Whilst scientists and engineers aren’t the most superstitious of people emergent, inexplicable patterns can still make them uneasy in much the same way. The Mars Curse is one such pattern that has seen half of the missions that were destined for our red sister fail in some way, either in transport or shortly after arriving at their destination. You can then imagine the tension that the Mars Science Laboratory (commonly known as the Curiosity rover) team experienced as they started to make their final approach to Mars, especially considering how complicated their landing had to be. Yesterday saw the rover touch down safely on the Martian surface, much to the joy of everyone involved and those of us who were watching on.
For the first couple of days Curiosity is going to be spending most of its time validating systems and ensuring that communications back to Earth are stable. For those of you who were watching the live feed those first few images we saw came via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the very same orbiter that’s responsible for relaying all the data from them previous generation of Mars rovers. Curiosity has the capability to deliver a lot more data than those two little rovers combined and whilst Odyssey could relay that back it’s much more advantageous to use the higher bandwidth connection on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter even if it has to cache the data before sending it (hence why the MRO didn’t beam the first pictures back, it would’ve taken too long).
All of the pictures we’ve seen so far have been from underneath the rover and that’s primarily due to the system verification that’s taking place. The images come from the hazard cameras mounted on the underside of Curiosity and traditionally they’ll be used to identify potential obstacles so that the rover can navigate around them. This is why they’re not colour nor particularly high resolution but the good news is that Curiosity has probably the most impressive imaging hardware of any rover to date just waiting to be turned on. Probably the most exciting part about Curiosity’s main camera is the fact that it will be able to capture true colour images, something that past rovers have had to fudge with coloured filters and post processing (which get close, but aren’t true to life).
Curiosity’s mission is to investigate Mar’s past and see how conducive to life it might have been. It’s not directly looking for life on Mars, that kind of mission would require a whole other set of dedicated tools, but what it’s looking for are what we believe are the precursors for life as we know it. Additionally Curiosity will asses Mars’ current and past meteorological conditions, both for pure scientific reasons and also to provide information to possible future manned missions to Mars, something which SpaceX has expressed a keen interest in accomplishing within the next decade. Considering the size of the total payload, almost 900KG, I’m sure it will have no trouble accomplishing its primary mission and quite possibly much more thereafter.
Curiosity’s power source is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator that’s quite capable of powering the rover for its planned 1 Martian year mission. Now whilst it might not have the solar panels of its predecessors its internal generator is good for 14 years at up to 80% of its peak power production meaning that Curiosity could well give Spirit and Opportunity a run for their money in terms of longevity. Considering just how many instruments are aboard this rover I can see an extended mission proving extremely valuable both in scientific terms as well as becoming the next symbol of NASA’s prowess when it comes to building amazing machines.
A friend of mine asked me this morning if I still had a smile on my face courtesy of NASA and in all honesty I did. I shed a tear when I heard the words “touch down” and shared in the revelry that went on in the Mission Support Area via the NASA TV live feed and just writing that sentence out was enough to bring back the feeling of excitement and joy I felt back then. Curiosity’s mission has only just begun but I can’t help but feel that its been a major success for all involved and I eagerly look forward to everything that this giant rover has to bring us.
It’s a great time for science, space and humanity.
The Humble Indie Bundle has been my source for many independent games that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. The pay-what-you-want model works spectacularly in the instance and I’ve always paid a lot more than the average so I get all the extra goodies. It was then without a second thought that I ponied up for the most recent release which was primarily for the release of Amanita Design’s Boatanicula, a curious little platform game that just beams with cutness from every angle.
Botanicula puts you in control of a quintet of characters, all of which appear to be either a seed or young form of some kind of plant. The opening scenes paint a picture of a tranquil, happy life of all these disparate species coexisting together on a giant tree. However a spider like entity threatens every living thing that dwells within it, sucking the very life out of every thing that it touches. The quintet’s hope lies within a single seed that they’re endeavouring to plant before all life on the tree is inevitably wiped out and the adventures that entail along their journey.
There’s something to be said for games that make the most of their chosen medium and Botanicula is one that does this to perfection. Every panel is abosolutely gorgeous, brimming with vibrant colours and soft glow effects that are very visually appealing. Unlike point and click adventures of times gone past Botanicula doesn’t make interactive sections obvious by colouring them differently which, whilst slightly irksome at the start, gave all the scenes an even visual feel without any jarring distractions. This is only surpassed by how the scenes evolve as the player interacts with them, bringing ever more life into them the more you dared click.
Coupled with this gorgeous visual art is an equally impressive arrangement for the music and foley. Instead of using typical sound effects Botanicula uses the human voice for nearly everything and I’m pleased to say it does so to great effect. There’s something joyous about clicking around on the various plants and insects only to have them respond with a cheerful sound or have the character’s speech be a long sentence of nonsense that’s aptly portrayed by a thought bubble above their head. I think this was by far my favourite aspect of Botanicula as I’ve never had so much fun listening to people make funny noises.
At its heart Botanicula is a point and click adventure with all the puzzle solving gooddness that comes along with it. Like all good games in its genre the puzzles start off pretty easy, usually being simple hunt and peck type deals with an over-arching goal of collecting x of something in order to progress to the next level. Afterwards they start to ramp up in the difficultly level slowly eventually getting to rather complicated puzzles that even left me guessing for a good amount of time. For the most part they’re pretty enjoyable and quite satisfying when completed but there are a few issues that plague them.
Now I’m not sure if this was because my desktop resolution was larger than Botanicula was able to display (as evidenced by the black borders around the screenshots) or something else but interaction with it was sometimes a little gummy. Whilst it was quite responsive to regular clicks on interactive objects anything that required some kind of movement with the cursor was plagued with unpredictable motion. One such puzzle was to get push a nut out a hole in order to knock a key down and attempting to do so was not an exact science with the nut reacting unpredictably. I can see how it might be better on a tablet when you don’t have a cursor to contend with but with a mouse and its ever-present presence on the screen I found myself having to come up with other solutions when precision movement was required.
Apart from that however the puzzles were pretty much all good with the only stumbling block being myself. For the most part it was lack of attention that usually caught me out, sending me on a wild goose chase for 10~20 minutes while I tried to find the last thing to progress to the next level. I did use a walkthrough guide a couple times when I started to get frustrated but for the most part the game was easy enough to get through whilst still providing a good challenge.
After playing through Botanicula I came away with two very distinct feelings about the game’s target audience and where they should be headed in the future. Whilst adults will find much to enjoy in the world of Botanicula I can’t help but feel that this game would be so great for kids as everything seems to fit the bill for this being an amazing game for them. The vibrant colours, extraordinarily cute characters and playful soundscape seem perfect for something to delight kids with.
Botanicula also feels like it would be very much at home on a tablet like an iPad or Android equivalent. Indeed my one gripe, the iffy mouse pointer control sections, seems like it would be a non-issue on a tablet platform. This also plays somewhat into it being a great game for kids as well as I know many parents use their iPads to keep the kids quiet on long journeys. To their credit Amanita Designs has said that an iPad version is already in the works and I’ll be very eager to see how it fairs in comparison to its PC cousin.
The story of Botanicula, whilst simplistic, is ultimately sastifying. Even though there’s no actual dialog you still get a feel for all the character’s personalities and quirks. The conclusion is predictable but it’s still worth seeing through to the end just for the fun of it.
Botanicula shows the reason why I continue to spend money on the Humble Indie Bundles without putting much thought into the games that I’m buying. My hit rate with unresearched titles has been quite high and I’m glad I can count Amanita Design’s latest release amongst them. If you’re a fan of point and clicks or just well executed games then Botanicula won’t disappoint and I couldn’t hesittate to recommened it.
Botanicula is available on PC, OSX and Linux right now for $9.99. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3.3 hours played, 75% of the achievements unlocked and a final score of 108/125.
Ever since the wonderful day I had exploring Miami yesterday I had been dreading this morning, it was time for me to check out of the Viceroy and head back to Orlando. When I first arrived I was a little overwhelmed with the level of service and opulence that was presented before me but after spending just a mere 4 nights there I began to grow accustomed to it, revelling in the luxury. As they say though all good things must come to an end and so it was that I packed up my things and began getting ready to check out. I had the room until 12pm so I thought I’d make the most of it by catching up on the latest news and watching all of the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers on Hulu. This had the unfortunate consequence of alerting me to something dire to my whole reason for being here.
The shuttle launch had been delayed, again.
When I first planned the trip to include my jaunt over here to Florida I had initially budgeted a week (so that Rebecca could have time with her best friend in the world, Laura) for me to hop around and have fun in the Corvette with a couple days at the end for the shuttle launch, some slack to make sure I didn’t miss it due to weather events. The first delay was well within this schedule and whilst it was shocking at the time I could handle it by just booking another rental car to cover the trip out there and back to the airport the next day. This next delay however posed a more serious problem as I would be flying out that day at 12pm and the launch wasn’t scheduled until 3 hours later. After an hour of unmitigated panic I decided I wasn’t going to be fucked by a day and shot an email off to my travel agent hoping to get the flight moved without having to pay out the ass for it. A quick check of the flights shows I could book it on my own for about $120 and another night in a hotel wouldn’t break the budget. I should hopefully hear back from her sometime tomorrow, letting me see the shuttle launch and validating my whole reason for being here.
With that all settled I went downstairs to check out and to grab the Corvette so I could get out of there. It was a pretty uneventful drive back, but it was far more enjoyable than the one down. On the way down I was still fighting off the last little bit of my jet lag making the last hour or so of the drive quite tiresome. Today however I was very well rested and I’d finally grown accustomed to the heat and humidity making the drive that much more pleasurable. I even took a little time out to make a 0-60 video of the corvette and put the top down for the first time since I got it. I should’ve done it sooner because damn, it just looks sexy when it’s topless:
It’s a bit too much when you’re doing 75mph though so I had to put it back down after a couple miles of getting my head blown around. I reconciled to spend the last few days with the top down as much as humanly possible though, it really is quite fun (especially putting it up and down, it’s fully motorised).
The hotel I had chosen for my last few days here in Orlando was the Crown Plaza Universal. The name makes it sound a lot better than it actually is but I guess it’s more oriented to families who are staying here to go to Disney World rather than the strapping male technophile like the Viceroy was. Case in point I had to pay for my Internet connection here where every other hotel I’ve stayed in has provided it free of charge. This place is considerably cheaper than the rest of them though and they still have a gym.
After I got settled in and had a quick work out my mind shifted towards finding some dinner. Firing up Yelp brought up quite a few good locations all within a long walk/short drive away with the best of them unfortunately being lunch only places. I finally settled on the Hanamizuki Japanese restaurant which had quite a few good reviews. After driving over there and waiting about 10 minutes to be seated (they weren’t that busy, but seemed to miss me and the 10 customers standing behind me somehow) I was seated down at the sushi bar and given their extremely large menu. The food was pretty good, definitely worth the price and I’d actually rate it above Zuma. Reason being the people here were actual Japanese nationals, not the wasians at Zuma who spoke (admittedly good) rapid fire Japanese at you. I didn’t think twice when the chef offered me some sashimi in Japanese, thanking him with a quick “arigatoo” to which he responded “doo itashimashite”, which means you’re welcome.
Returning to my car I was reminded of the day I had yesterday and how much good had came from just exploring. The tempreature was still quite nice even at this late hour so I decided to jump in, get the top down and go for a cruise. I set off in one random direction and found myself on the main strip of this part of Orlando with lights and all sorts of things lining the street. It was beautiful in its own way, a tribute to the American way of life. The moment was wholly captured by the instant when I pressed the accelerator just that little harder than I had done before and the corvette let out a note of which I had never heard before. It was beautiful, like a caged lion being released from its bonds into the wild. The second I came to from that moment of pure automobile ecstasy I laughed in a way I haven’t done in years. That pure feeling of joy that comes from doing something so utterly ridiculous that bypasses every other part of your brain and just tickles the pleasure centres. The grin wouldn’t leave my face for almost an hour afterwards.
With that came thoughts of what to do tomorrow. I’m thinking a cruise down to the beach with the top down will be perfect, with the corvette getting a good boot on the way there and back. I think I’ve finally hit that part of the trip where I finally drop all those barriers that I put up to protect myself when I’m in an unknown situation and with that I’m ready to just relax and let the trip happen all on its own.
Damn it feels good 😀