Fighting Fantasy lives on

Today in Edinburgh I came across a boxed set of the first four Fighting Fantasy books. Immediately a wave of childhood reminiscence swept over me. I was totally fascinated by the Pick-a-Path books (in which you’d make a story plot choice and jump to a different page to learn what the outcome was) and then later by more sophisticated versions that had you track D&D-style stats and possessions and simulate battles (I remember really enjoying some spaceship-themed books). I don’t remember Fighting Fantasy itself, which apparently was the U.K. version of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA).

I hesitated, the books in my hand. I’d had a recent disappointment with CYOA in which I’d jumped on purchasing a couple of recently published books that I’d come across online. “Your Very Own Robot” and “The Haunted House” (both published in 2006, originally 1982) turned out to be painfully inane and even worse, random! There was no connection between a “good” choice and a “good” outcome. No matter what choice you made, it was like rolling a dice to see whether it would lead to success or failure (or unicorns on rainbows, in one case). I was left unsure whether the books ever had any redeeming qualities. (I later learned that these books are from their “younger readers” series. But still.)

Checking these Fighting Fantasy books, they turned out to be 2003 reprints of the original 1982 stories. I wondered whether I should purchase them (turn to page 67) or save my money for something else (turn to page 125). I went with the first option and brought them back to my B&B room. So far I’m midway through my first play/read of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and it’s fun (if simple). I’ve slain five orcs and two goblins, and although I am not very Lucky, my Stamina is high and I still have 9 meals of food remaining. Even better, there’s far more logic evident connecting choices to outcomes. I’ve also enjoyed crafting a map of the mountain (one of the things I love about interactive fiction, too). I’m hoping to be faced with some actual puzzles to solve.

I find it interesting that there seems to be a thriving community still surrounding these books. While revolutionary when they were first introduced, I would have expected them to be superseded by more advanced video games, interactive fiction (which provides a richer kind of interaction), and the web itself (hypertext being a much easier way to provide the jumping-around narrative). But judging from the Official Fighting Fantasy Website (where you can sign up to join the online community), they seem instead to have maintained their popularity, and they’re even providing the books in iPhone App format (which seems a less clunky (and more aesthetic) solution than the books).

Perhaps one reason they’re still so popular is that they’ve made it easy for fans to write their own Fighting Fantasies (Amateur Adventures) which are posted for other fans to enjoy. This reminds me distinctly of the Interactive Fiction Archive, where IF written by enthusiasts is shared with others in the community. And in addition, the Fighting Fantasies are actively marketed as a teaching aid for reluctant readers. I think they’re great, even for non-reluctant readers!

Abraham Lincoln in Manchester?

While exploring Manchester, I walked into a square in which I was surprised by a tall statue of Abraham Lincoln. Sure, he’s an American icon, but in England? I walked closer to read the inscription at the foot of the statue, and a bit of history unfolded before me. Apparently, Manchester stood by the North during the Civil War, which meant supporting the embargo against the Southern states. This was devastating for Manchester, which produced a phenomenal 98% of the world’s finished cotton (I saw several references throughout the city to Manchester as “Cottonopolis”), and depended heavily on the South for raw cotton imports. As a result, 1861–1865 in Manchester became known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine due to rampant unemployment. Apparently, Britain had abolished slavery in the British Caribbean in 1838. Somewhat depressingly, conditions for those living in Manchester (“Mancunians“) were often no better than those of American slaves (51% mortality for children under 14?!). This may have been part of their motivation in supporting abolition—a chance to make a point about such conditions being insufferable. Lincoln also sent 13,000 barrels of flour to Manchester in 1863 to help feed those who were suffering. The statue’s base records excerpts of a letter from Manchester to Lincoln, and of his reply (see here).

A question lingered in my mind after reading all this, though. Who erected the statue? The Mancunians themselves, to commemorate their own suffering? Or was it a gift from the U.S.? It turns out that the statue was originally destined for London to mark 100 years of peace between the U.S. and England, 1814-1914. A different statue was chosen for London, and Manchester requested that this one go to it instead, citing the Civil War connection. At that time, the statue’s base with the letter excerpts was added.

How unexpected, to go to Manchester and learn something new about the American Civil War. Thank you, Manchester!

Chocolate and Charles Darwin

I’m currently in Manchester, U.K., for the SKA Science and Engineering Meeting (SKA stands for Square-Kilometer Array, a huge next-generation radio telescope array that’s going to be built this generation). I arrived on Saturday around noon local time, after traveling 6,300 miles over about 13 hours (with a layover in Frankfurt in there). Manchester was wet and drizzly, but it was neat to see a place where spring has meaning: little yellow narcissus had sprung up in the park, and white and purple bulbs (crocus?) were just starting to peek out.

To beat jet lag, I needed to stay up until a reasonable bedtime. So I went exploring to the nearby Manchester Museum, which welcomed me to the city with a “Chocolate Big Saturday”. “Big Saturdays” are apparently a periodic event at the museum, and the lure of chocolate distracted me from thinking through what it meant to go to a museum on a Saturday… especially one advertising a chocolate fountain. That’s right, as soon as I stepped inside I was nearly mown down by shrieking children racing around the lobby. I browsed the people showing cacao beans and leaves and how chocolate is made into bars. I was most intrigued by the hand-held spectrometer (like a little pen with a flashing light coming out) that one docent was using to collect and display spectra from M&Ms. I was about to ask if they sold hand-held spectrometers in the gift shop when she commented that this one cost £1,000. I also learned that Smarties (the British version of M&Ms) use only natural dyes (derived from plants) which is why they seem a bit faded or pastel compared to the aggressively supernatural M&M dyes. There was a certain subtext conveyed about British candies being superior to American ones. :)

I then moved on to “The Evolutionist”, a special exhibit on Charles Darwin, complete with comic-book-like (but beautiful) storyboards interspersed with quotes from his writings — some delightfully poetic:

“When looking down from the highest crest of the Cordillera, the mind, undisturbed by minute details, was filled with the stupendous dimensions of the surrounding masses.”

and others rather self-aggrandizing (comments on his own phenomenal powers of observation :) ). The room was full of artifacts, like Darwin’s various collections, and a copy of Charles Lyell‘s “Principles of Geology” (they apparently were friends; Lyell asked Darwin to record the geology he observed in his voyage on the Beagle, which he did). Did you know that Charles Darwin and wife Emma had *ten* children (although two did not survive to adulthood)?

I then went upstairs and saw lots of stuffed animals, a massive sperm whale skeleton (with a very pointy beak!), and a cool historical display on bows and arrows. The museum has an impressive collection of Egypt-related items, including several (real) mummies (not just the coffins). There are thoughtful signs outside the gallery warning those who might not want to view human remains. I was curious, but had to admit that the skeleton with shreds of skin and tissue still on it was pretty creepy. Most of the mummies were almost entirely wrapped, but a few had blackened, shriveled feet sticking out. Finally, I visited the Vivarium, which has lots of live frogs, snakes, and lizards in comfortable habitats. There were also rocks (stromatolites!) and minerals, meteorites and dinosaurs. It was a great, information-filled experience.

I wrapped up the day with a fabulous meal at a local Indian restaurant (Al Bilal), located in the nearby “curry mile”. The food (samosas, garlic naan, saag paneer) was not only delightfully flavored, but seemed to all be made from scratch on the spot. Wow!

No surfing on Titan

The discovery of lakes on Titan in 2006 has fueled many imaginations and also inspired a lot of questions. One of those questions was presented today at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) by Ralph Lorenz. We’ve observed that these lakes are filled with liquid hydrocarbons (such as methane), so of course they are a bit different from the lakes we find on Earth. But one curiosity is that in all of our observations, we’ve never seen any evidence of waves in these lakes.

We observe lakes on Titan using radar, to penetrate through its thick atmosphere. Radar returns are sensitive to surface roughness, so waves on lakes (among other things) usually show up quite clearly. (We use this on Earth, too; see ocean features observed by Seasat.) But so far, all of our images of Titan lakes have turned out to be entirely flat and glassy: dark surfaces rather than bright ruffled ones.

Why is this? We know there are lakes and we know there are winds, so why no waves? Scientists have attacked this problem by measuring the minimum wind speed needed to kick up waves for (water) lakes on Earth (1-2 m/s) and then adjusting it for Titan’s thicker atmosphere (down to 0.5-1 m/s). Global Climate Models (GCMs) for Titan do suggest that surface winds get above this level during the local summer. Unfortunately, right now it is winter in the south, and there’s where the largest lake (Ontario Lacus) is located. Summer won’t come again until after the Cassini spacecraft’s current Equinox mission ends; the subsequent seven-year Solstice mission might have better luck.

But there could be another reason for the lack of lakes as well. Spectrographic observations of Ontario Lacus suggest that it contains not only ethane and methane but also a lot of dissolved solids (propane and others). These “tarry dregs” would likely increase the lake’s viscosity, making it even harder to ruffle.

Ultimately, until we splashdown into the lake itself, we may not know exactly why the surface stays so calm. Mission concepts such as the Titan Mare Explorer and the Titan Submersible Explorer are designed to do just that.

More info (LPSC 2-page abstracts, PDF):

Be still my beating heart

My hotel presented me with the opportunity to collect some data about myself. On Monday, I went down to try out their exercise room and spent a while running on a treadmill (the first time I’ve ever used a hotel’s exercise room!). After a while I noticed that the shiny metal bars on the hand-rail actually were designed to measure and report your heartrate. After playing with this a little, of course I started to wonder how my body’s heartrate responded to the speed at which I was jogging.

So today when I went down for some exercise, I also took paper and pen with me. Of course what I wanted was for the machine to continuously record timestamps, speed, and heartrate and to deliver a printout to me at the end (or better, just email me the results). But no such luck, so I had to resort to recording it myself. This turned out to be more awkward than I anticipated; I wanted to record heartrate every 30 seconds, but the machine took 15 seconds just to calculate it, and then I had to fumble and write while jogging. Plus, especially at higher heartrates (or jogging speeds, not sure which was the problem), the machine would report garbage that masqueraded as a real heartrate (like suddenly dropping from 120 to 77 bpm). So in the end I had to do some data cleaning, which always makes me uneasy. But I only removed the obvious outliers and left the rest of the noise in.

The result is surprisingly sensible:

The heartrate values at about 8-15 minutes are not reliable; the machine kept reading low, and an independent test with my jugular and the wall clock suggested I was closer to 150 bpm at that point. (The 150 bpm point at 20 minutes was also from a hand-measurement.) But still, pretty cool! A bit of hysteresis, as you might expect. According to the machine, I burned 196 calories (but it didn’t ask for my weight or mass, so…) and traveled 1.9 miles. And I got to make a graph!

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