Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Back from Loncon3

'Loncon3', in case any readers missed my earlier post on the subject, is the name of the World Science Fiction convention that ended yesterday. Over 10,000 people bought tickets for one or more days, with over 6000 people attending at one day (Saturday, no doubt). I had only visited one 'WorldCon' before, in 1995 in Glasgow, but the atmosphere was as friendly as I remembered. I met Australian SF writers, painters, mathematicians, experts on mediaeval textiles and IT consultants making their own Star Trek episodes (Hi Anna!), just to give you an idea. My estimate is that the three sessions drew some 450 people, not bad for a convention with some 15 parallel sessions going on, apart from a well-equipped bar and many stalls with books and other items. The response was good, but it was also obvious that the science fiction crowd as a whole had hardly come into contact with speculative biology as a field: several people remarked that it was the first time that had heard the phrase. There is work to be done!    

There were three sessions devoted to speculative biology with five speakers. Darren Naish has already posted about the sessions on his Tetrapod Zoology blog, so I will be short here; for an account of the sessions and images of the speakers, visit his blog. It was very good to finally meet them in person; my contacts with Dougal Dixon go back to 1982, believe it or not, and with Memo to the early nineties, and still I had never seen one of them in person. We had to juggle a bit to make all five speakers fit in the first session, in part because we only learnt there and then that we had 15 minutes less than we thought, to clear the room for the next panel.

Click to enlarge; copyright Lewis Dartnell
Lewis Dartnell provided an enthusiastic introduction about astrobiology. He stressed the importance of plant life, something often glossed over in speculative biology: people go for animals only, forgetting the basis of the ecology. After a question from the audience he made a strong argument for the absence of other intelligent life in the universe. This idea is based on the 'Fermi paradox'. In short, this holds that there has been easily enough time for alien intelligences to seed the universe with civilisations, and we see and hear no sign of them: where are they? (here is a good website explaining the Fermi paradox). Perhaps there are 'filters' weeding out the evolution of technically capable lifeforms such as ourselves. It is possible that humanity has already passed the 'great filter' without realising it, which would mean the universe is now wide open to us. But if it is still ahead of us, somewhere in the future things will go very wrong indeed.

Slide by Darren to show part if the 'SpecBio' timeline; click to enlarge
Darren Naish then give a thorough review of the history of Speculative Biology (Zoology really) with many examples. He made an interesting comparison between, on the one hand, projects such as Furaha, Greenworld and Snaiad, and on the other hand speculation about 'missing links'. The first type might follow scientific rules but is essentially a fantasy, while the second concerns animals that must have existed in some form on Earth but whose details we do not know. Examples are protobirds, prototurtles etc. Darren argued that the two types of speculation are distinct and I agree: we are certain that animals of the second type once existed and are equally certain that those of the first type do not. I am not saying that there can be no complex life out there, but it won't be Furaha or Snaiad specifically.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Memo Kösemen showed, for the first time in public, images of how Snaiad came about (and no, I am not about to show any of these, so what you do get is a known image). He first sketched something and later retro-engineered the biology to explain the sketch. That is very familiar to me: many Furahan clades started in the same way: you find yourself doodling, and somehow a shape emerges on paper almost of its own accord. Only then does the logical part of the mind kick in and starts wondering 'what if...'. This is for instance how tetropters came about.

Anyway, Memo argued that the success of Snaiad was to a large extent due to his project being open to the public: as long as people followed the rules for a given clade, they could suggest animals of their own, and if Memo liked them enough those animals became part of the official Snaiadi canon. In that his procedure contrasts with the Furaha one; I never opened Furaha to such outside influences because I have so little time available for the project as it is, and would never have the time even to consider all suggestions with the attention they deserved. Of course, Memo now has an enormous number of species waiting to be drawn or painted...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
As for Furaha, I showed some new animations as well as paintings never shown in public before. The ones above are landscapes in Vue, made to illustrate the point that planets are large and will have many biotopes: I never liked the idea of a 'desert planet' or a 'jungle planet'.  The animations, of cloakfish and tetropters in particular, will be shown here in due course.

Dougal showing a -rare!- manuscript of Greenworld and the Japanese published version; click to enlarge

Dougal Dixon discussed Greenworld, a project that is still waiting to be published in English (for a review of the Japanese version, see here and here). Both Furaha and Snaiad have humans on them, but the story is not primarily about them. In the Furaha they were introduced to provide human interest, in that the citizen-scientists of The Institute work together and quite often against one another to study life of on Furaha. The trick is to keep their number low though. The Greenworld story is to a much larger extent about the influence of humanity on a pristine world. Having lost much technical know-how, humans on Greenworld first live more or less together with the wildlife, but then their impact changes gradually, to resemble the one we are all familiar with, right here on Earth. No world seems big enough to house humanity as well as wildlife, neither the fictional Greenworld nor the real Earth. We do not now how these particular stories will end. Perhaps there is a link here with the 'great filter' of the Fermi paradox, that might be waiting for us in the future. Let's hope not.     

Saturday, 2 August 2014

More cloak and dagger stuff: cloakfish IV

Cloakfish have been discussed here previously; for the latest instalment, go here. Before I go on, I wonder how to call them; the plural of 'fish' is still 'fish' when you are talking about the same species, but as far as I know 'fishes' is correct when dealing with more than one species. So should I write sentences like 'Clown cloakfish are founds in their thousands under floatreefs' and 'The many cloakfishes of all shapes and sizes in the peri-Archipelago seas'?

Anyway, cloakfishes (!) were developed as animations before I painted them. So far, they were animated using MS-DOS, believe it or not, but the result was a bit two-dimensional. I later used Matlab too, but only as a painting aid, not to produce animations. Their bodies were very simplistic and the cloaks themselves were just sheets, without any thickness to them. But when I saw large cloakfishes in my mind's eye, they floated majestically into view, with cloaks as substantial as those of a manta ray. In fact, the one I will show now is a 'shortsleeved cloakfish' so it does look a lot like a ray, but with four-sided radial symmetry, obviously. So how could I realise such a vision?

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Well, with difficulty... The overall strategy consists of several steps: the firsts relies on Matlab to design the overall shape of a cloak, as shown above. The various curves are combined to form the outline of the cloak as well as of the part of the body -the dagger-  it is attached to.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Then, flesh out the form by creating two surfaces for each cloak so it smooths into the dagger. What you see above are two such half cloaks, together making up one cloak. If you were to stick four such ensembles together you would have a full cloak and dagger assembly.

Of course, there is movement to think of, and the shape of the cloak has to be changed over its movement cycle. I divided the cycle into 200 steps to have some temporal resolution. For each stage of the movement there are eight half cloaks, so we are now at 1600 files. All these shapes are written to store as 3D obj files, again, using Matlab.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Meanwhile, design a head in a suitable program such as Sculptris. There you are; it is not very detailed, but more details would probably not be visible anyway. Also create an underwater landscape in Vue Infinite with a simple animation to allow the cloakfish to glide through the water. Open the programming language Python and write a script for Vue Infinite; from within Vue, use the Python script to load the eight appropriate half cloaks for each frame, the head too, assign textures, transport the lot to the correct positions, render an image and store it. At a reasonable resolution of 640x360 that will take about 30 hours.

Copyright Gert van Dijk

All that remains then is to create a film, perhaps add sounds, etc. What you see above is a trial version in which the cloakfish is just white. I rather like the movement. For a better view, visit Loncon3, where I intend to show a good version... 

PS 1: this is post #200...
PS 2: I am considering returning to blogging regularly after Loncon3.

(PS 3: this is to stop a particular site from copying my blog: 7InDB4PgQaCddePKQEqA )