Wednesday 30 April 2014

Cosmos - Sisters of the Sun

Science has been dominated by men for...well, a very long time, much like most of Western society. While that domination has gradually loosened over the last century, it still very much exists today, with women, on average, still having to overcome more obstacles than men in order to pursue a career in science. Because of this dominance, when looking at the history of science, as Cosmos has been doing in addition to explaining the science, it is inevitable that the majority of names will be those of men. However, they most certainly shouldn’t be all men’s names, for there have been many women working in science over the centuries (not even just this past one), and many women have made important discoveries. Yet, how many can we name off the tops of our heads? I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t name many. Marie Curie comes to mind almost immediately, but after that, I have to stop and think in order to come up with a pitifully small sample. Yet asked to name men (or just scientists in general), numerous come immediately to mind before I have to stop and think a bit: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, Tyson... As I said, there are more men, but surely I ought to be able to remember a few more women.

Sisters of the Sun”, the eighth episode of Cosmos, takes steps to rectify that a little bit by introducing us to some of the pioneers of astronomical spectroscopy: Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan-Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne. Cannon developed the system used to classify stellar bodies and Swan-Leavitt the method to determine the distance to the stars and thus the size of the universe. Cecilia Payne took the work of Annie Jump Cannon and deciphered her spectral analyses to determine the composition of stars—particularly the ground-breaking discovery that hydrogen and helium are about a million times more abundant than any other element.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Cosmos - The Clean Room

It is an unfortunate fact that science can be misused, sometimes deliberately. The numbers don’t lie, but the way those numbers—those bits of data—are interpreted can sometimes be skewed to fit preconceptions and biases, or even business or political agendas. The seventh episode of Cosmos, “The Clean Room”, looks at the search for the age of the Earth, but also explores the wider issue that came from that search—Clair Patterson’s fight to remove lead from the plethora of products it was part of, particularly gasoline.

Every episode of Cosmos so far has had a mix of scientific explanation and historical narration, as does this episode. However, “The Clean Room” focuses far more on the history side than other episodes. While the history segments have generally been animated and have used voice actors to portray the historic characters, this episode concentrates far more on telling a dramatic tale—a fable with a moral message. If it weren’t for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice-over narration, this could almost be a Hollywood movie about the life of Clair Patterson (voiced here by Richard Gere) with science itself as the hero and the Ethyl Corporation as the villains.

Cosmos - Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still

There are more atoms in a human eye than there are stars in the entire universe. So we learn in the opening moments of the sixth episode of Cosmos, “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still”. One of the most mesmerizing things about Cosmos is the way it draws together the commonalities between the cosmic and atomic scales—the awe-inspiringly huge and the equally awe-inspiringly tiny. It takes two things that people generally think of as separate and unconnected and shows how they’re both part of the same cosmos. Each affects the other, and we can never have a full understanding of one without having an understanding of the other. While this episode’s focus is on the atomic realm, it must still look to the stars in order to explain it all.

The episode takes us first on a journey into the microscopic realm of a dew drop, introducing us to the tiny lifeforms that live there, such as the tardigrade, one of the most resilient creatures in the world. We then enter plant cells to learn about the workings of photosynthesis to produce energy. There’s some rather entertaining computer animation imagining the inner workings of the cells as a factory production line, almost steampunk-like in its presentation. It’s a little odd, to be sure, but it helps to simplify a complex process that is still not fully understood. As Neil deGrasse Tyson narrates, we can recreate photosynthesis in a laboratory, but with nowhere near the efficiency and precision of an actual plant cell. If we could, we would solve all the world’s energy problems. And as unusual as the factory-like animation may seem, it’s important to remember that most of the animation in this series is simplified to make it easier for viewers to digest. The representation of atoms in this episode and others, for example, is not really what atoms look like, but they provide a useful, easily comprehended stand-in for actual atoms. One of the goals of Cosmos is to entrance new people into the scientific fold, to inspire future scientists—and inspiring the series has certainly managed to be!

Thursday 17 April 2014

Mummy's Mask - The Half-Dead City

After the potentially world-shattering Wrath of the Righteous, the new adventure path has moved to something somewhat calmer and less immediately devastating. Indeed, the first instalment of Mummy’s Mask, The Half-Dead City by Jim Groves, has one of the calmest openings for any adventure path. This isn’t a bad thing. It provides a contrast with other adventure paths and sets the tone for this one. While big things may well happen down the line, this adventure path is taking the time to set the scene and build things up before letting all hell break loose.

The Half-Dead City is very much a dungeon crawl, and while I’m not the biggest fan of pure dungeon crawls, this is a well-made one and one I can imagine myself running at some point. As a consequence of delving into tombs, there’s not a lot of opportunity for interaction with NPCs, but nonetheless, it does manage to have several extremely well-developed and interesting NPCs. The PCs may not get a lot of time with these characters, but that time will almost certainly be memorable (assuming the GM plays them well).


Tuesday 15 April 2014

Cosmos - Hiding in the Light

Light is truly wondrous. Visible light is so prevalent in our lives, we take it for granted and don’t really notice just how incredible it is. Even if we’re somewhat well-versed in the science, it’s easy to forget its bizarre qualities and go about our daily lives and barely pay it any mind. The fifth episode of Cosmos, “Hiding in the Light” continues the programme’s investigation into the nature of light, focusing on its wave nature and the discovery that there are forms of light not visible to the human eye. It also gives us a glimpse into the quantum world and shows us a little more of just how strange, unintuitive, and utterly astounding the universe is.

The episode begins with a look at some of the earliest discoveries about light, such as the fact that it travels in straight lines. We learn about Mo Tse’s creation of the camera obscura, and Ibn al-Hasan’s later work with the same thing and his development of the principles of the scientific method. It’s good to see this inclusion of non-Western contributions to the development of science. Science history often has (like so many other things in the Western world) a Western bias and Cosmos so far hasn’t really been an exception to this, but this episode helps to show that not every scientific discovery has taken place in Europe or the United States. There have been many great discoveries in other parts of the world. Indeed, as this episode shows, if it weren’t for Emperor Chin suppressing the works of Mo Tse and other early Chinese philosophers, science might have advanced far, far sooner.

Friday 11 April 2014

The Delian Mode

Delia Derbyshire is a name well-known to Doctor Who fans as the person who brought us the original version of the show’s famous theme music. She did a whole lot more for Doctor Who, and her legacy extends well beyond just that one show. However, in all her time on Doctor Who, she was never credited for it. Ron Grainer wrote the Doctor Who theme, but it was Derbyshire who arranged and realized it. Even though Grainer felt she should be credited for it, she wasn’t because she was an employee of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had a long-time policy that its members did not get individual credit for work they did as employees of the Workshop. So even though many fans knew who she was, her name never appeared on screen. The arrangers of the later versions of the theme, from Peter Howell to Murray Gold, all received credit, but not her. It wasn’t until—gasp!—“The Day of the Doctor” last year (several years after her death) that Derbyshire finally received her first on-screen credit for the work she did on Doctor Who. But on-screen credit aside, Delia Derbyshire was one of the pioneers of electronic music, and she is finally starting to be acknowledged for the monumental role she played in music history.

The Delian Mode is a documentary about Derbyshire and her music. From director Kara Blake, it weaves together interviews with the people who worked with her and samples of her music and recordings of Derbyshire herself. But the documentary is more than just a dry presentation of facts and commentary. It’s visually and audially mesmerizing, a work of art in itself. Through it, viewers journey through the process Derbyshire used to create the haunting music she’s famous for. We see not only the actual equipment she used, but also visual interpretations of the ideas and concepts behind the music. We learn of the everyday items she sampled sounds from and hear her own words on how she felt as a woman in an industry dominated by men. One of the most phenomenal things I learned from The Delian Mode was that, after Derbyshire’s death, 267 tapes and countless manuscripts were found stored in her attic—a massive testament to the huge output of her work.

The Delian Mode was released in 2009 and won a Genie award for best short documentary in 2010. In my view, this is a beautiful film and a moving tribute to Derbyshire, one that will be enjoyed by not just Doctor Who fans, but by anyone with an interest in electronic music; I certainly feel it deserved this award. I highly recommend watching it!

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Cosmos - A Sky Full of Ghosts

Imagination is a powerful thing. It’s the ability to contemplate things that might be and sometimes even to contemplate the complete impossible. The fourth episode of Cosmos, “A Sky Full of Ghosts” is really all about the power of imagination, as well as its pitfalls. It shows how science, at its most basic, all starts with an idea, one that people then investigate. Sometimes the idea is right. Sometimes it’s wrong. Other times, it’s somewhere in between and needs to be modified to bring it closer to being correct.

The episode opens with a very simple statement of “Seeing is not believing,” and proceeds with a demonstration of how some ideas can seem obvious and yet be wrong. Light can play tricks on our eyes. From the exact position of the sun in our sky to the existence of a horizon to the apparent existence of a cosmic horizon, we encounter optical illusions every day of our lives. But it’s through investigating these illusions and questioning them that we uncover the truth. “A Sky Full of Ghosts” goes on to talk about the nature of light and establishes that light has a finite (albeit immensely fast) speed. We can determine the age of the universe (in billions of years) by how far we can see. The light from the “cosmic horizon” has needed those billions of years just to reach us, but there simply hasn’t been enough time for anything beyond that point to get here. We also learn more of how gravity works and its effects on light itself.

Saturday 5 April 2014

Tabletop Day

Today is the 2nd annual International Tabletop Day. And for the second year in a row, it’s been scheduled on an inconvenient day, and so there’s no one for me to play games with. My wife is busy studying for exams and everyone else has other plans that have nothing to do with playing tabletop games. Last year, I challenged my dogs to a game of Zombie Dice and lost solidly to Pan. I thought about doing the same this year, but Pan doesn’t want to risk losing his champion status, and honestly, if I lost again, I’m not sure I could suffer the humiliation. So Pan’s champion status is safe...for now.

However, as this blog is is heavily focused on tabletop roleplaying games, particularly Pathfinder, like last year, I couldn’t let the day go by without doing something in honour of it. As such, I have spent what free time I’ve had today doing long-term planning for my Pathfinder games. I have a regular group that meets every Sunday (although tomorrow will be the second of what will likely be three weeks in a row of no game due to real life interfering) and I also GM two play-by-post games on the Paizo messageboards. Of course, as a game master, I have to spend time every week preparing for games, but today I decided to look a bit farther into the future. As my Sunday group is nearing the end of its current campaign (the Council of Thieves adventure path), I decided to start making serious plans for their next campaign. It will still likely be a few more months before the current campaign concludes, but it doesn’t harm to have an idea of what to do next. I won’t go into too much detail here—partly because I’ve only done the barest of sketches so far and partly because members of my group read this blog and I don’t want to give secrets away—however, here’s a quick list of the books I’ve pulled out in order to assist me:

Tabletop Day was started by Geek and Sundry after the success of Wil Wheaton’s show Tabletop, a great show which has had two full seasons and is now looking to make a third. In order to do that, they are looking for donations, so if you’re interested, head over to to donate. If they reach $500,000, season three will be 15 episodes long. If they reach $750,000, it will be 20 episodes long. If they reach all the way to $1,000,000, there will be a spin-off series featuring roleplaying games! I will be very interested in seeing that should they achieve it. In just the first few hours, they have already passed $100,000, so I think there’s a pretty good chance they’ll make it all the way. Let’s hope they do!

Happy Tabletop Day, everyone, and as Wil Wheaton says, play more games!

Wednesday 2 April 2014


This video is from the same person who created "Wholock", and it's really quite brilliant. It's good to see creepy weeping angels again.

March Round-Up, Absent Doctor Who, and April Fool's

Here in Toronto, March was a month of snow, more snow, yet more snow, a brief thaw or two, and still more snow. In the last couple of days, it has finally warmed up above freezing. March was also the first month in a very long time (possibly ever) that I didn’t make a single post about Doctor Who. It’s not that I didn’t want to; there just hasn’t been much going on. Well, that’s not strictly true. Series 8 filming has been ongoing, for example. But there just hasn’t been anything that I really felt an earth-shattering need to discuss.

I haven’t been negligent in other areas, however, and got through several Pathfinder reviews, including the finale of Wrath of the Righteous, City of Locusts, as well as the Player’s Guide for the same adventure path, Bastards of Golarion, the really excellent Champions of Balance, and the latest adventure module Tears at Bitter Manor. In other news, this year’s RPG Superstar winner was announced and the first of the new Pathfinder Legends series that I mentioned last month has now been released. I am very, very tempted to spend money I don’t have to buy it, but if I did that, I’d have to buy all of Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios as well and then I’d be broke. Alas.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos series premièred this month, and I am loving every moment of it! Four episodes have aired so far, although I have only watched and reviewed the first, second, and third so far. I will get to the fourth in the next few days. It’s great to see a science programme getting such high profile exposure, and I hope this paves the way for more high-quality science programmes in the future.

Dark Dungeons: The Movie is also moving closer to its release and the first trailer appeared this month. I am stoked. I also recently watched The Gamers: Hands of Fate for the first time (it came out last fall). It’s the third in the series that started with The Gamers and continued with The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. I hope to get round to reviewing it sometime soon.

Of course, it’s now April 1st, aka April Fool’s Day—well, by the time this is posted it will probably be April 2nd in my time zone, but I’m sure it’ll still be April 1st west of me. I don’t intend to do any April Fool’s jokes here, but I thought I’d point out a few funny ones I’ve found across the web. To rectify the lack of Doctor Who on this blog recently, here’s one announcing Arthur Darvill as the Master!

Think Geek has a bunch of April Fool’s products, but this one, featuring Michael Dorn from Star Trek: The Next Generation, is my favourite:

And CERN has announced that all communication will now be in comic sans:

Finally, IO9 has a round-up of great April Fool’s jokes.