From the archives: November 2007

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3:10 to Luna

Monday, 19 November 2007 — 5:55pm | Science

Last Wednesday, I delivered a brief talk for the U of A Debate Society about policy issues in outer space. It was arguably out of my depth, but don’t tell anybody. I did, at one point, assert something that I didn’t have time to defend: that the Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition on sovereign claims in space precludes the protection of property rights (and that the major oversight of the space treaties of the 1960s, in general, was a failure to predict that non-state actors might one day play a significant role beyond our blue marble).

For a more lucid explanation than what I can offer, I recommend Jonathan Card’s article in today’s edition of The Space Review (“Space property rights and the 3:10 to Yuma”):

I’m a very simple man, and here’s my simple understanding of property law: say I’m a solar-farmer on the moon, just selling my electrical output to them city-folk across the ridge at the spaceport. Pirates, who’ve mutinied against the captain of their spaceship, land on my farm, kill my sons, rape my daughters, and take over my collector to recharge their batteries, becoming their new illicit base to spread their range of plundering and villainy. Who shoots them? If it’s the government, then I have property rights; if it’s me, then I might as well fly my own flag and call my 40 acres “Cardopolis”, a petty king of a petty city-state; if it’s nobody, this scenario will surely come to pass. Every advance in transportation has led to equivalent advances in piracy and I don’t expect space travel to be much different.

In essence, what Card argues is that the protection of any permanent private settlement is going to necessitate sovereign law enforcement de facto, if not de jure. Considering the tremendous influence piracy had on the economic affairs of the rising European empires (yes, I’ve been reading Niall Ferguson’s Empire and Peter Earle’s The Pirate Wars), I think the claim has some basis in history. The appeal of Card’s article, however, is its basis in the Hollywood western.

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Dancing with the stars

Sunday, 18 November 2007 — 6:29pm | Game music, Music, Video games

With 120 stars in hand, I’ve seen most (but not all) of what Super Mario Galaxy has to offer—and my favourite thing about this wholly remarkable game has to be the Comet Observatory waltz. In the many hours I spent with the game, I expended no small measure of time hopping and bopping about in those plumber’s overalls and immersing myself in the rhythm of the piece, which exhibits the sweet, stately lilt of a Tchaikovsky ballet. Like the level selection music in Yoshi’s Island, the instrumentation changes as you progress through the game, building from a lighthearted melodic statement by the flute to a fleshed-out lullaby of Straussian violins befitting a midnight hour with a Disney princess.

Galaxy is the first Mario title to feature live orchestral music, as opposed to music generated by the game system’s MIDI instruments. While most video games have been moving towards scores on par with movies in sound quality and composition—two of the most promising film composers of the past decade, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino, come from a background in games—Nintendo has traditionally been reluctant to move away from programmed music, mostly because of its adherence to the philosophy that interface is always the highest priority (something we similarly observe in their attitude towards story). For instance, they insisted on programmed music in The Wind Waker so it could change dynamically in response to the actions of the player, such as consecutive hits with the sword, and to indicate changes in the environment like the presence of unseen enemies.

In the Mario series, the music serves an even subtler function: it determines the rhythm of the game. It’s there to push the player towards a natural tendency to activate sound effects associated with certain actions—jumping, hitting blocks, collecting power-ups—on the beat.

That’s what the composers claimed, anyhow—and that’s the kind of claim I just had to verify.

Continued »

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Symposia and symbiosis

Saturday, 10 November 2007 — 5:59am | Science

Astrophysicist/novelist Alan Lightman delivered a reportedly eloquent keynote address at the University’s Art & Science Symposium yesterday. I regretfully did not attend—a tremendous mistake, I gather, as Lightman’s talk concerned precisely my field of interest.

I have long held the twin opinions that rejection of or apathy towards rational scientific thought is the single greatest threat to the survival of human society (yes, Virginia, all human society), but without the creative manifestation of the imaginative faculties, we have nothing to live for. It is always heartening to see a lucid defence of the scientific and artistic pursuits from someone who recognizes that one cannot happen at the exclusion of the other.

Now I’ll need to read his books.

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