Archive for: December, 2009

The Beast with Five Fingers by W.F. Harvey

Dec 14 2009 Published by under Horror, Mystery/thriller

I've been trying to keep up with my weird fiction reading while I've been working on my physics textbook, though it's been pretty hard to read a major work considering I spend most of my evenings doing research for the text.   Under these circumstances, a collection of short stories was the ideal solution, and I recently received Wordworth's collection of the works of W.F. Harvey, entitled The Beast with Five Fingers, after its most well-known story:

It took a curious amount of time for me to receive my copy.  Although it was listed as available on Amazon for nearly a year, the order was continually delayed and I only got the book a couple of months ago.  Hopefully whatever issue they were having has been straightened out now.

The book blurb refers to Harvey as "an unjustly neglected author of supernatural tales", which is technically true, but a little misleading: though he did write a significant number of supernatural stories, the bulk of his work is better described as mystery/murder stories.  I found his work reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe and Roald Dahl; though he does not quite achieve the darkness and creepiness of those masters, there are a number of great stories and genuinely unsettling moments (as I was reading Harvey, I kept referring to him in my mind as "Roald Dahl-lite").

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: cold atoms in disguise, jittery black holes, and another use for Kepler

Dec 14 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Making cold atoms look like electrons. First up, Chad at Uncertain Principles describes how ultra-cold atoms and a lattice of optical traps can be used to make a virtual 'solid' in which the atoms play the role of electrons in ordinary matter.
  • Black holes, Brownian motion. Brownian motion is the phenomenon by which particles floating in a hot liquid 'jitter' about due to the impact of the liquid atoms. Brian at Upon Reflection discusses how supermassive black holes undergo a similar process, and how the understanding of this process 'shines light' on the black holes themselves.
  • Could Kepler find something closer to home? Finally, Niall at we are all in the gutter discusses a possible alternative use for the Kepler telescope. Designed to look for earth-sized planets around other stars, it may be possible to use it to locate some of the distant hidden objects in our own solar system!

Check back next Monday for more miscellaneous highlights!

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Happy birthday to Bill Nighy!

Dec 12 2009 Published by under Entertainment

Even as busy as I am, I can't resist taking a moment to wish happy birthday to one of the coolest actors out there, in my humble opinion: Bill Nighy!

Nighy has been acting since the late 1970s, though he really caught my attention around the turn of the century, when he took on a number of great and unique roles: obnoxious aging rock star Billy Mack in Love Actually, Shaun's barely-alive stepfather in Shaun of the Dead, Slartibartfast in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, squidly Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Man's Chest, and the smug Chief Inspector in Hot Fuzz.

Nighy is one of those actors who really livens up any movie he's in, even making otherwise annoying films enjoyable, such as Dead Man's Chest and the very silly Underworld.

I see via IMDB that he'll have a role as Rufus Scrimgeour in the two final Harry Potter films, and is a perfect choice for a role in that series!

For me, though, I think I love his turn as Billy Mack the most.  Even if you're not a fan of romantic comedies, Love Actually is worth watching just for the fun Nighy has as a rock star past his prime and willing to say and do anything to regain the spotlight!

Happy birthday to Bill Nighy!

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Dec 11 2009 Published by under Personal

There's an old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where Calvin is trying to get enough cereal boxtops to mail-order a prize, namely a propeller beanie.  Being the impatient sort, he pretty much decides to eat enough cereal in one sitting to order the beanie.  The end of the strip has him commenting, "2 1/2 boxes to go.  Man, I'm earning this."

That's how I've been feeling about my book lately.  Pretty much every day I've been churning out a complete section on a specialized topic, which usually involves first burning a lot of brainpower to remind myself of the details of said topic.  One day, I was writing on vector spherical harmonics, the next on Zernike polynomials.  Currently I'm pushing my way through the method of steepest descents.  There's relatively little left to be written, but everything that remains are more advanced topics.  I'm still hoping to get through the first draft by the end of the month, though -- if I can keep up my motivation, I should be able to do it.

In other news, my h-index reached 15 today.  Considering it reached 14 only a few months back, my publications have been getting cited pretty well.  I am well-aware that the h-index is a  very crude and somewhat artificial measure of scientific relevance, but it is still nice to see it go up.  The number of citations/year for me has been quite satisfying as well; from the Web of Science,

In other good news, I received unofficial word that my tenure has been approved.  Of course,  I should emphasize the "unofficial" part, but it looks like things are on track, barring some unexpected disaster in the next month.

Even with everything moving along, though, I feel rather melancholy today, and could use some cheering up.  Anybody out there have any good news they'd like to share?

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8 days until The Giant's Shoulders #18!

Dec 07 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

There’s 8 days left until the deadline for The Giant’s Shoulders #18!  It will be held at Just a mon, and entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: galaxy zoos, freaky statistics, and crayon wildlife conservation

Dec 07 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Galaxy Zoo 2. One of the most fascinating and exciting consequences of the internet is the advent of large "citizen scientist" collaborations. Alexander at The Astronomist discusses Galaxy Zoo, one of the most successful of these, the now active Galaxy Zoo 2 and other scientific "zoos".
  • Benford's Mathemagical Law. Benford's law is one of those fascinating results of mathematics that could be said to be, "well-known to those who know it well." It describes how even seemingly random sets of data can show very counterintuitive structure. Daniel at Ingenious Monkey discusses Benford's law and its origins.
  • Crayons Indicate Children’s Lack of Rainforest Biodiversity Perception. Children are our future, and the future of ecological conservation movements, but how well do they understand the importance of different species in rainforest ecosystems? Scott at JournOwl describes a great way to find out -- with crayon drawings!

Check back next Monday for more miscellaneous highlights!

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Yay! More Richard Marsh available!

Dec 06 2009 Published by under Horror

Another book by the awesome Richard Marsh has been released by Valancourt!  You can purchase A Spoiler of Men (1905) through Amazon.  I'm a big fan of Marsh's work, and have read a lot of things reprinted by Valancourt -- The Beetle, The Joss, Curios, and Philip Bennion's Death -- as well as a lot that can only be read so far on Google books -- The Goddess: A Demon, The Magnetic Girl, A Metamorphosis.  I've enjoyed every one of his books so far, and from the blurb of A Spoiler of Men, I'm guessing that I'm going to like it too:

First published in 1905, A Spoiler of Men is, as Johan Höglund writes in his introduction, a roller coaster ride that blends horror, crime, and humour, and will keep readers guessing until its surprising conclusion. It is also, Höglund argues, quite possibly the first occurrence of zombies in English fiction. This new edition, the first since the 1920s, features the unabridged text of the first edition, a new introduction and notes, and a reproduction of the cover of the Victorian "shilling shocker" edition.

I've ordered my copy... I'll review it soon!

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Richard Garriott on Ultima V

Dec 04 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

(I'm still working hard on my book!  I'll throw a few posts out here and there as I find the time.)

As a follow-up to my post on "videogames as art", I decided to buy "The Official Book of Ultima", a nice little book by Shay Adams written in 1990 that is partly a strategy guide and partly a history of the creation of the first 6 Ultima games.  Garriott's statements show that he really evolved from making adventure games into making games that would force players to think about their actions.  He was, in fact, a true auteur for the first four Ultimas, having written the script and coded the games entirely on his own!  I can't resist quoting one fascinating section:

ORIGIN actually lost an employee over another of Garriott's efforts to involve players emotionally as well as intellectually an imaginatively with his fantasy worlds.  He says it even got his family involved emotionally, triggering a significant debate among them.  It all had to do with killing that roomful of children (or not killing them, depending on whether you killed them or not).  While designing some of the 256 individual dungeon rooms in Ultima V, "populating dungeons, filling them with stuff, and putting things here and there," Garriott racked his brain for some novel and unexpected situations to build into the dungeons.  Since the software didn't support putting characters capable of conversation in a dungeon room, Garriott was restricted to filling rooms with furniture or monsters.  If he placed a villager in a dungeon room, for instance, the man would function as a monster and could not be addressed in conversation.

"I was looking through the tile set and I came across this very interesting shape -- children" he says.  As he constructed a dungeon room, deep down in a maze, he filled it with little jail cells, then filled the cells with children.  The room was set up so that when players push on the wall in one place, the jail cells open and the young prisoners are liberated.  "So you see the children and you want to save them," Garriott explains, "but when you find a way to open the jail cells, they come out and start attacking you

"Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn't it?  Because I knew darn well that the game doesn't care whether you kill them or whether you walk away.  It didn't matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind -- and any conflict you bring up in anybody's mind is beneficial.  It means a person has to think about it.

"Personally, I didn't care how they resolved it, so I put it in.  I was really pleased with myself.  However, one of the playtesters in the New Hampshire office found that room.  He was a religious fundamentalist and was immediately outraged -- he thought it was encouraging child abuse.  He didn't call me about it; he wrote a long letter to Robert [Garriott's brother], two or three pages about how he was utterly unwilling to be involved with a company who would  even consider, in his mind promoting child abuse.  Well, Robert was outraged.  He called me up and said, 'Richard, Richard, how could you consider putting something like that in your game?' I told him he had it all wrong, I mean, he'd interpreted it as it said in the letter, that the only way you can win the game is to slaughter the children in that room.  I am telling him, first of all, most people aren't going to see that room, because you don't see every dungeon room, and secondly, when you walk in the room, you don't have to let them out.  And third, you don't have to kill them.

"If you were that bent out of shape about killing them -- which is the easiest way to get out of the room -- you could charm them and make them walk out of the room yourself.  You could put them to sleep and walk out of the room.  You could do any number of things, but the point is that you don't have to kill them.  Admittedly, nine out of ten people who find the kids screaming out around their feet are going to kill them -- but you don't have to kill children to win the game, so there's a big difference.  Robert still thought I had to remove them from the game, and he got my parents involved.  They called and said, 'Richard, how can you consider doing this?,' and they were saying, 'just remove this, it is just a little room, why are you bothering to fight for this so much?'

"And I said, because you guys are missing the point.  You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically -- about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is.  If it was something explicitly sexist or explicitly racist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored.  But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room.  The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove  that room from the game."

I actually remember that room in the dungeon of Ultima V.  The first time in it, I killed all the little tykes.  That response bothered me so much, however, that I reloaded the game and played it through again and instead chose not to unlock the cells.  (I wasn't worldly enough at that age to think of the 'charm' or 'sleep' strategies.)

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