den is a truly gifted songwriter really helped.) During the organisational phase of things, Den had suggested that we should perform the song Uncle Rick together, and I jumped at the chance. After drafting in our friend Paul "Dragondreams" Hudson to handle the guitar parts, I turned up at the party complete with my Chapman Stick - the first time I've played the thing in public. It's only taken me thirty-five years to get to that point. I hadn't had a chance to rehearse so it was very much a case of plugging in and winging it. There were a few niggles with the bass amp cutting out, but we got through unscathed and then performed Wobbie's song Irish Viking for good measure. It was great fun, and I had a blast!
I've been on holiday for the past week. I have never felt so tired and run down during a break, and I haven't done much more than sleep, play guitar, and watch TV. Even after ten days of lie-ins, I feel like my energy levels are still at rock bottom. I think I'm suffering from a case of burnout, and my tank has not replenished itself like it normally does. I'm as worn out now as I was when I got home last week, and I'm back at work in the morning. I'm genuinely shocked by the state I'm in today, after I've had a ten-day break for rest and recuperation. It hasn't been enough. I had a checkup last month and my blood tests came back normal; I'm just knackered.
Friends tell me that I push myself too hard, and that I don't ever just vegetate for a week like I've done here. I find it very difficult to switch off, because the music and the photography and the blog and all the other things I do when I'm not at work are all sitting there, waiting for my time. This week, though, I just haven't been able to muster up the wherewithal to do anything beyond put the finishing touches to the album sleeve notes. After the album was released on the 1st, I've been in low-power mode, because that was the only option I had. Just switching off for a week has felt really weird. I've read a handful of books, and watched films and documentaries as well as watching a boatload of stuff on Netflix, and that's been as much as I could manage. I could quite happily have spent the last week in bed, dozing off when I wanted to.
But the thing is, I feel guilty. I feel like I should have done more with my time, even though I was clearly too tired to do anything about it. Even though I released a new album last week, I feel like I should have done more. There are things that need fixing in the house. There is ironing to be done. I need to start thinking about starting this year's gardening. I should have gone to see friends and family; I haven't been to see Dad since the New Year. But right now, although I've only been up for an hour or so, I feel like going back to bed, I'm that tired. So it will all have to wait until I feel more like my old self. And that needs to start with me looking after myself more.
While I've been on holiday I've been enjoying my new TV and catching up on some of the many television series that Marvel have produced over the last eighteen months or so. Once I got past the trappings of Catholicism (that, to be fair, are present in the source material) I really enjoyed the first season of Daredevil. A lot of that enjoyment comes from the spectacular performance of Vincent D'Onofrio as the first season Big Bad, Wilson Fisk. D'Onofrio is a chameleon; every role I've seen him in is different. He inhabits each of the characters he plays so completely that it's only afterwards that you realise that it's him. As the psychopathic underworld boss, it would be easy to play the character with one or two broad brush strokes and let his intimidating presence do all the work, but he manages to make Fisk's monstrous character almost sympathetic, with subtle touches and a stand-out performance that makes me glad to hear that he will be returning in later episodes.
I'm only a few episodes in to Jessica Jones but I'm enjoying the show's deeply cynical take on things. Far more than its companion shows, it has captured the spirit of our times, and it's a dark and malevolent one.
I really enjoyed the eight episode Defenders miniseries, too - even if the plot had holes in it large enough to drop a skyscraper through.
But dear god, Iron Fist is nothing short of a train wreck. Most of the criticism online has stemmed from how deeply the basic story's premise is rooted in white privilege, but that's not my problem with the show. My problem is that when I watch Finn Jones in the titular role as he struggles with some of the most teeth-grindingly banal lines in the history of television, all I can see or hear is Jack Black. Now, let me be clear here: as far as I'm aware, Jack Black has at no point had any involvement with the show whatsoever. I'm not attempting to blame him for any aspect of the series. It's just that it's the sort of show that would have been a perfect vehicle for the Jack Black of ten or so years ago: back when Jack Black specialised in performing as a pompous, egotistical, and annoying character. The role of Danny Rand is tailor made for him; he's the sort of person who will insist on telling you his mystical destiny if you meet him in a supermarket checkout queue. You know you'd see him doing his special routine at parties, just to be the focus of attention. The sort of person who cannot say "kung fu" without pretending to throw a punch. He relates the details of his training to the rest of the cast with such cringe-inducing earnestness that you rapidly find yourself wishing his business associates had just left him doped out of his skull on Thorazine in the mental hospital they had him committed to at the end of the first episode. Danny literally tells one person early on that "if I can focus my chi, then I can summon the Iron Fist!" And every time he says something like this, all I can see is Jack Black's smug, grinning face. Clearly, I have a problem with the show. But the show has its own problems, too. The biggest of these is that it breaks the fundamental rule of screenwriting: show, don't tell. It's the simplest of rookie errors, easily fixed. But nobody bothered to fix it.
The original Marvel character was introduced following the success of the David Carradine television series Kung Fu, and it's worth considering how that show handled exposition. Most of Kwai-Chang Caine's story was shown in flashback, rather than told in dollops of clunking dialogue that most comics writers would be embarrassed about. We saw Caine lift the cauldron that gave him his ritual scars to pass his "ultimate test"; Danny just talks a lot about fighting a dragon in order to become the Iron Fist. We have no sense of where he trained, who trained him, or how hard he had to work other than what he tells us, and what he tells us is the sort of thing a seven-year-old boy imagines martial arts training to be like. He has a tattoo on his chest that, quite frankly, looks like he drew it on with a marker pen just before he left the house. And that, after all, is exactly what Jack Black would have done. The comparison goes deeper, too: just as Jack Black would wave his arms about and make Bruce Lee noises to show off his amazing leet skillz, we never really get to see Danny do anything more than punch people with a dodgy special effects glowing hand. Jones has nothing to work with, either in the script or physically; when he pulls off a few postures of one Tai Chi form or another (the number one go-to cliché as cinematic shorthand for "I know Kung Fu!") that he ends up garnishing with a feeble karate punch, he's wobbly on his feet, and his stance is so overextended any teacher worth their salt would be looking at him and sighing heavily whilst shaking their head. When he holds a sword, the tip is wavering about rather than rock steady; his co-star Jessica Henwick is far more convincing as a fighter. I'm not holding Jones at fault for the show; he gamely does what he can, and by some accounts the fight choreography is thrown together in minutes (it certainly looks that way), but he's woefully miscast, and the show is just a mess.
But what is even more amazing is that reading reviews online, it's evidently only the second-worst show that Marvel have produced recently. I haven't seen a single episode of the ABC network's The Inhumans yet, and given write ups like the one in that link, I have absolutely no desire to do so.
Today I've released my latest album, a fraction less than two years after I started writing it. It's inspired by the work of Charles Hoy Fort (1874 - 1932), the famed iconoclast, researcher into anomalous phenomena of all kinds, and who is the inspiration for the Fortean Times magazine, to which I have been a subscriber for over three decades. I thought that releasing it on April Fools Day was rather appropriate.
I've had a lot of fun making the music on this album, and I hope you'll give it a listen.