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The whimsical names which paint companies give various designer shades and hues are a big part (well…at least a part) of the fun of painting. It has always made me happy to go into a Home Depot and peruse the rainbow arrays of eye-popping paint chips and look at the weird names. Imagine the thought process that lead to “Peppermint Penguin,” “Rutebaga Parade,” “Clontarf,” “Curlicue,” or “Bitter Gravy” (indeed my friend’s Arastu’s house is this last color, for some reason).

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But now, in an attempt to steal this joy from broke poets and stoned marketers, computer scientist (?) Janelle Shane has created a rudimentary algorithm to design colors and name them. Looking at the experiment as described on Ars Technica makes me think that either Ms. Shane is a poor computer scientist, there are aspects of the “experiment” which were not described, or this was a publicity stunt (or maybe all of the above).

But who cares? Even if the computer made a lot of boring gray and beige colors and did not seem to learn anything, it produced some amazingly poetic and hilarious names like “Stargoon,” Dorkwood, “Gray Pubic,” and Burble Simp *which is actually an ok color—if you are a crustacean living in 1978. Maybe Ms. Shane was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps her experiment did not determine if machines can be aesthetes (the results are uncertain unless you are an empty souled entity designing a new ecru for cubicles). The real question is whether machines can be hilarious and the answer is a definite yes. It’s even better if they don’t get the joke, but just sit there in their “Snowbonk” colored housing wondering why everyone is laughing.
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960fdb911b03d1f06ca05e6fc84fc123My apologies! I usually try to write a blog post every workday (and answer comments the day…or at least the week…that you all leave them), however, unfortunately my poor computer became overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of the modern world and died unexpectedly.  It was one of those classic heartbreaking electronic death scenes: I was watching the emotional climax of a movie on Netflix when suddenly there was a loud diminishing power-down noise (poink! BZZzzzzfffft) and the image collapsed into a jagged phosphorescent line and suddenly my only computer was as dead as bipartisan compromise in America.

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It is shocking how much is on a computer.  I don’t just use it to write and communicate with friends around the world.  It is also my graphic resource, my stereo, my document archive, my financial records, and my cookbook.  Let this tale serve as a cautionary reminder to back things up on those cheap little portable hard drives!

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Anyway, thanks to a heroic intercession by my friend the IT manager (who swooped in like Apollo on a cloud in French Neoclassical theatre) I am back in business with no lasting harm done.  The whole scary episode has led me to reflect on the central place of computers in our lives…and yet they are all utilitarian gray and black boxes.   If I designed a computer, it would look like a glowing ball of energy in a bell jar suspended on cabriolet legs—not like a flat screen connected to a miniature metal utility shed. I wondered if somebody had spent some time to jazz up computers with gothic stylings (a favorite aesthetic of mine) and I found these images which I have used to illustrate this post.  These are so cool!  Why can’t we have prettier computers?  People of the future are going to look at our metal rectangles and conclude that we were primitives….although I guess if one’s fancy computer that looks like a Gothic cathedral just suddenly died it would be even more crushing than otherwise.

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Anyway, i am sorry for the blog interruption.  I will try to answer everyone’s excellent comments tomorrow!  In the mean time, it’s good to be back on the internet!

archbishop5

The Mighty Apple II Personal Computer

The Mighty Apple II Personal Computer

Sometime in the early 1980’s my family got its first computer–the amazing Apple II.  Although making bespoke cards for grandma on the daisywheel printer and struggling unsuccessfully with the grammar of DOS was exciting, nothing about the high-tech wonder was as thrilling as the promise of epic medieval adventure!  Somehow, I obtained a pirate copy of Ultima II and soon I was off to save the minimally rendered realm!

The Graphic Violence of Ultima II!

The Graphic Violence of Ultima II!

Unfortunately, as a computer pirate, I lacked a map or any instructions, and my piteous little pixelated knight died naked and unarmed many a time before I finally figured out how to enter a town and haggle with a virtual arms dealer.  Then, with my meager stock of gold, I was able to purchase a bargain level mace…but I had no idea what that was.

“What’s mace?” I asked my mother.

“It is a spice used for fancy cookies” she responded.  However, after giving away my precious 3 GP for such a thing, I was entirely unsatisfied with the answer.

Time to fight some dragons...

Time to fight some dragons…

“No, it’s supposed to be a weapon. I want to know about mace the weapon!” I desperately begged.

“Hmm, I guess it’s also a sort of spray that women use to fend off muggers.”

The graphics of Ultima II relied heavily on the power of imagination: combat was rendered as a momentary glowing halo, but the finer details of carnage (and weaponry) were not pictured.  As I imagined my fearless warrior spraying pepper spray in the eyes of marauding orcs, the joy of the game was greatly diminished.   I nearly gave up on role-playing games altogether before I remembered the huge and fraying Webster’s unabridged dictionary (the ultimate vessel of human knowledge in those dim pre-internet days when we lived far from any library or bookstore).

A young me fighting the goblin hordes (simulation)

A young me fighting the goblin hordes (simulation)

Webster’s saved my faith in computerized role-playing games:  it turns out a mace is a war club, typically with spikes or flanges (as well as also being a “rod of office”…and a spice…and a spray).  In fact the primitive brutality of the concept has appealed to humankind for a long, long time.  Some of the most ancient weapons from the palace-cities of Mesopotamia are maces, and, as our mastery of materials improved, so too did our spiked clubs.

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 2

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 2

Although it has been a long time since I saved the world from the wicked sorceress Minax (or even played any computer game at all), my love of all things gothic remains unabated.  Here therefore is a gallery of fancy gothic maces which should satisfy any eldritch death knight or priggish paladin.

A Very Fine 15th Century (Late Gothic) Mace in the Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland

A Very Fine 15th Century (Late Gothic) Mace in the Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland (with three Landsknecht pike heads)

The two maces are part of the original stock of the Imperial Vienna Armory

The two maces are part of the original stock of the Imperial Vienna Armory

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 1

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 1

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Heavy Flanged Mace

Heavy Flanged Mace

Very Fine Gothic Mace c. 1510, German or North Italian

Very Fine Gothic Mace c. 1510, German or North Italian

German "Gothic" Mace, circa 1480

German “Gothic” Mace, circa 1480

A&A High Gothic Mace.

A&A High Gothic Mace

Replica Mace from Wulflund.com

Replica Mace from Wulflund.com

Ceremonial Mace

Ceremonial Mace

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I must say they look quite formidable!  My ten year old self would have been delighted to know how scary and pretty the mace could be.  But the years have mellowed me greatly.  Now I might be tempted to try baking some of those fancy spice cookies and offering them to the orcs first….

Lemon Mace Sugar Cookies

What sort of monster could refuse lemon mace sugar cookies?

French Space Program satellite COROT

French Space Program satellite COROT

During the last several years one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy has been data from two orbiting space observatories concerning planets which lie outside our solar system.   The NASA space telescope Kepler discovers such planets by simultaneously measuring the light from thousands of stars for the faint dimming that occurs when a planet passes between the star and Kepler.  The French satellite COROT (“COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits”) finds exoplanets by tracking the slight oscillations in distant stars caused by the gravitational tug of orbiting planets.  The subtlety and elegant precision of both methods is astounding.

Sadly such astonishing engineering seems to have been near the edge of our technological abilities.  Yesterday Kepler went into safe mode (a sort of automatic shut-down triggered by a crisis).  Apparently a reaction wheel (a flywheel used to orient the spacecraft in relation to the stars) failed and Kepler can no longer be aimed properly.  The orbital observatory initially had four reaction wheels—one of which was a spare– however the spare wheel failed in July of 2012 and at least three wheels are required to operate the satellite.  If NASA cannot somehow reactivate the flywheel, then the mission is over.

Kepler Space Observatory

Kepler Space Observatory

Likewise on November 2, COROT suffered from a computer failure which made it impossible to collect data from the satellite and its status remains uncertain.  Most likely it is offline forever.  So our ability to find huge numbers of exoplanets via space observatory has temporarily been halted.

Kepler was launched in 2009 for a four year mission, however the mission was recently extended until 2016 (since it took longer to collect and make sense of the data then initially planned).   At last count Kepler had discovered 132 planets and was monitoring more than 2,700 further candidate planet. As of November 2011, COROT had found 24 new worlds and was screening around 600 additional candidates for confirmation.  Additionally two years of Kepler data has been downloaded but not yet interpreted so post-mortem discoveries may lie ahead.

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

It is frustrating that the age of almost daily discovery of new worlds has come to a temporary end due to equipment failure, however a new generation of planet finding missions is already on the drawing board.  To quote The Guardian:

The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa’s successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.

RIP Kepler and COROT, you discovered so many planets and you will be missed, but your successors will be even greater.

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