Cassini’s Grand Finale Begins

The Cassini spacecraft is set to make its first dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings today, April 26, 2017. This dive, first of 22, opens the last stage of the Cassini-Huygens mission before the vehicle is driven into Saturn on September 15, 2017.

To celebrate, here are a few of the amazing photos sent back from the mission.

NASA Catching Its Tail 5329_PIA12826

NASA Colorful Colossusses 5631_PIA14922

NASA Spring at the North Pole 5805_PIA14945

NASA Water World 6275_PIA18343

Incredible. At this writing, the mission’s been running for over 19 years. It’s amazing what we can do when there’s a will.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

Follow the grand finale milestones, read the mission-end FAQs, browse graphics, documents, videos in a dedicated grand finale gallery, or follow Cassini on Twitter.

Images by by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI: Catching Its Tail; Colorful Colossuses and Changing Hues (Titan and Saturn); Spring at the North Pole; Water World (Enceladus and Saturn’s rings); the Earth Day tweet photo with more info is available at The Day the Earth Smiled.

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

Roman Ducky, You’re the One…

You make the caldarium oh so fun.

Roman ducky, I sing of arms and you!

This cute little fellow wearing a legionary’s helmet and lorica segmentata armor comes from the British Museum shop, where you can also find his Egyptian, samurai, Viking, and Greek god pals.

Bathing was important in Roman culture, not just for personal cleanliness but as a social activity. Friends would meet at the baths to exercise, swim in the large cold pools, or relax in the hot pools. Some Roman baths had steam rooms similar to the Finnish sauna. Even at the farthest edge of the empire, Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain had bathhouses. Many were built with sophisticated under-floor heating to keep them toasty even in the winter.

One crucial piece of bathing technology the Romans, lacked, however, was the rubber duck. They never knew what they were missing.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Quotes: In the Hopes that They Will Be Able to Pass for One of the Glintelligentsia

“The Merita hotel chain offers rooms at a steep discount to people whose Information shows that they are interesting: as cocktail-chatter counterparts, as connections for enterpreneurs, as potential romantic partners. It’s a strategy to convince wealthier, duller clientele to pay a premium in order to share some sparkling conversation, or in the hopes that they will be able to pass for one of the glintelligentsia themselves.”

– Malka Older, Infomocracy

I just love the word glintelligentsia! It should be in mainstream use already. 🙂

Older, Malka. Infomocracy. New York, NY: Tor.com, 2016, p. 77.

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

Rating: Leverage, Season 2

We’ve been rewatching and rating Leverage and we’ve got season 2 under our belts now. (For more on how our rating system works, see here, which also covers season 1 of Leverage.) Here’s our take on the season.

Leverage, season 2

  1. “The Beantown Bailout” – 5.5
  2. “The Tap-Out Job” – 2.5
  3. “The Order 23 Job” – 6
  4. “The Fairy Godparents Job” – 4.5
  5. “The Three Days of the Hunter Job” – 8
  6. “The Top Hat Job” – 2
  7. “The Two Live Crew Job” – 8
  8. “The Ice Man Job” – 8
  9. “The Lost Heir Job” – 7
  10. “The Runway Job” – 5.5
  11. “The Bottle Job” – 5.5
  12. “The Zanzibar Marketplace Job” – 4
  13. “The Future Job” – 7
  14. “The Three Strikes Job” – 8
  15. “The Maltese Falcon Job” – 4

This season is a lot of highs and lows. Several weak episodes are balanced out by a number of strong ones. The average for the season is 5.7, which is respectable but a step down from season 1, which averaged just under 6. The show was finding its footing this season and striking out in some new directions, which sometimes paid off but other times just fell flat.

We have a four-way tie for the best episode, all at a solid 8. In “The Three Days of the Hunter Job” the team manufactures a government conspiracy in order to discredit a ruthless reporter. In “The Two Live Crew Job,” they compete with another team (featuring Wil Wheaton as a pain-in-the-ass hacker!) to steal a priceless painting. In “The Ice Man Job,” Hardison, the hacker, gets in over his head while trying to show that he can get out from behind the computer and do an in-person grift, and the rest of the team has to improvise a heist around him to get him out. In “The Three Strikes Job,” the whole team get in over their head as they get tangled up in a larger plot involving the mob, the FBI, and a corrupt mayor. All of these episodes play with the heist/con formula in interesting ways and give the actors a chance to stretch their wings and tackle something new. In these episodes, we really see the creative team’s willingness to tinker with the mechanics of the procedural format pay off well.

The lesser episodes of the season also show attempts to vary the formula, but they don’t come off as well. The worst of the season is “The Top Hat Job,” at only 2. In this episode, the heist is pretty simple and most of the screentime is taken up by the team’s distraction event: Nate, the most mediocre and uninteresting character on the team, putting on a mediocre and uninteresting magic show.

Any Leverage fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Leverage cast via IMDb

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

A Flight Suit Resembling Iron Man’s Is in the Works

Inventor Richard Browning has bold thinking in abundance. With the company he started, Gravity Industries, he’s developed a jet-engine suit like Iron Man’s to re-imagine manned flight.

British entrepreneur invents, builds and files patent for Iron Man-like flight suit by Gravity Industries

This 3.5-minute YouTube video captures the highlights of the development during a year. It closely resembles Tony Stark’s faltering design process in Iron Man—except this time it’s real. And while Gravity’s suit isn’t streamlined nor capable of long-distance flight at this point, there seems to be a modicum of potential. Staggering!

Found via File 770.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Keep Out

The image above is a papyrus sign found near an ancient temple complex at Saqqara, Egypt. The original is 36 cm (a little more than a foot) wide. The text is in Greek and reads:

By order of Peukestes:

No entry.

This is a sacred enclosure.

My own translation

What does this sign mean and why was it posted in Greek somewhere near an Egyptian temple?

The name Peukestes helps us towards an answer. There is one important Peukestes we know from the sources with a connection to Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt with his Greek and Macedonian army. The Egyptian people had lived unhappily under the rule of the Persian empire for generations and they greeted the newcomers as liberators. When Alexander moved on the next year to continue his conquest of Persia, he left Egypt under the charge of two of his commanders, Balakros and Peukestes. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 3.5.5)

The Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s army had Egyptian good will on their side and they did not want to lose it. At the same time, Egypt and its great monuments were a source of endless fascination to foreign visitors in antiquity, just as much as today, and not all foreigners knew how to behave with respect. Centuries earlier, Greek mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian pharaohs had carved graffiti into the stones of ancient temples. Balakros and Peukestes, trying to hold onto a valuable province through the turmoil of liberation, certainly did not want any of that going on.

The sign was probably originally posted outside of the temple complex at Saqqara as a warning to any Greek troops indulging in a bit of sight-seeing that they had better be on their best behavior, including staying out of places that were sacred to their Egyptian friends.

Multicultural and cross-religious encounters are nothing new in the world. People have been thinking about the problem of how to get along peacefully with those whose ways of life are different from ours for thousands of years. Respecting other peoples’ religious traditions isn’t just polite, it’s sound policy.

Reference for the papyrus: Eric G. Turner, “A Commander-in-Chief’s Order from Saqqara,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 239-42.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Some Random Thoughts on Logan

Random thoughts on Logan in no particular order. Spoilers ahead.

Logan Promo Poster Silhouetted Sunset

  • The movie was an interesting take on westerns. I know very little about that genre, but even I could thell the homage was there.
  • As expected, Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman were phenomenal.
  • It was very, very bleak, bleaker than I thought, and I went in expecting a certain amount of bleak.
  • The “Logan and his peeps” story was touching, but the “evil corporate types are evil” story I found cliched, boring, and corny. Those two facets of the plot didn’t really mesh well in my opinion. And speaking of evil corporate types: what’s with the mechanical hand attachments that so many of the evil army types sported? Their version of a goon uniform?? It was odd.
  • I was left wanting an explanation of what it was that Professor X did in Westchester that traumatized him so. (I may have missed it if it was there, since we didn’t see Logan subtitled.)
  • It was great to see something of the midwestern states (instead of the ever-present New York City, for example). For one thing, I had no idea Oklahoma City was so big.

Image via Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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

How to Helsinki: Sauna, That Scary-Hot Room Full of Naked

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Eppu here. Sauna is among the most well-known things about Finland abroad. Incidentally, sauna might also be the most commonly known Finnish word in English (although kalsarikännit seems to be making some inroads lately). Here is a short introduction to sauna I hope will be helpful to newbies.

Flickr johanjeijon Sauna ROI Midnight 2010
Sauna, Rovaniemi, on July 2, 2010, midnight sun; by johanjeijon
  • At its core, sauna bathing is exactly that: a form of cleaning yourself thoroughly. (Think extreme showering, of sorts.) Early saunas were typically small huts with benches along one wall, a wood stove (kiuas) in one corner, and a place for washing with pails of water in another. Modern saunas at pools or public baths (uimahalli) are right next to the showers, and in private homes they are attached to a full bathroom.
  • After an initial, quick shower, bathers sit down on the bench of their choice (high, middle, or low) and wait. If too cool, you can move up a bench and/or toss a ladle of water onto the stove for a burst of steam (löyly). If too hot, you can move to a lower bench, splash yourself with water with the ladle, or step into the shower room for a moment (or drink water, take a shower, go swim). In fact, dividing your sauna bathing into several consecutive short trips to cool off and then returning to the heat makes the experience more enjoyable. A final, good wash head to toe, fresh clothes, and a glass of water afterwards will feel heavenly.
  • Yes, you are indeed supposed to feel hot in sauna. Really hot. The point is to get the sweat flowing—that’s the main thing that’ll make you feel fresh and clean afterwards. However, you shouldn’t feel dizzy or bad; that’s not normal. Don’t be shy about stepping out for a moment before returning. Also note that anything metallic worn on the body (like glasses or jewellery) might get hot and feel uncomfortable.
  • Some people combine alcohol with sauna bathing (typically, a beer or two afterwards instead of water), but I find I get dehydrated enough to want to stick with non-alcoholic drinks. A little something savory can feel good to replenish the salt you’ve just sweated out, though.
  • There is some paraphernalia involved. The two absolutely essential ones are a bucket of water and a ladle, and they are included by default. If desided, you can bring a bottle of water to drink, a sauna whisk (vihta or vasta), a sauna hat, and a bathrobe (to cool off in after the final wash but before changing into fresh clothes). A small cotton or linen towel as a sit-upon (pefletti) can also be a good idea. (Note that some public saunas may require a sit-upon and rent or sell disposable ones to those who don’t bring a personal one.)
Sauna Whisks for Sale
Sauna whisks for sale at a Finnish market square (kauppatori) in 2004
  • There are no time limits or minimum stay to “do sauna right”—you stay as long as you feel like. I know people for whom sauna bathing is an hours-long ritual, whereas I’m a fairly speedy bather myself. (Note, however, that if you’re paying for sauna access, like at hotels and pools, they typically do limit your bathing time.)
  • Sauna bathing can take many forms depending on the composition and mood of the group. It can be silent and meditative, or active and chatty, or anything inbetween. It can be a private affair with each bather in their own thoughts, or part of a stag or hen night. It can be a part of families’ weekend routine, or it can be enjoyed by a solitary business traveler in a hotel in the middle of the week.
  • That said, even the more taciturn Finns can open up in sauna. Because we’re all literally reduced to our bare essentials, sauna is seen as a great equalizer and an easier environment to talk to strange people, especially Intimidating Foreigners (thank you, Arttu, for the wonderfully self-deprecating phrase).
  • And yes, you really are expected to go in completely nude. This is perfectly normal in Finland. In fact, bathing suits that have been used in chlorinated pools may release toxic gases in the heat and are therefore usually prohibited in public saunas.
  • It’s typical for a family to bathe all together, but not necessarily outside the home, nor necessarily after the kids hit puberty. Public saunas may be either segregated or co-ed, or there may be shifts set aside for women and men separately.
  • Note that, as with any place where people appear in a state of undress, there are strict social codes in place. Imagine going to the beach with your family—you wouldn’t want to be stared at, followed, intruded on, touched, or have your physicality commented on. It’s the same while sauna bathing.
  • A note about co-ed saunas specifically: Co-ed bathing tends to skew towards the younger and/or student populations, but it’s not universal. Not all Finns are comfortable with co-ed saunas, and there’s nothing odd about that. It’s perfectly fine to skip a co-ed sauna. Breaches of conduct (lewd comments or gestures), while rare, can happen. Again, think of a beach: it’s not likely that someone misbehaves, but since it is a public setting no-one can guarantee that everyone behaves 100% of the time.
  • You can have a sauna year-round, and we Finns do. (Erik and I can personally testify how lovely it is to have a sauna after hand-shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway!) However, sauna bathing in the nightless night of summer is special, especially at a cottage with added dips into a lake, river, or the sea. Since Finnish natural waters can stay rather cool even in summer, it’s typical to make several visits (sauna, water, sauna, water, etc.) before washing up. And grill some sausages for a salty after-sauna snack.

Finally: It’s not weird to be apprehensive by the thought of a hot room full of naked strangers. However, sauna is a wonderful, relaxing, and cleansing experience, and may just be worth overcoming those doubts. YMMV, naturally. If you’re sauna-curious but extremely shy, a hotel room or an apartment with a private sauna (yes, both are a thing in Finland!) are a possibility.

But don’t take just my word for it. Below are links to non-Finnish sauna bathers’ thoughts. (Note: Some apply specifically to Ropecon, the largest Finnish role-playing con, and therefore to the younger end of the geeky / nerdy circles in Finland.)

Two bonus links: a post from Visit Finland that combines useful info with a delightful lack of marketing-speech: Enjoy Urban Sauna Culture in Helsinki; also, “Sauna Time,” a comic from Scandinavia and the World with a humorous take on the difference between Finnish and Scandinavian sauna bathing.

And a note from Erik: For my fellow non-Finns who haven’t experienced sauna before, you may have your doubts about the whole thing. I certainly did before I tried it. Here’s what I knew about sauna before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland: 1) it’s damp and really, really, really hot; 2) you sweat a lot. Both these things are, of course, true. Now, my previous experiences with damp, hot environments and sweat were not good ones: humid summer days, over-heated pools, gym classes in un-air-conditioned spaces, etc. The thought that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to those kinds of conditions sounded very strange to me.

Here’s what I learned, though: sauna is different. In sauna, the damp heat and sweat feels good. It relaxes your muscles and quiets your mind. It gives you the all-over relaxing warmth of a hot bath, but no part of your body has to stick out in the cold air. You only stay in as long as it feels good: if it starts feeling bad, you just step out and cool down. And as soon as you’re done, you shower away all the sweat. There’s no feeling of clean quite like the clean of being fresh from the sauna.

Of course, your experience may be different. You may try sauna and decide you don’t like it, which is perfectly fine, but don’t be scared to give it a try.

Images: Sauna by johanleijon (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sauna whisks for sale by Eppu Jensen

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Leverage, Season 1

We like to watch tv together and we enjoy rewatching the best episodes of series we’ve seen before, but how do you remember which episodes were worth seeing again and which to skip? We came up with a solution to that problem: now when we watch a series, we rate each episode. Each of us gives each episode a rating from 0 to 5, like this:

  • 0 – Terrible, I never want to see it again.
  • 1 – Pretty bad, but had a few redeeming features
  • 2 – Not awful, but kind of lacking
  • 3 – Decent, solid, nothing special
  • 4 – Pretty good
  • 5 – Awesome!

(We also sometimes give half-points, so a 3.5 might be for an episode that is a little better than average.) Then we add our scores together to get a total rating from 0 to 10. We note this score down on a slip of paper that we keep with our discs. (We like to watch shows on disc. We’re old-fashioned like that.)

We often end up giving the same rating to an episode, so a rating of 6 usually means we both gave it a 3. Part of the fun of watching and rating is chatting about the episode afterwards to see how we both felt about it.

Now when we go back to rewatch a show we can decide what kind of mood we’re in. If we want to plow through everything—good, bad, and indifferent—we can. If we want to just skip the worst episodes, we can watch everything that rated above a 2. If we want only the good stuff, we can stick to 6 and above. If we only want the highlights, we can go for 8 and up. (Or straight to the tens.)

We recently finished rewatching and rating the first season of Leverage, an adventure/comedy show about a gang of thieves and con artists who decide to go straight(-ish) and start using their skills to take on wealthy criminals and evil corporations. Here’s how we felt about season 1.

The average of the ratings this season’s episodes is just under 6, which is respectable and pretty solid for the first season of a show.

The highest rating this season was an 8, for which two episodes tied. The first was the pilot, ep. 1 “The Nigerian Job,” about how the team all comes together for revenge on a corrupt executive who used them to steal a rival company’s plans and them sold them out. The other was ep. 8, “The Mile High Job,” in which the team stumbles into an attempted murder on an airplane and has to improvise their way through to keep the target safe. Both of these episodes give all of the characters plenty of time to shine and throw lots of interesting problems in their way for them to solve.

Our lowest-rated episode this season was only a 3, ep. 11 “The Juror #6 Job,” in which Parker, the team’s not-exactly-social thief, finds herself doing jury duty under one of her aliases. We found the case uninspiring and the character interactions a little icky.

Our full ratings:

Leverage, season 1

  1. “The Nigerian Job” – 8
  2. “The Homecoming Job” – 6
  3. “The Two Horse Job” – 7
  4. “The Miracle Job” – 5
  5. “The Bank Shot Job” – 5.5
  6. “The Stork Job” – 4.5
  7. “The Wedding Job” – 5
  8. “The Mile High Job” – 8
  9. “The Snow Job” – 6
  10. “The 12-Step Job” – 7.5
  11. “The Juror #6 Job” – 3
  12. “The First David Job” – 5
  13. “The Second David Job” – 7

Any Leverage fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

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