Video Compilation of Roving on Mars

A new Mars video is out, and it’s incredibly beautiful. The compilation was created on the basis of images captured by three Mars rovers. The imagery was turned into a 10-minute video with amazing detail.

Yoinked from the description by ElderFox Documentaries on YouTube:

“A world first. New footage from Mars rendered in stunning 4K resolution. We also talk about the cameras on board the Martian rovers and how we made the video.

“The cameras on board the rovers were the height of technology when the respective missions launched.”

New: Mars in 4K by ElderFox Documentaries on YouTube

It’s amazing enough to think that we, ugly bags of mostly water, have sent probes into the far reaches of our solar system to capture high-definition photos and send them back. Now we also have rovers on multiple planetary bodies. (Two counts as multiple in my book, LOL!)

Found via Colossal.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Doctor Who Has a Villain Problem

Doctor Who‘s go-to villains are boring. Daleks are boring. Cybermen are boring. The Master is extra super boring with a side of tedious.

The problem with these staples of Doctor Who is not that they are bad villains in themselves. Omnicidal mechanized life forms like the Daleks and Cybermen are a staple of science fiction. Star Trek has done a lot of good work with its Borg, who are just Cybermen with the serial numbers filed off. (For anyone wondering, Cybermen first appeared in the original Doctor Who in 1966, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.) As for the Master, you can hardly throw a sonic screwdriver in sci-fi without hitting a gloating egomaniac who acts as a foil to the hero. The problem with these villains is that they are a bad fit for Doctor Who.

A large part of Doctor Who‘s charm is the pacifism of its hero. As a hero who refuses to pick up a weapon and is always looking for a peaceful solution, the Doctor is, if not entirely unique, a refreshing rarity in science fiction, a genre often bristling with laser blasters and photon torpedoes. Through all the character’s many regenerations, this has been one of their defining characteristics: they approach the unknown with wits and words, not guns and bombs. An explorer, a tinkerer, a scientist, a detective, a negotiator—the Doctor is anything but a warrior. They are at their best not fighting an enemy but solving a problem.

Some of the great episodes of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation have been about precisely that: solving a problem. Even when the Doctor is up against some opposing force, they approach it not as an enemy to be beaten but as a riddle to unravel. Antagonists like the nanogenes that turned blitz-era Londoners into gas-masked zombies in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1) or the clockwork robots haunting Madame de Pompadour in “The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2) were not evil, just malfunctioning technology that the Doctor could fix or disable. Some of the Doctor’s great opponents have indeed been evil, or at least menacing, like the Weeping Angels in “Blink” (season 3) or the mysterious word-copying entity of “Midnight” (season 4), but the Doctor finds ways to defeat them that don’t involve fighting. These kinds of episodes are what we come to Doctor Who for.

Daleks and Cybermen are different. They cannot be negotiated with or peacefully fixed. They are, as written, super-powered beings whose only goal is to wipe out all other life in the universe. The only sensible response to them is simply to blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs you have on hand until there is nothing left of them to blow up. If the Doctor did that, though, they wouldn’t be the Doctor any more, and we would lose what we love most about the character. Which means that whenever Daleks or Cybermen show up, you can count on one of two things happening: the Doctor will magically jigger together some handwavy way of getting rid of them without killing them (which is unsatisfying), or some other character will blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs they have on hand (which rather feels like cheating). Daleks and Cybermen just don’t make for good Doctor Who.

(Also, Doctor Who has really stretched the limits of how much I can tolerate villains with annoying voices who narrate everything they do out loud, but that’s a separate issue.)

The Master is even worse. Daleks and Cybermen at least have coherent goals, however generic. The Master seems to exist simply to annoy the Doctor. Every atrocity they commit, every murder and overly-complicated scheme, serves only one purpose: to make the Doctor feel bad. The Master’s entire motivation stems, as far as I can tell, from one time when they and the Doctor were both Time Kids and the Doctor missed a play date, or something—that is all the depth the character ever gets (at least in the new series). There is no problem here for the Doctor to solve. Nothing to fix or negotiate, just an obsessed stalker whose go-to move is genocide. The best response to the Master would be to shoot them as soon as they turn up and keep shooting them until they run out of regenerations, but that’s not Doctor Who and I wouldn’t want Doctor Who to become a show where that would happen.

Doctor Who is all about saving the day without resorting to violence. Pitting its hero against enemies who allow for no non-violent solution defeats the purpose of Doctor Who. Give us more mysteries, more problems, more foes who can be diverted or negotiated with, not more implacable monstrosities.

Image: Cybermen confront a Dalek, from “Doomsday” (Doctor Who, season 2) via IMDB

Here there be opinions!

Rating: Castle, Season 7

Castle comes roaring back in season 7 with the best showing since the first season. Despite a few missteps, this season really delivers. Here’s our take:

  1. “Driven” – 3.5
  2. “Montreal” – 6
  3. “Clear and Present Danger” – 6
  4. “Child’s Play” – 10
  5. “Meme is Murder” – 1
  6. “The Time of Our Lives” – 6.5
  7. “Once Upon a Time in the West” – 9
  8. “Kill Switch” – 10
  9. “Last Action Hero” – 10
  10. “Bad Santa” – 7.5
  11. “Castle P. I.” – 10
  12. “Private Eye Caramba!” – 10
  13. “I, Witness” – 6
  14. “Resurrection” – 0.5
  15. “Reckoning” – 1
  16. “The Wrong Stuff” – 8
  17. “Hong Kong Hustle” – 6
  18. “At Close Range” – 4
  19. “Habeas Corpse” – 7
  20. “Sleeper” – 4.5
  21. “In Plane Sight” – 8
  22. “Dead from New York” – 4.5
  23. “Hollander’s Woods” – 3

This season’s average is 6.2, much better than the previous season’s 5.4, buoyed up by no less than five episodes scoring a full 10.

Season 7 shakes up the established formula as Castle and Beckett get married and Castle starts his own private investigator business as a way of continuing to work cases after being barred from officially consulting with the department. These developments give the characters some new areas to explore and lead to some great episodes. Other changes are not so productive. After resolving the case of Beckett’s mother last season, the writers felt obliged to shove in another long-running personal mystery for the team, which leads to Castle disappearing on his and Beckett’s wedding day only to resurface two months later with amnesia. This storyline never gains any traction, only acts as dead weight on the season, and eventually just sputters out to an uninteresting conclusion.

The season’s worst episodes, though, are a blast from the past, as Castle’s personal serial killer returns yet again in “Resurrection” (0.5) and “Reckoning” (1). There’s nothing new to see here, just the same old overused bag of tricks. “Reckoning” at least ends with a satisfying conclusion as the team finally pulls itself together to deal with the killer once and for all, but it’s a real slog to get there.

But we can forgive this season its missteps when it delivers an amazing five (five!) episodes that win full marks from us. “Child’s Play” has Castle and Beckett looking for clues to a murder among schoolchildren. It is always a delight to see Castle’s goofy joy at dealing with children, and Nathan Fillion plays him with a warmth and humor that are so rare to see in men on screen. “Kill Switch” puts Detective Esposito in a tense stand-off that gives one of our favorite side characters a chance to shine. “Last Action Hero” is a fun-filled homage to action movies as the team investigates a crime among a group aging action stars. “Castle P. I.” gives the characters some room to grow as Castle starts up his private investigator business. And “Private Eye Caramba!” delves lovingly into the melodramatic world of telenovelas. With a mix of the serious and the silly, these episodes deliver the whimsy and crackling case-solving we love Castle for.

Image: Castle and Beckett investigate a murder in a Mars mission simulator in “The Wrong Stuff” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

New-to-Me Music Style: Bardcore

I recently learned of a new-to-me music style: bardcore.

It means making versions of modern pop / rock songs in the style of medieval ballads. And, oh boy, is there a rabbit hole to fall into!

Verily, behold “Sandstorm” by my fellow countryman Darude:

Darude – Sandstorm (Medieval version) by Marcus Aurelius on YouTube

Another neat bardcore version of a song from Finland, this one a trad: “Ievan polkka”.

Ievan Polkka (Medieval Cover) by Middle Ages on YouTube

Sadly, some are merely badly rendered synthesizer versions. When you do hit gold, though, it’s really good!

Below are other bardcore versions that tickled my fancy. (I saved the best for last, so keep scrolling!)

Gangnam Style (Medieval Style) [Bardcore] by Muckwick on YouTube

Macarena (Medieval Cover) by Middle Ages on YouTube

Nothig Else Matters [sic] – Medieval Style – Bardcore by Early Style on YouTube

Walk Like An Egyptian (Medieval Style) (Vocals!) by Mystic Zaru on YouTube

We Will Rock You [Bardcore] by Graywyck on YouTube

Surprisingly, also the theme for X-Files works quite well:

The X-Files (Medieval Cover) by Middle Ages on YouTube

Hildegard von Blingin’ is by far the best, most dedicated bardcorer (if that’s what they’re called) I’ve found so far.

Somebody That I Used To Know (Bardcore/Medieval Style Cover with Vocals) by Hildegard von Blingin’ on YouTube

What is Love (Medieval Style with Vocals – Original by Cornelius Link) by Hildegard von Blingin’ on YouTube

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Quotes: Any Man Who Judges by the Group is a Pea-wit

We’ve been watching some Lincoln documentaries and movies plus various Lincoln-adjacent media recently. This LOL-worthy moment comes from the movie Gettysburg:

Gettysburg Pea-Wit

“Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit.”

– Sergeant Buster Kilrain in Gettysburg by Ron Maxwell

Context: union soldiers Sergeant Buster Kilrain (pictured) and Colonel Chamberlain were having a discussion on the racism that Black people experience. (Apparently this Kilrain is an invented character.)

Well, he put it concisely and politely!

I can’t say I knew much at all about the U.S. Civil War, but during this Lincoln spell of ours I have learned much, including about Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and feel very co-proud—their resilience at Little Round Top really reminds me of the Finnish Winter War. Go, small northern states with obstinate, resourceful populations!

Image: screencap from Gettysburg (1993; directed by Ron Maxwell, based on the book by Michael Shaara, screenplay by Ron Maxwell)

P.S. In case anyone’s interested, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a surprisingly good bad movie.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Functions of Law

Those of us who know the legal system primarily through procedural dramas tend to think of the law as being mostly concerned with punishing criminals (well, that and giving ace lawyers a chance to stage dramatic courtroom antics), but law has many other functions in society. While many of these are still visible in modern times, in many pre-modern cultures, law was focused on a different function or set of functions than we are used to. If you are writing a story set in the past or in an imagined world and you want to include some dramatic courtroom antics of your own, you may want to think about how law fits into the society you are creating differently from how it fits into ours. Here are some functions of law to think about as you go:

Resolving disputes

This is one we still see a lot in modern legal systems. A lot of law is civil, not criminal, that is it is about settling conflicts between private individuals or groups rather than about the state enforcing standards of acceptable behavior. One of the distinguishing features of modern states is that many conflicts between individuals that earlier legal systems treated under civil law have been brought under criminal law. In pre-modern societies, with less developed state systems, many misdeeds that we consider crimes were left to individuals to dispute through civil law, such as trespass, theft, even murder.

Reinforcing power structures

No society has yet managed to create a legal system that actually treats the rich and powerful equally with the poor and powerless, but the notion this is even an ideal worth striving for is rather modern. In pre-modern cultures, legal systems often served to explicitly reinforce social disparities. Rules about who could bring suit against whom, whose testimony was considered valid, and what punishments could be meted out for a given infraction could be dictated by the status of the individuals in question. The progress and results of a court case functioned as public reminders about who had power and who did not.

Testing community opinion

In pre-modern societies, especially ones that operate on a small scale, relationships often matter more than institutions (more on this topic here and here). As such, when people have problems to resolve, it can be important to gauge and even try to influence the wider community’s opinion. Legal proceedings can be a way of seeing how your neighbors feel about your issues and trying to get them on your side.

Venting anger

People who feel they have been wronged often feel angry about it. Without a way of publicly venting that anger, those feelings can fester and poison relationships within a community. The law can provide a venue for people to express their anger and feel heard. Even if they don’t get the substantive result they want, the psychological relief of letting those feelings out can do a lot to restore calm among neighbors and relations.

Constraining violence

People who feel wronged and have no other recourse may decide to redress the injuries they have suffered by force. This violence can spiral out of control as families, villages, and factions get wrapped up in reprisals. There are few real cases in history of violent feuds going on for generations (unlike in fiction, where they are all too common), but even short-term flare ups of violence can be hugely disruptive to smaller societies. The law offers an alternative way of settling disputes that sets limits on who can legitimately use violence, when, where, and for what purpose.

Most legal systems combine some or all of the aspects listed here, but the balance among them tells us a lot about how any given society works. If you’re including some kind of legal tradition in your worldbulding, its a useful exercise to think about which of these functions are more important in it, and how it achieves them. Because not every fantasy court case needs to play like an episode of Law & Order!

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Dwarven Fire Mage Transmog

I mentioned in the past that my fire mage got a hidden artifact appearance as a random drop back in Legion. I also mentioned that I’d made a new mog for her, but never posted a better screencap of it. Tut tut, bad librarian!

Turns out I liked her mog so much I kept it even after we moved on from Legion artifacts. Since it’s likely I’m going to change it after World of Warcraft Shadowlands drops, here, finally, is the mog saved for posterity.

BfA Dwarven Fire Mage Transmog

The wand and legs aren’t mogged, and I’ve hidden the head, shoulder, and belt slots. Like with my surv hunter mog, I used the wrist armor to add another stripe of turquoise into the set.

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.

Image: screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Representation Chart: Star Wars, Sequel Trilogy

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Star Wars sequel trilogy movies (Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker).

Characters included

(Characters are listed in the first movie in which they qualify for inclusion under the rules given below.)

  • Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, Han Solo, General Hux, Snap Wexley, Rey, Captain Phasma, General Leia Organa, Finn
  • Episode VIII: The Last Jedi: Luke Skywalker, Vice Admiral Holdo, Rose Tico
  • Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker: Emperor Palpatine, Zorii, Lando Calrissian

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count). Phasma and Zorii are edge cases on this rule, but since we do at least once see enough of their faces to identify the actors as white women, I have included them.
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, titles, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate. “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Chart by Erik Jensen

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

The Four Styles of Lego Pop Wall Art

Lego seems to be trying to appeal to older fans as well as kids: they’re now offering some pixelated “pop art” (to quote CNN Style). These Lego art pieces depict Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles, some of the Sith from Star Wars, and Iron Man.

Lego Art Options Screencap

I don’t know about you, but this is a really cool idea. I just wish there were more of them, and more women plus BIPOC.

In related news, did you know you can buy individual Lego bricks? I may have to dust off my pixelating software skills…! 😀

Found via File 770.

Image: screencap from LEGO website.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Toss a Coin to Your Mercenary

If you’ve played a role-playing game, whether tabletop or computer, you’ve probably seen your hero complete a quest and get rewarded with a handful of coins (be they copper, silver, gold, or something more exotic). It’s a perfectly familiar experience that makes sense from a modern point of view: do a job, get money. There’s a historical connection, though, between mercenaries (which, when you come right down to it, is what a lot of RPG characters are) and coins.

Various objects have been used for trade in cultures all around the world, from cowrie shells to cacao beans, but the earliest coins as we traditionally know them—lumps of precious metal in standardized weights stamped with symbols—were produced in the kingdom of Lydia, in the mountains of western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), in the seventh century BCE. Lydia had two good reasons for producing coins. One: they had an abundance of precious metal wealth in the form of electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver) collected from the rivers that ran through Lydia’s mountainous land. Two: they needed soldiers.

For a period in the seventh and sixth centuries, Lydia was one of four major states that dominated the region we know today as the Middle East. The others were Egypt, Babylon, and Media. These four states competed for dominance in the region and needed to maintain strong military forces. Many of them looked to the smaller, poorer, less well organized societies on their borders as recruiting grounds for mercenary soldiers.

There are certain advantages to hiring mercenaries rather than recruiting your own people to fight your wars. Hiring mercenaries lets you put troops on the front lines quickly while keeping your own peasants in the fields producing food. The loyalty of mercenaries is not constrained by local ties or obligations. They can be tasked with dangerous or onerous tasks like digging siege tunnels or standing guard duty that might prompt unrest if you asked a levy of your own people to do them. Finally, if you send a company of mercenaries into battle and a lot of them die, you don’t have to deal with their angry families back home.

Mercenaries are not integrated into the economies in which they serve. Pre-modern societies were held together by bonds of mutual obligation established over years and generations of living and working together. Landowners had an obligation to protect the tenant farmers who worked for them, and tenant farmers in return had an obligation to work the land. Small farmers living together in a village owed one another mutual support. Crafters and other specialists such as priests, doctors, entertainers, scribes, and others who offered services for pay still did so in the context of long-standing relationships. When people like these were called upon to form an army, they fought in defense of their homes and families, but also within existing relationships of obligation and patronage. Even if there was no formal compensation for militia service, a tenant farmer or a blacksmith who went off to war could expect that some of the benefits of victory would filter down to them through these relationships.

If you want mercenaries to fight for you, though, you have to pay them. You can offer food, clothing, and other goods like that, but a person only needs so many shirts, and extra food is hard to lug around from camp to camp. You can promise them land once their service is done, but that can cause conflicts with your own people who may not want a bunch of foreigners settling nearby. Also, having a lot of experienced fighters with nothing to do hanging around your kingdom can lead to trouble—once they’ve finished fighting your wars, you generally want them to go away again. For similar reasons, you don’t want your mercenaries to feel as though they’re being cheated or paid unequally, so whatever you pay them should be something whose value is easy to measure.

So the ideal characteristics of mercenary pay are:

  • Something that doesn’t excessively burden your own people to spend.
  • Something easily portable.
  • Something whose value is not dependent on being tied into your society or economy.
  • Something whose value is easy to measure.

For the kings of Lydia, the answer was easy: lumps of precious metal in standardized weights stamped with symbols. Or, as we know them now: coins.

Lydia had plenty of electrum to spare; handing it out to mercenaries put no extra burden on the Lydian people. (Electrum, containing variable proportions of silver and gold, was hard to make coins of standard value out of, so early electrum coins were soon replaced with coins made out of pure silver or gold processed out of raw electrum.) Coins were easy to carry. Although the exact value of a given weight of metal could vary depending on local circumstances, a full year’s pay for a mercenary might amount to no more than a kilo and a half of silver or a tenth of a kilo of gold. Precious metals were in demand everywhere. Mercenaries from Greece, Thrace, or Caria could easily take their coins home and exchange them for land or goods. The symbols stamped on coins served in part to guarantee that they were minted to a standard weight, which made it easy for soldiers to confirm that they were being paid what they had been promised and that pay was distributed fairly.

The symbols on coins had another function as well. Early Lydian coins were marked with the heads of a lion and a bull. These images suggested harmony on many levels, including cosmological (the lion representing the sun, the bull the moon), ecological (lion representing the wilderness, the bull cultivated land and civilization), and social (predator and prey together as one). It was an apt symbol for a rich and powerful state recruiting the services of its poor and underdeveloped neighbors. The coins that mercenaries carried around with them were meant to remind them of their role as the hungry lions who fought for the rich Lydian bull and were rewarded for it. Not long afterward, kings began to put their own images and personal symbols on their coins, an even more pointed reminder to the mercenaries who received them of who they owed their loyalty to.

Not long after Lydians began minting coins, many other peoples began to do the same—some directly inspired by the Lydians’ example, others independently but for much the same reasons. The usefulness of these coins for facilitating trade soon also made them appealing to merchants, crafters, wandering minstrels, and lots of other people not embedded in the agricultural economy, but paying mercenary soldiers continued to be an important reason for kings and empires to mint coins for many centuries to come.

So the next time your hero returns to town after clearing out another dungeon full of monsters and gets a handful of coins as a reward, know that you are part of a very long tradition.

Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.