Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New Coolest Picture Ever

I'm not intending my blog to become "all Mars all the time," but c'mon, I can't let this pass:
. My friend Sherwood the Astronomer left a comment in yesterday's post informing me that the reign of yesterday's Coolest Picture Ever has ended, and so it has. We have a cooler Coolest Picture Ever.

This is a shot from HiRISE, the same Mars satellite that took the parachute photo as well as the great photo of the Earth and Moon I loved back in March. It's looking straight down on the Phoenix lander from space. And not just the lander: this image also shows where Phoenix's heat shield, parachute, and backshell (a protective cover ejected before touchdown) all landed.

The quality and resolution of this image is astounding. Phoenix isn't very large, about five feet tall and wide, but you can even make out its two solar panels unfurled to the sides (spanning about 18 feet tip to tip). A person could walk across this picture in a couple of minutes. The beautiful part is that HiRISE is charting the entire planet at this level of detail. I'll bet there are spots on Earth we haven't seen this well.

What a triumph! And how amazing that we take such triumphs for granted. Science has spoiled us.

EDITED TO ADD: Just found this photo, which puts the former Coolest Picture Ever into even cooler perspective. It turned out that the photo released yesterday was a heavily processed blow-up of a much larger HiRISE image. Here's the original:

Hard to see at Blogger resolution, but the inset at lower left shows what that little white speck looks like magnified. This is Phoenix and its parachute drifting in front of the large Heimdall Crater (same photo as yesterday--they only had one shot at this). The probe was still several kilometers high at this point and landed nowhere near the crater. But that's some impressive context!


Monday, May 26, 2008

Coolest Picture Ever

Building on my previous post and tying in to an older one, this is the coolest picture ever. This is a photo of the Phoenix lander and its parachute as it descended toward the surface of Mars on Sunday. You can see some detail in the parachute and even a hint of the lines connecting the chute and lander.
Immediate obvious question: Who took this picture? Why, our old friend HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and mapping Mars since March 2006. So an Earth probe circling Mars was aimed to take a picture of another probe landing on Mars. What I love about this image is that it probably happened just because someone said, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if...?" And it is, very cool.

Now that Phoenix has landed, I imagine they'll ask HiRISE to try to photograph it on the surface as well--if for no other reason than to figure out exactly where it is. I've seen HiRISE pictures of the two Mars rovers (Opportunity and Spirit) already there, and Phoenix should be baaaaarely visible from orbit.

What a great time to be alive.

Quick Bits

  • I'm very excited about the successful landing of the Phoenix craft on Mars. Unlike other recent Mars machines, but very reminiscent of the Viking landers of my teens, Phoenix can't move. It will sit in one spot, scoop up soil (and, with luck, ice), and analyze it with a small onboard chemistry lab looking for complex organic compounds. The first photos from the landing site are coming in, and I'm again struck with the wonder of seeing something for the first time that no one in human history has seen before. Terrific!
  • .
  • We're not finding our quail family around the yard anymore, but trust they scuttled away safely. Taking over their niche in our little domestic ecosystem has been a group of three or four squirrels that look like young siblings. They're having a joyous time chasing each other through the trees and digging up Karen's newly planted flower pots. As always, our indoor cats are not amused. Nor is Karen, much.
  • .
  • Following up on this post, the family and I saw the new Indiana Jones movie on Friday. We all found Indy much too indestructable but thought there were enough good character and action moments to compensate. We each had our own quibbles and favorite bits, but on consensus thought it was worth our time and money. Not the painful embarrassment it could have been by any means.
  • .
  • EDITED TO ADD because I forgot to mention that I also made ravioli from scratch for the first time in my life this weekend. Fresh ricotta, mozzerella and parmesan blended with oregano and pinched between sheets of homemade pasta. My girls and I did it together and it was good. Suggestions for future ravioli stuffings will be gratefully accepted.

  • Today is Memorial Day in the U.S. Take a second to remember why.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Orphan Works

I wish I posted more often and regularly, but I've been awfully busy and blogging takes time, what with the thinking and writing and all. My site stats say a bunch of you check in regularly and I appreciate it.

"Orphan Works" is a topic that's really riled up my cartooning and illustrating acquaintances. Senate Bill S2913 is the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008 and HR5889 is its counterpart in the House. If the legislation passes, it will dramatically change copyright law in the U.S., and not for the benefit of creative types. I'm trying to educate myself and haven't actually yet read the text of the bill, so my comments are tentative and based on what others tell me.

As I understand it, Orphan Works are creative products--books, articles, essays, photos, artwork, cartoons--that somebody wants to reproduce but can't find the original copyright holder to pay or ask permission. As the law stands now, you'd be a criminal fool to say "what the heck" and use it anyway; someone owns the rights to the work even if you don't know who. If the Orphan Works bill passes, it would make it legal to do a diligent search for the work's original owners and, if you can't find them, not only go ahead and use it but register it for protection under your own copyright. What exactly constitutes a "diligent search" isn't defined.

Here's part of the problem: before 1978, if you created something and wanted to copyright it, you had to pay a small fee and register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. But in 1978 the law changed so that creators obtain copyright to their work the moment they create it without doing anything at all. You don't have to register or pay a fee; if you made it, you automatically own the legal rights to it and get to decide what happens to it. (If you want, you can still register with the U.S. Copyright Office, which does leave a useful paper trail. But you don't have to.) From the creator's point of view, that's great. It really cuts down on the hassle and expense. The drawback is that it doesn't create an official record for someone else to follow.

So let's say you wrote or drew something a few years ago. Maybe the publisher went out of business, maybe your signature or byline isn't legible, maybe your work is clearly marked “©1989 Bob Smith” but there are a million Bob Smiths in America so good luck finding the right one. Maybe you've got an old family photo posted on the Web. Or maybe you created one of those memes that just floats around the Internet. Next thing you know, someone else could take your work, register it as theirs, and crank out t-shirts, posters, books, movies and breakfast cereals based on your stuff. They could even prevent you from using it. And there's nothing you could do about it.

You can understand where the outrage comes from. Some artists call it legalized theft. Some imagine giant corporations laying claim to all the work they can find and bulldozing any creators who come out of the woodwork to object. Some fear the establishment of a registration clearinghouse--essentially a return to the pre-1978 situation--that could put them out of business (imagine being a magazine cartoonist creating 50 gags a week and having to register them all at $20 a pop).

I can actually see both sides of the issue. As a writer, I'm a very vigorous defender of copyright and I'd be outraged if someone took my words, art or characters and used them without my permission (if there's any exploiting to be done, it'll be by me!). I created 'em, I say what happens to 'em. I really despise the whole modern song-sharing software-pirating mash-up-media "information should be free" ethic. It's disrespectful. As I've written before: especially in a society that produces so few material goods anymore, the most valuable products we have are ideas; if you think my ideas are good enough to steal, you ought to think they're worth asking permission or paying for.

On the other hand... I'm working on a project now that incorporates bits of old artwork. One was copyrighted by General Motors in the 1940s, so I wrote GM (they've got a whole department for the purpose) and paid them a fair fee to license its use. Another was produced by a now-deceased artist in the 1950s, so I tracked down his estate and got their permission to use it. But there are other pieces done for publications long defunct by obscure artists long dead who as far as I can tell left no heirs. They're terrific work I'd really like to use but I can't and won't. That's a shame, and it also seems contrary to the original spirit of copyright, which was to give creators a reasonable time to profit from their work before freeing it for use by everyone (that's called "public domain," which is why anyone who wants to can write a Dracula or Sherlock Holmes story). Instead, the work is locked away and nobody benefits.

Still, it seems clear to me that the current Orphan Works bill is an abomination that ought to be stopped. It's an overkill solution to an insignificant problem. I'd urge you to write your legislators blah blah blah, and I have, but I don't really expect you to. I just thought you'd like to know what they're up to and why your favorite cartoonists may seem grouchy lately.

My copyright registration for Mom's Cancer.
So don't even think about trying any funny business.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

To the Bat Ballot!

Upcoming elections make this a perfect time to pause and reflect on the wisdom of the Caped Crusader:

The nice thing about the clip is that it works no matter what your political persuasion. Because, you see, all the pandering and dirty tricks are the fault of those other guys.... Never yours.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mothers Day '08

Yesterday was Mothers Day in the U.S., and I let it pass without mention. One reason is that Karen and I were out of town spending the day with our kids. Another is that I couldn't think of much interesting to say.

But of course I was thinking about and missing Mom. It's only in retrospect, and with the perspective of being a parent myself, that I realize how much she loved her children and genuinely wanted nothing but happiness for us. And gave to us unconditionally... including, I realized too late, giving me the final gift of letting me write a book about her. Thanks, Mom. Love you, too.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cap'n, There Be Quails Here!

About 11 months ago, I wrote about a family of blue scrub jays that had nested in our backyard. Those fledglings are long gone (though I wonder if some of the babies I so carefully nurtured have grown into the annoying squawkers who dominate our bird feeder--if so, nice payback, guys), but today we found that another family has assumed their lease: Quail.

We count seven young'uns. Sorry the picture quality isn't better...

We've seen Dad around a lot in the past week. He's particularly handsome, a finely plumed dandy. He flies pretty well for a quail, too. We've been surprised to notice him watching us from high tree branches overhead. This morning the reasons for his diligence introduced themselves by scrambling over to a small shallow birdbath we have sitting in the dirt, taking a quick refreshing dip, then scurrying back to cover. I couldn't catch it with the camera, but there was a squirrel sitting nearby watching them the entire time, while one of our cats was perched on the windowsill watching both quail and squirrel and cursing the inventor of glass.

Family photo of Dad, Mom and a couple of chicks

I like the idea of our little suburban yard being a nature preserve. Once word gets out, there'll be no keeping the critters away.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

He's the Cool Exec with a Heart of Steel

Karen and I saw "Iron Man" yesterday and liked it a lot. As a once-enthusiastic collector of "The Avengers," Marvel Comics' Justice-League-like supergroup that Iron Man helped form, I'm an old fan of shellhead's adventures.

I found the film very respectful of its source material--unlike many comic book adaptations that wink at their origins--and surprisingly faithful. Southeast Asia circa 1963 was easily updated to Afghanistan today. It has a nice mix of humor and action. Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark perfectly as a suave mix of Howard Hughes, Bill Gates and Errol Flynn. Stark has a satisfying emotional arc from insouciant weapons dealer to conscience-stricken knight, and Jeff Bridges plays the villain Stane with a great combination of warmth and menace. You'd believe he was your best friend until the second he stuck a knife in your ribs, and might even believe him when he said he regretted doing it.

All in all, I'd call it one of the best comic book movies ever and, more importantly, a movie that audiences completely unfamiliar with Iron Man (admittedly a second-tier character) will enjoy. My only caveat is that it's fairly violent; Iron Man doesn't hesitate to kill bad guys who deserve it, and though the deaths are mostly bloodless and off-screen, they might be too much for young or sensitive viewers.

That's all well and good, but I don't normally post movie reviews unless I have ulterior motives. In this case, I noticed an end credit acknowledging the work of four men in creating Iron Man: editor Stan Lee, (who makes his customary cameo in the film), writer Larry Lieber (Stan's brother, who wrote Iron Man's early stories), Jack Kirby (who I believe designed Iron Man's first armor), and ... Don Heck, Iron Man's first artist. I wrote about Mr. Heck in April, citing him as my personal example of an artist whose work I didn't appreciate until my critical eye had matured. Heck's loose brushwork was perfect for the Swingin' Sixties James Bond vibe of the early Iron Man stories. It was nice to see a maligned artist get his deserved due.

Iron Man sketch by Don Heck, done in the late 1960s