Friday, June 29, 2012

First-Person Fun

I am well on the road to recovery now, thankfully, barring a minor persistent cough. Being sick over the weekend gave me some time to play Minecraft with my housemate Josh, which was both fun and instructive.

Somewhat surprisingly given its blocky look, Minecraft has one of the highest immersion values for a game I have ever seen. The Survival Mode of Minecraft plays much like Robison Crusoe. You find yourself in a vast world (and I do mean vast, over 8 times the surface area of the Earth) with nothing but the clothes on your back and have to, well, survive. You harvest wood from trees (and can sustainably replant them if you're smart), mine deep underground to find coal and iron, build yourself a shelter to protect you at night from the occasional monsters that try to attack you, and that's just a start. Once you have the basics down you can start exploring more leisurely activities, such as creating paintings for your house, designing amazing architectural masterpieces, or wandering the land in order to map it. In a way, it reminds me of the development of art and culture in a society once people have enough leisure time not to worry about imminent starvation, except experienced by one person.

The vast number of different things you can do in Minecraft lets it appeal to many different types of players. Creative types can skip Survival Mode altogether and just build incredible structures in Creative Mode (or enjoy the challenge of building things while simultaneously making a living for themselves); adventurous types can roam far and wide, seeking out new sights or fulfilling that innate human desire to find out what's "just beyond the next hill"; more competitive types can even take up arms against the sea of troubles monsters cause, and, by opposing, end them. (Sorry, waxing a bit lyrical there.)

But the best part about Minecraft is that it is also a multiplayer game, so you can do all of the previously mentioned things, with friends! And that really increases, the fun, because you can more easily specialize in doing the things you find interesting or fun, again, rather like real developing societies. In our game, Josh turned out to be the builder and designer, while I ended up being the farmer, rancher, and artisan (I'm a much better farmer in Minecraft than I am in real life, by the way). And that's another reason I think the game is so much fun, is it allows you freedom to play to your strengths. Of course that's not to say that I never did any building (once I had a good farm going I did start some building projects of my own), but I could focus on it when I wanted to.

Many multiplayer games are all about people doing the same thing, together. If you're playing a First-Person Shooter type game, both players need to be at fairly similar competency levels, or it's not going to be much fun for one or both (I have fond memories of playing Halo 2 multiplayer with two of my best friends, where they would be furiously duking it out for the lead, and I'd be piddling along far behind blowing myself up with the rocket launcher).

In Minecraft, by contrast, two players can be at different skill levels and do completely different things, while still having fun. At one point I joked to Josh as we were setting out in different directions "See you in an hour!", then realized that it was quite likely to be true, since we were keeping in contact through Skype, but both off doing our own completely different things, and having an absolute blast doing it. And I think that's a big reason why Minecraft is so fun; the ability to play together with other people, without everyone having to do the exact same activities. It's really rather revolutionary, once you've experienced it, and I'm now beginning to understand just why Minecraft has had so much hype about it practically since it began.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Quiet, Mostly Uneventful Week

I usually try to go no more than a week between blogposts, but this week was pretty quiet for me. I was going to post something on Saturday but came down with my first major illness of the year, a severe head cold that has left me with little motivation or energy. I'm hoping it'll go away in a day or two, and I can get back to writing witty and interesting  posts. (At least, I like to think they're witty and interesting.)

The one big thing that happened to me this week is that I finally jumped on the bandwagon and started playing Minecraft. I avoided it for a very long time because of the hype and because I didn't think the idea was very interesting, but I have been immensely and pleasantly surprised to find out just how fun of a game it is. Being of the analytical turn of mind that I am, I've already identified a couple of the things that make it a great game, and will try to summarize them all in a future post. At this point, though, I should probably get to bed and get some rest.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Silver Fountain

Well, after making my silver fountain picture the other day and having gone to all the work to create a three-second-long fluid simulation for it (which probably took half an hour to calculate) only to use just one of the 75 resulting frames, I decided it would be fitting to make an actual video, since fountains are generally known more for their liquid nature.


I re-modeled the fountain itself since I wasn't quite satisfied with how it looked (which included making it an actual object with volume rather than a paper-thin shell), calculated a full five seconds of fluid simulation, then rendered the entire thing at 25 frames per second, 300 cycles per frame. I'm not sure how long the entire process took because I did it over night, only that it took less than ten hours.

I should explain that the reason I can get such realistically rendered water is because of Blender's new (as of version 2.61 from last December) internal rendering engine called Cycles. Unlike the original internal render mechanism, Cycles has no set “end” point. Instead, it simply renders a predetermined number of cycles, each cycle improving the picture. Each cycle does not, however, improve it by the same amount, leading to a point of diminishing returns after which additional cycles cost more in time than they are worth in aesthetic improvement. What that point is, of course, is entirely subjective.

A larger version of frame 43 from the video, 300 cycles. Took 13 minutes 50 seconds to render.
The existence of this point leads to a trade-off between “How good do I want this picture to look?” and “How much time am I willing to devote to making it look good?”. This becomes especially critical in video rendering when you're rendering hundreds of frames. For instance, for my single picture a few days ago, I let it render for 1,000 cycles, which took two hours and twenty-one minutes. Obviously I can't do that for each of the 125 frames I was rendering for this video, but I still wanted it to look decent, so I compromised and rendered 300 cycles for each frame. If you look closely (or maybe not all that closely, I don't know) you can definitely spot the difference.

Similar to above, but with 500 cycles. Not as dramatic a difference as I'd hoped, but you can see that the water in the basin and the shadow looks less noisy than the 300 cycles version. This one took 23 and a half minutes to render.
I do think that Cycles is a very cool development for Blender (although it forces a re-learning of the texturing and lighting process almost from the ground up), and it certainly works well for single pictures when you can let it go for a long time (it's not uncommon to see artists using such open-ended renderers letting them run for 5,000 cycles or more). I've got some ideas for future artwork of a more substantial kind, so keep an eye out for it in the future.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Venus Transit T-shirt Concept Art!

I don't know about you, but I often find it quite interesting to get behind-the-scenes looks at how things are made. My analytical mind is constantly analyzing everything I see (even when I'm not consciously aware of it), trying to find out what makes good things successful, and why unsuccessful things fail. In that vein, concept art is a very useful learning tool. Seeing what was kept and what was dropped helps in understanding the thought that went into the creative process, which is very interesting for a creative person like me.

Having said that, I'm rather happy to be able to unveil some of the first pieces of concept art ever on this blog. This one is an alternate design for the transit of Venus T-shirt that was rejected (with good reason) because it didn't stand out very well. I was trying to imitate the appearance of a solar flare with a picture I took of the Sun through our solar telescope last year, an idea I had only just come up with.

Concept art for the transit of Venus T-shirt. I hadn't even put a simulated Venus on yet, and this was before we ditched the photo of Mauna Kea for a more stylized approach.

I thought at the time (and still do) that this was a really cool way of making lettering, but I also see why it wouldn't have made a good poster. It's fairly ethereal, and doesn't really stick out much. Also, it's rather time-consuming to make each individual letter, though to be fair I did spend a good amount of time placing and adding a separate gradient to each letter in the official "Transit Of Venus" header that ended up on the poster. (Notice how I analyzing my own work now? Told you I'm constantly doing it.)

All in all I still think it's a neat design, and I'll be filing away the idea in case I ever need to use it again some time. (The secret to it, by the way, is nothing more than repeated applications of the Smudge tool in GIMP.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Composition in Silver

In honor of today being my parents' 25th wedding anniversary, I created this thematic composition on the theme of silver. I'm ashamed to admit that it sort of snuck up on me so I only had a few hours last night to put it together, but I think it came out alright.

I actually got the idea for this composition while taking a drink from one of the drinking fountains at the Vis, where the combination of silvery brushed metal, liquid water droplets splashing and frolicking about and a low sun angle added up to create a sublimely beautiful spectacle. The picture below from my phone is my best attempt to capture it, but it was much more beautiful than it appears here.

As mentioned, total work on this picture was only ~4-5 hours, a fair portion of which was waiting for Blender to render the image so I could see how it looked and what tweaks needed to be made (in fact the final render, which I left going overnight, took almost three-and-a-half hours by itself). The metal texture was made by me in GIMP, and I'm quite pleased with how it turned out for the amount of time I had to work on it. I was trying to replicate the white scratches you can see in the picture above. The modeling and fluid animation  were done in Blender, and rendered with the new internal Cycles engine that achieves much more physically realistic pictures. For instance, that water has the index of refraction of water at room temperature, and the light in the scene is realistically being refracted through it. I haven't done much fluid animation before and have had mixed results when I tried, so I'm really very happy with how this came out. I might even animate a short video of it splashing in the fountain in the near future.

Finally, happy silver anniversary Mom and Dad! Here's to another 25 years!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Transit of Venus Redux

Well, the transit of Venus came and went, and I survived. I wasn't entirely sure I would with all the stress building up to it, but here I am. I've been quite fortunate in getting four days off in a row to recuperate, and I felt rested enough by the third day to finally make myself the belated birthday cake that I've been meaning to do for two weeks now.

I also recovered enough of my creative drive to put together this collage from pictures I took with my camera through one of our 14-inch scopes. This picture was taken around 3:37 in the afternoon, and you can clearly see Venus as the round dot and a couple of sunspots as the irregular faint black spots.

Transit of Venus, June 5, 2012.

It's kind of strange to consider, but this is now a rather historic picture. I can't really say that I've ever done anything historic before. Making some assumptions about the future, it's possible that someone over a hundred years from now could find this picture while researching ancient coverage of previous transits of Venus. Kinda makes you stop and think, doesn't it?

To paraphrase a famous quote from the previous pair of transits, “And what will be the state of science in that far distant future when the December snows are falling in 2117, God only knows.”

Monday, June 4, 2012

Transit of Venus Posters!

Well, today, the last day before the transit of Venus, I thought I'd share these poster designs that I came up with for work and which are now available as actual 11” by 17” posters in the gift store at the Visitor Information Station. Essentially the same poster but in two different color versions!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On the Scientific Value of the Transit of Venus

Well, this is it. On Tuesday Venus will pass in front of the Sun, along with everything that entails for my job of trying to present it to the public. To be honest, I'm most excited simply that it will be over, so life can return to a semblance of normality and not crazy over-working (I was originally scheduled to work 64 hours this week over a period of 5 days, until I was able to point out that for 2 of those days I was redundant and unnecessary).

Today I thought I'd quickly explain why previous transits of Venus were such objects of scientific interest, to the point that multiple nations sent scientific expeditions on hazardous voyages around the world. It all has to do with the size of the Solar System

Back in the early 1600's a brilliant astronomer by the name of Johannes Kepler formulated three descriptions of planetary motion that have come to be known as Kepler's Laws. A full description of them would take another post, so it will suffice to say that they describe planetary motion in the Solar System to a very high degree of accuracy (one made even better when Newton introduced his theory of gravity to explain why the laws worked the way they did). The third law, in particular, relates the square of the time it takes a planet to orbit the Sun to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit. To a good approximation, given that all planetary orbits are pretty close to circles, what this says is that if you know the orbital period of a planet, you can figure out how far it is from the Sun. Figuring out the orbital period is a bit of work, but nothing that the astronomers of the day couldn't handle, and they were excited to find out just how big this Solar System of ours is.

Unfortunately, there's one catch: the way the law is formulated gives the distance from the Sun to the planets in terms of the distance between the Sun and the Earth. Since that wasn't known to begin with (that's part of the reason for wanting to find it, after all), it seemed that astronomers were stuck (sure, they could use the law to say that Jupiter is 5.204 times farther from the Sun than Earth is, but without absolute numbers it's a somewhat hollow achievement).

This sorry state of affairs remained until a Scottish mathematician named James Gregory suggested that observations of the time taken for Mercury to cross the Sun's face as seen from widely separated points on Earth could be used to figure out how far away the Sun was. The young astronomer Edmond Halley (better known for being the first person to predict the return of a comet, which still bears his name) tried to do this for a transit of Mercury in 1676 but was frustrated by the fact that only one other such observation existed, and didn't think that two data points were accurate enough. He suggested that more accurate calculations could be done using a transit of Venus instead, but he unfortunately would not live to see the next one in 1761.

His suggestion, however, did not go unheard (being the second Astronomer Royal to the British crown may have had something to do with it), and when the next pair of transits rolled around astronomers around the world were ready. Expeditions from England, France, and Austria traveled around the world for the 1761 transit, and Captain Cook made his first voyage to the Pacific to observe the 1769 one.

This was, in a very real sense, the first major example of international co-operation in history. It's something we don't even think about today, but it helped set the stage for the atmosphere of cordial co-operation that exists in science throughout the world today (with the occasional bit of friendly rivalry thrown in). We don't find it strange today that scientists from all over the world freely publish the results of their experiments which may have required millions of dollars and hundreds of man-hours to find, but it didn't necessarily have to be this way. Science and knowledge could have been (and have been at points in history) very territorial things, hoarded for national gain (think of the secrets of Greek fire, known only to the Byzantines). Instead we have a world where anyone can pick up the latest issue of a scientific journal and peruse its contents freely (in the sense of “personal freedom”, not the “no-cost” sense), and I like to think that astronomers may have had something to with that.

To cut a long story short, the expeditions, although many of them did observe Venus, were not successful in their main quest to determine the Earth-Sun distance. The reason has to do with the “black drop effect”, wherein Venus appears to elongate as it approaches the edge of the Sun's disk (from either side). Unfortunately, precise timing of exactly those moments was the critical information needed for the calculations to work. This effect was at first (and for a long time) thought to be proof that Venus had a atmosphere, but in reality it has more to do with imperfections in observing equipment and turbulence in Earth's atmosphere (Venus does have an atmosphere, of course, but that's beside the point, as the black drop effect also shows up during transits of atmosphere-less Mercury to a lesser extant).

Anyway, when the transits of 1874 and 1882 came around, astronomers tried again. Although the black drop effect was still in, well, effect, the data generated from all previous observations was enough to get a pretty good value of 149.59 million kilometers (92.95 million miles) using statistical methods, very close to the modern day value of 149,598,261 kilometers (92,956,048.8 miles).

And where are we today? With the advent of radar and other modern advances we can now calculate the distance to the Sun to about \(\pm\)30 meters (~100 feet), and transits of Venus are no longer necessary to tell us how big the Solar System is. They are now interesting for entirely new reasons that could hardly have been foreseen by those astronomers of old. Now, observations of transits of Venus have the potential to help with the burgeoning field of finding planets around other Stars, especially small, rocky planets like Earth and Venus.

At this point, it's interesting to speculate on what may happen between now and the next transit of Venus in 2117. Given how much the world has changed in the last 130 years, I don't think I want to make any predictions, but it would be interesting to see how our knowledge of exoplanets will grow in the meantime, and how much can be learned from studying this current pair of transits. Exciting stuff!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Friends and Farewalls

Friday my next-room-over housemate and good friend Jonathan moved back to his native Malaysia having graduated with a degree in Marine Science a few weeks ago. Since I'm sure he'll read this, I just want to say thanks for being such a great housemate – you were one of the first friends I made when I first came to Hawai‘i, and it's been a blast. I won't forget how readily you were willing to lend me your moped even when you hardly knew me, and I'll try to be worthy of it. Also, your chair is a whole lot more comfy than my old one.

Earlier this week I also learned that my advisor and one of the longest-serving astronomy/physics professors at UHHilo, Dr. Crowe, was killed in a car accident on the mainland last week. He may not always have been the easiest professor, but he was definitely one of the nicest guys on campus, and since he's been around for nearly 40 years it's going to be a huge change with him gone.

Sorry to leave you all with such a depressing post, but with the spectre of the transit of Venus looming on Tuesday I've been running ragged the last few weeks preparing for it, and am somewhat worn, mentally. Being an astronomer or physicist you're usually looking at the grand mysteries of existence and the Universe, so when these personal things hit it can catch you a bit off balance.

Ke Akua pū, a hui hou kākou!