Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XXXIX)

Finally ending the dry spell of questions.

1) Is there a way to tell the difference between stars and planets with the unaided eye ?
Only by ritual sacrifice to invoke a demon from the netherworld who can tell you the answer.

2) What's the difference between dark matter and anti-matter ?
Dark matter thinks the dress is blue and black whereas anti-matter thinks it's white and gold.

3) Could modifying gravity explain dark matter ?
Well it definitely can't explain why baseball is popular.

4) Why are black holes so bad at eating stuff ?
Seriously ? If you weighed a trillion tonnes and people were chucking bagels at you at a hundred thousand miles a second you think you'd do a better job ?

5) Do galaxies and galaxy clusters move ?
No. They are fixed, absolute, immutable constants, timeless and eternal immortals in the starry firmament.

6) Should we all turn our lights off to look at the stars ?
YES ! That's a brilliant idea ! Pay special attention to turning off all the lights in hospitals and police stations, make sure no-one is allowed to drive anywhere, and make sure this even happens without telling anyone ahead of time.

7) Could we all be aliens ?
No, not all of us. Just your mum.

8) Can we send some bacteria to Mars just for the lolz ?
Only if they promise to take lots of photos and tell us how they're getting on.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

A Brief Thought Experiement

Consider, if you will, two men each running for office in two modern Western democracies. Let's follow their paths to leadership and see what they have in common and what sets them apart. Just for fun, you understand.

Don and Jim start off being very different even to a keen observer. Don is fat, loud and brash, extremely rich and somewhat influential with the upper political echelons. He doesn't care a jot if what he says is offensive or stupid and no-one would call him a great orator. "Intellectual" is probably the last thing you'd call him, although "boring" would be another very strong contender.

Jim, on the other hand, is somewhat more slender, generally quiet, reserved and very serious. He's no pauper, but neither is he anywhere near the financial elite.  His style of speechmaking is calm and measured, perhaps a tad on the dull side. "Intellectual" might be a bit of a stretch, but he seems infinitely more well-informed and rational than Don.

They are not quite entirely dissimilar though. Like Don, Jim too doesn't care very much if his statements are offensive. Both are either extremely thick skinned or literally don't care what their opponents think of their policies. Both appeal to their supporters by virtue of their apparent honesty, and both are derided by their detractors as being morons. Both make statements which their supporters defend in the name of free speech. Both throw the odd tantrum, though while Don genuinely doesn't care what people think of his policies, he can't tolerate any personal criticism whatsoever.

Now Don and Jim are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Don is far right, pro-business and anti-government. Jim is far left, pro-regulation and pro government. Don begins outside the political mainstream whereas Jim is a career politician. Don's policies are often accused of being both stupid and cruel, whereas although Jim's are often touted as stupid they are seldom if ever accused of being cruel. Both, however, are very much at the ends of the political spectrum.

Both men languish in political obscurity, and both have remarkably unsuccessful careers. Jim's biggest success is being elected for 30-odd years, but he's never given a single speech anyone can remember, held office, or even been recognised as the instigator of a single major policy. In fact he's been an activist in a political group for 50 years which has utterly failed to accomplish its objective because no-one cares about it very much. He is moral, perhaps, but not effective. He does, though, often like to point out how consistent he is, forgetting that this constancy hasn't actually achieved much of anything.

Don is unsuccessful for the opposite reason - he is effective but not moral. That is, his business empire is effective enough at making him lots of money (though exactly how much is disputed), but he has a longer than usual record of bankruptcies and a reputation for screwing people over. He pays millions of dollars out of court in order to avoid lawsuits. Making money for Don is what matters to Don; whether his businesses can be trusted to deliver quality goods and services doesn't much enter into the equation for him. So he too is unsuccessful, though he often likes to loudly proclaim what a good businessman he is, just as Jim likes to proclaim what a good campaigner he is even though he clearly isn't.

After decades of remarkably unsuccessful careers, these two old men (both, incidentally, also have a string of failed marriages) suddenly find themselves contesting the leadership of major political parties. Both are regarded by the establishment as no-hopers that no-one in their right mind would vote for. And yet, using their very unconventional, unorthodox and very much anti-establishment styles (albeit styles which are totally different to each other), both go on to stunning, rapid election victories.

Both men are hounded by their detractors throughout their campaigns - and importantly, both greatly exacerbate the usual level of hyperbole. It's something like, "not only do I think this man will ruin the country, but this time I really mean it !". Don is derided as a misogynist, a racist, a sexual predator, a neo-Nazi who hates anyone different from him, accused of colluding with the enemy, an idiot whose policies were tried and failed. Jim is portrayed as a Communist, an unpatriotic terrorist-sympathiser who hates his own country, an idiot whose policies were tried and failed. The accusations toward both men are not entirely the same, but they are extremely similar - especially in their extreme nature. They are both viewed as conservatives, in the sense of going back to a largely mythical better age when things were better for those of their respective (though diametrically opposed) ideologies.

To their supporters, both men are portrayed as suffering from incredible media bias. "You wouldn't be reacting to them like this if the other side had said it," they say, ignoring that both Don and Jim represent a radical departure from the norm. Don's apparent racism is ludicrously deemed to be "crying wolf", which makes absolutely no sense to anyone else, and his frequent changes of policy are excused because "you obviously weren't meant to take it literally" or other nonsense.

Jim's purported antisemitism is a charge which never really takes hold but never entirely goes away either. In contrast to Don, Jim's stubborn refusal to ever change his mind about anything (except under extreme necessity) is seen as a laudable moral conviction rather pig-headed idiocy. He apparently worked out all the best policies 40 years ago and more, so there's obviously no need for him to alter them now.

And to their really extreme supporters, allegations of Don and Jim's worst attributes are not excused or brushed away at all - they are defended as virtuous. Don's a racist ? Well then maybe racism is just true. Heil Don ! Jim's a Communist ? Good, because capitalist pigs will be first up against the wall come the revolution. "You just can't tolerate anyone whose views are different from your own", they say, as though that automatically validates their position. Neither Jim nor Don really do very much to distance themselves from these extremists.

The wider perception (beyond their power base) of both men follows a similar though not identical trajectory both during and beyond their leadership campaigns. Both start out as outsiders, virtually joke candidates. As the leadership campaign progresses and Don begins to look like a real contender, he becomes more and more vilified. He says things so disgusting that even his own party start to turn against him - but too late. They have no better candidate, all of their others were simply less charismatic lunatics. Not once does the man ever seem to have the wider support of the country. Breaking with convention, after winning party leadership he doesn't tone himself down the slightest in his campaign to win over the nation. Although he wins the premiership position, he loses the popular vote and begins with pathetic approval ratings that only get worse. He only ever appeals and tries to appeal to his core base.

Jim's path is a bit harder to gauge since his country has a different system. But he too is always immensely popular with his core supporters but never really wins the approval of the wider populace, though he's not as hated as Don and perhaps more widely respected initially. He too suffers attacks from within his own party - more severe than Don, being almost ousted by direct action on two occasions. He too seeks the approval of his core supporters far more than the rest of the country, using that to make his position unassailable despite being hugely unpopular outside his own cult. He too doesn't really care about persuading people, only achieving power - despite, just like Don, having never made any previous attempt though he's not a young man. And when he wins party leadership, he more or less entirely and instantly shuts up. A major political crisis develops - he says next to nothing. Why should he ? He's already leader of his party. And he continues saying nothing until a chance of the premiership itself appears, in which case he goes back on the offensive.

Both men do not respect evidence, though this is manifested in very different ways : Don says whatever happens to pop into his head without regard for the facts; Jim says the same thing he's always been saying as though nothing has changed in the world in decades. Don actively dismisses and attacks experts, selectively choosing which ones are wonderful and which ones are satanic monsters. Jim is more subtle. During the crisis entire legions of political, economic and academic experts loudly and clearly explain why there's only one sensible choice. Jim doesn't attack them - he simply ignores them. Evidence matters no more to him that it does to Don, he's just better as disguising it.

We should pause, though, to note that it's not all Don and Jim's fault. The environment in which they operate does not favour those who favour evidence - it favours those who have enemies. The system is predicated on weighing opinion, not facts, of creatively interpreting facts to fit existing views rather than altering views to fit the facts. It isn't Don or Jim's fault the system is this way - and the system does also have some powerful advantages, but that is another story. It's very, very hard in this system to change your stance without being viciously attacked by your enemies.

Don and Jim might be victims of the system, but they don't even try and fight it. Both are unpopular populists. Both say what they need to say to their electorate to win the vote, regardless of whether this appeals to the wider community or not. They care about power, not persuasion, and if (as happens often for both men) they fail to implement a policy, they blame this on the establishment. Both say the system is rigged against them but vow to win anyway. They are only ever interested in appealing to their existing supporters, with little or no interest in persuading others to follow them.

It's very easy to see the loud, obnoxious, hate-filled Don as a villain and a tyrant. It's less obvious that Jim may well be cut from the same cloth. "What, Jim ?" say even many of his opponents. "Nice fluffy quiet Jim ? He might not be very good at his job, but surely he's no despot." Yet beneath the trappings of their various styles, are these two men really so different ? Nice fluffy Jim who hasn't changed his mind in 40 years. Nice fluffy Jim who doesn't care about anyone except his core supporters. Nice fluffy Jim who does nothing in the biggest political crisis in living memory but goes on the warpath come any chance to win power. Nice fluffy Jim who doesn't care about evidence. Nice fluffy Jim who's incapable of compromise. Nice fluffy Jim who vows to win a rigged election. Nice fluffy Jim who refuses to quit after massively losing a vote of no confidence. Nice fluffy Jim who vows to remain as leader even if he loses the election and sends his party into the abyss. And nice, "principled" Jim who puts his own leadership and "morals" ahead of the good of the party and the chance of ever actually implementing any of his apparently beloved-policies. What in the world would nice fluffy Jim do if he ever did achieve real power ?!?

Consider Jim carefully. Stripped of his (admittedly massive) differences in personal style and professed ideologies to Don, is his path to power really so different ? His words are certainly different, but are his actions ? And which is the greater danger : the candidate you trust or the one you don't ?

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Political Drake Equation

How do you decide who to vote for ? I've no idea, because I don't know who you are. So I shall tell you how I decide who to vote for, and then you can decide if this is sensible or if you have a better system.

Astronomy has this famous thing called the Drake Equation, which is way of estimating how many intelligent alien civilisations might be around for us to talk to. As equations go, it's tremendously simple - nothing more than multiplication. It looks like this :

It's literally just multiplying a bunch of numbers together  - say there are a million planets in our Galaxy but only a tenth are like Earth and only a tenth of those actually have life, then that's 10,000 planets with life. Easy peasy. Of course, working out what those numbers are is much, much more difficult.

A modified version of the Drake Equation makes for a pretty good way of explaining how I decide who to vote for. I don't normally actually set about plugging in numbers on a calculator, but this pretty well approximates (I think) what I'm doing unconsciously... and I suspect this is true in general as well. It might also be a handy way of explaining to people how you made your decision in (if we're very lucky) a less chest-thumping way. Maybe it'll even help you analyse your own thinking...

Anyway, the Political Drake Equation looks something like this :

V = I * P * B* A * E * R * S

V is a number which determines how much credibility you should give to the prospect of voting for any given party. The higher the number the better, but it all depends on how each party fares - you have to evaluate this equation for all parties and consider their relative scores. Only if they all get an equal voting score should you consider not voting at all (let's ignore tactical voting considerations for the moment).

Each of the other parameters represents some reason you have to vote for or against that party - low numbers mean you shouldn't vote for them, high numbers mean you should. To keep things simple let's let those numbers all run from 0 to 10. This makes the minimum overall V score zero and the maximum ten million. But a score in the millions would be very rare, and the score unfortunately doesn't vary in a nice proportional way - but absolute values are far less important than the ranks here.

Still, to get a feel for the numbers, if you assigned equal values to each parameter, V would just be x7 where x is the value of each parameter. You can see an interactive plot of this here. A totally useless party with all parameters of 2.5 would get a score of about 600, a mediocre one with all parameters equal to 5 gets about 80,000, a really good one with 7.5 in each category gets 1.3 million. The values differ dramatically, but, to emphasise this point, even if all parties score badly this doesn't mean you can't pick the lesser of evils unless their scores are all very similar.

Because everything is multiplied, a value of zero for any reason means you definitely shouldn't vote for that party regardless of any other considerations. This is because I consider all these parameters to be absolutely essential, but in practise, it should be very rare that you ever actually give a party of score of 0 or 10 for anything (but you can give very extreme fractional values, of course, like 0.001 or 9.999). Of course, it's open to debate if each category should really allow the same maximum value, but this'll do as a start.

What I like about this is that it accounts for much more than just stated policies. Policies are irrelevant if you don't trust the party or if you think they don't have the ability to enact them. Of course, the downside is that this is necessarily a self-analysis : no-one can objectively measure how much you trust a party. But self-analyses are extremely useful as long as you make a sincere effort to understand why you really came to a conclusion, and this equation has the additional advantage of being flexible and easily modified.

The criteria I've chosen for it are as follows. When evaluating them, keep in mind precisely who each party would likely elect to power. For example, don't give a party a high Ability score just because you think they have lots of talented people - rate this value according to who you think they're actually likely to put in charge. And remember, you're not trying to rate each party by some absolute system, but only in terms of how closely their ideas and values match your own. Anyway, here are the assessment criteria :

I = Idealism
Do the party's ideals match your own ? This is more fundamental than current stated policies, it's more about the soul of the party - if it has one. Do you believe they are, overall, trying to do things you basically agree with, even if you don't accept some individual policies ? An extreme example might be agreeing with the policies of an avowedly religious party while not being part of that religion yourself. You could also think of this as the long-term "climate" of a party, as opposed to its short-term "weather" of its specific policies.
You'll want to weight this one appropriately. For example, if you don't agree with their ideology but only care about specific policy, increase this score to compensate.

P = Policies
Do you agree with the party's policies - are they practical, sensible ways of implementing their ideals ? Unlike many of the other parameters you can objectively measure how much you agree with their policies, including the weighting for the importance of each policy (this is very important !), through simple testing. This one (click the country at the top right) gives you a score as a percentage, so just divide it by ten to use it in this equation. This should also give you at least a handle on ideology, though ultimately only you can decide if you truly agree with the party's ideals or not.

A = Ability
Does this party have the necessary skills in order to implement their stated policies ? If you don't think they're capable of fulfilling their grandiose promises then there's no point voting for them.

T = Trust
You may think that your party has the right ideology, its policies are correct and its members are highly intelligent... but this doesn't mean you trust them. Maybe they could do what they say, but you don't think they actually will. Especially for smaller parties, this can be more complex than whether you think party members are decent people - you might think that when they got into government they might be forced to make compromises they didn't want to make.

B = Behaviour
Does the party behave in a sensible way in other aspects not related to its stated principles and governmental policies ? For example, does it select its representatives for government in a way you agree with ? Does it allow members to vote freely or does it enforce votes based on party policy, and do you agree with this ? Does it manage itself well ? Do they try and convince undecided people using well-reasoned arguments or by appeals to base emotion ? If they adopt a, "the beatings will continue until morale improves" approach, then for me there'd be no point voting for such a party.

E = Evidence
Will this party act appropriately as new evidence is presented ? That is, will it change policy if the evidence goes against it or devise new policies accordingly, and will it do so because of the evidence rather than to satisfy voters ? Another term might be "sincerity". Because, you see, the evidence on at least some policies most certainly will change, so I consider it essential that a party has the flexibility to be able to deal with that.

R = Respect
Will this party treat its opponents with the appropriate degree of respect ? Will it seek to gain unfair advantage to crush its rivals or will it try and build a genuine consensus - insofar as that's possible - through persuasion, negotiation and compromise ? In your judgement, does it act correctly to deal with those who continue to disagree with party policy after all attempts at persuasion have been exhausted ? Of course, this doesn't necessarily preclude being extremely harsh to its detractors - as with all the parameters, the question is whether you think this is a good thing or not.

A Worked Example

So, let's apply this to the real world. Here are my own numbers for the major political parties in the UK. I used numbers from isidewith for the Policies index. The rest are of course my own judgement - part of the usefulness here is to be able to communicate reasons as well as self-analyse.
Now of course you have only my word for it, but while I've already decided to vote for the Liberal Democrats, I was surprised at the incredibly decisive result in their favour. Especially so since Labour do better on policy according to this. I was expecting to have to artificially reduce the policy scores of both the Tories and Labour because I don't think the importance of Brexit is adequately utilised in the isidewith measurements; I'd probably opt to roughly halve the policy scores of every party apart from the Lib Dems. In my view, trying to get a good deal on Brexit won't work and so all other parties are advocating for madness. This more-or-less wipes out all of their other policies since we'd be spending years up the proverbial creek - it doesn't really matter if you've got a paddle or not if your boat is leaking and the piranhas are circling.

What you can also see here is that some parties do badly (in my estimation) on a range of factors, while some have just a few critical weaknesses. UKIP are irredeemable - I hate pretty nearly everything about them. Plaid Cymru do well in many areas but fail largely on evidence and ability : in my opinion, Welsh independence/nationalism is utterly barking bad, and they haven't convinced me they know anything much about their other policies either. A subtle point that the numbers can't show is that (especially for the Greens) sometimes I don't necessarily disagree with their conclusions, I just think that they're far more ideologically driven than evidence-based. Had the Greens persuaded me that their policies really were driven by the evidence, they'd be competitive with the Lib Dems.

Labour fail for me this time round based largely on their "leader". He has destroyed my trust that the party will do what they say, never mind whether their policies are a good thing. I don't think he's an intelligent man - he doesn't seem to have changed his views in his life - and I think he deals incredibly poorly with people who disagree with him. For me, the "I'm not leaving" after losing the vote of no confidence was a point of no return : I really just do not - indeed, cannot - understand how anyone can think such a man is trustworthy after that. But then, one man's democratic vote is another man's coup... Anyway, that's why Labour do badly in so many parameters.

The Liberal Democrats do surprisingly well here because they have no major weak points. This raises the obvious question : have I over-estimated any of these points, giving them an unfairly high score ? Or indeed have I under-estimated any points from the other parties ?

Of course there's margin of error on all of these. I won't go through them all because that'd take all day, but a few points are worth mentioning :
  • I'd consider reducing the P value for all parties except the Liberal Democrats and UKIP based on their stated Brexit stance and the exceptionally high importance I place on this.
  • I could perhaps increase my ratings for the Tories ability and trust scores with a new leader and cabinet, but I doubt I'd every change any other of their scores much so they'd always get a low overall result. 
  • Labour could improve all of their weak points with a better leader and shadow cabinet - they have by far the most to gain here.
  • The two points of the Lib Dems I'm most flexible on are ability and trust - I could knock them down to 5 and 4 respectively, but that still gives them a whopping 367,696. 
  • The Greens have very plausible scope for improvement - they need leaders more skilled in rhetoric to convince me of their abilities and critical thinking skills.
  • The SNP and Plaid Cymru are unsalvageable because I believe independence is in both cases a mad idea, just madder for Wales because we're a silly place.
  • UKIP are the sort of "party" at which everyone gets drunk and goes home with loss of limb and several terminal sexually transmitted diseases, or in other words oh God no never.
In short, this time round there's no point me considering anyone besides the Liberal Democrats, because all the other parties fall far short. Next time, Labour could plausibly be re-aligned with my own views, as could the Greens. Whether that will actually happen or if the parties all just collapse entirely remains to be seen.


What I haven't considered here is tactical voting : should you vote for the party you agree with based on the party as a whole - the combination of policy, idealism, and pragmatism described above - or on the basis of which one you think has more of a chance of getting elected ?

That's much harder. The simplest way to modify the equation would be to add a T parameter which describes how likely it is you think your vote will actually help them get elected. Then if you find that this reduces V for a party to a level below that of others you also find acceptable, you should consider voting for one of those instead. But I dislike this kind of logic - it promotes groupthink, so that the smaller parties get much less of a chance for breakthroughs.

It's also not easy to factor in the the nationwide voting probabilities versus vote in a particular constituency. For instance, say you hate the Green party and you're in a Labour-Green marginal. You really want to vote Tory but they only get 2% of the vote in that constituency. Labour, the polls indicate, have a real shot at winning the whole election but you hate them too, though not as much as the Greens. Should you vote for Labour (to prevent the loathed Greens winning) or the Greens (to help deny Labour a government) or stick with your principles and vote Tory ? Not an easy decision.

To my mind, tactical voting often makes good sense, but not always. If the political situation is relatively stable - no unusually large issues dominating the scene, only small changes in Parliament predicted - then it probably does make sense to vote tactically - either to deny the government you don't want a seat, or to elect the lesser of two evils. But if it isn't stable, if there's a pivotal issue in the air, then personally I think tactical voting is less sensible. Only one party is saying what I support on the most important political issue right now - none of the others come close. The political scene, I believe, is not at all stable. And if I were to adjust the P index to account more accurately for the importance of Brexit, I believe the Labour and Tory votes would be far closer to each other. So voting for Labour barely gets me a party that's any better than the Tories, overall - even though the majority of Labour policies are far superior to Tory ones, in my view.


Good God no ! You must decide for yourself if any of this has been useful or merely a way to justify my decision. That's the risk of self-analyses, of course : if you do them right you can realise that you've come to a stupid conclusion and change your mind, but if you do them wrong you just make your own filter bubble stronger.

If you want to try this exercise for yourself, you shouldn't be at all worried if you get a result which disagrees with what you expect. If that happens, what you should try to do is to consider each parameter again and try and decide if you've rated it correctly. It's absolutely fine to tweak parameters to get the result you want... provided you think carefully about why you're doing so. The main goal is to get you to carefully consider how you've formed your own conclusions. And of course, if you do think you've set the numbers correctly, maybe it's time to re-evaluate who you'll be voting for.

A caveat that I've only mentioned in passing is the relative importance of each parameter. You might think that policies are absolutely paramount and the others count for nothing, but other people might think that all the criteria have roughly equal value. Currently the PDE doesn't account for this, but I'm working on a way to implement it. You should be able to effectively remove certain parameters if you want - you'll be able to rank parties just by ability and policies if you so desire. This is in development, so watch this space.

While of course the qualities I've suggested reflect my own views on how to vote, weighting would be able to compensate for that (do please suggest any other fundamental properties you think I've missed). For example, which part of "representative democracy" do you prefer ?
Those who favour democracy believe in direct rule by the people, with politicians as empty vessels that serve only to enact the will of the people. These people would rate Policies very highly while giving very low or zero scores to Idealism and Evidence, as these two qualities are decided by the people, not the politicians. They would probably rate Respect, Evidence and Behaviour rather poorly as well - they want politicians to do as they're told, not think for themselves.
Conversely, those who favour representation want the politicians to speak for their values rather than specific policies, so they would weight Policies very low while giving Idealism the highest rating, and probably giving Respect, Evidence and Behaviour high scores. They want politicians who are more expert than themselves at dealing with the specifics but who fundamentally have their best interests and ideologies at heart. Most people, of course, are probably somewhere between the two extremes.

As to my own numbers you, dear reader, have basically three possible responses. The first is to examine the method and suggest improvements or dismiss it entirely. If you find that it's basically sound, your second option (if you disagree with my voting choice) is to persuade me why I'm wrong about the individual criteria for the other parties. If you agree with both the method and (roughly) the numerical values I've assigned, then your only remaining option to change my voting preference is to explain the flaw in my tactic voting argument. So at the very least, what this does is show as clearly as possible how I've reached my decision and lays out precisely what you can do to change my mind. Good luck.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Here We Go Again

Thank you, Brenda from Bristol, for saying what we're all thinking :

There's too much politics going on at the moment.

There certainly is, far too much. Time was when we could all discuss politics at leisure, get cross with the other side but not too cross because we could be confident that the damage they could do would be limited. Checks and balances in the system worked well enough to allow the government to get things done but not to an unlimited extent, and pretty nearly all decisions were ultimately reversible at the next election. The system was a weird kind of stable non-equilibrium, but it was, ultimately, basically stable.

The current situation, on the other hand, is more like this :

It's more than for the sake of saying, "I told you so" that I point out that we wouldn't be in this situation if we hadn't had that stupid EU referendum. The EU wasn't much of a concern for anyone except the hardcore idiots before the campaign; now it dominates the political scene. Without the referendum we'd be in our perfectly normal state of grumblings about politics; Scotland wouldn't be launching yet another referendum, we'd be assured that tomorrow would proceed much as today even if today wasn't particularly great. Instead we have to deal with the nightmarishly complicated, unprecedented process of leaving the EU and the potential break-up of the UK. At best we're facing prolonged uncertainty. Oh, yay.
And now we face yet another potential political singularity in the general election. There are good reasons why some are predicting a landslide win for the Tories - they are well ahead in the polls, the SNP dominate Scotland, and Labour seem determined to screw themselves as hard as possible. And yet that does not tell the whole story. We're already in uncharted waters - not just from the referendum result, but from the massive loss of "safe" seats at the last election and in recent by-elections.

Paradoxically, this election is one born of both opportunism and desperation. It's opportunistic because of the high poll ratings for the Tories, the extreme weakness of the Labour party, the saturation level of the SNP and the tiny number of Liberal Democrat and Green MPs. And yet it is also desperate, due to the immense ongoing political pressure resulting from Brexit, coupled with the new challenge of a second Scottish independence referendum, as well as the underlying unpopularity of austerity. For Theresa May it's do-or-die at this point : either secure a "mandate" from the populace or accept defeat and a potential change of course. Politically, an election looks like not just a good way to secure the next few years of Tory government, but the only way. She's certainly gaming the system, but it's a game she's been forced to play.

But she's still gaming the system. Previously in elections if your side did badly you'd feel it had a fair crack again the next time - or for smaller parties, at least a fair chance to win more seats. Is that the case this time ? Perhaps not. Labour and the Liberal Democrats collapsed in Scotland because of their own problems, no arguments there. Of course it's perfectly fair that they're currently weak thanks to their previous actions. What I think is not fair, however, is that Labour now have a leader they not only do not want, but have tried every means possible to remove.

Now of course, it was Labour's fault for electing Corbyn in the first place. Again, that's fair enough. I said it myself, I wanted someone to the left of Miliband. But come on, this was never supposed to be an absolute. I said he should be given a year to evaluate him, which seemed perfectly normal and sensible to me. After all, no-one said, "I want someone on the far left with despotic tendencies who will fight tooth and nail to cling on to 'power' but collapse like a very collapsible wet hen whenever asked to argue anything about policy and there must not, under any circumstances, be any possibility of removing this person if they show signs of leading the party towards electoral catastrophe." Because normally, you know, if your leader is doing that badly and you realise you've made a horrible mistake, you get the chance to correct that mistake. That's surely also part of fairness.

The worst part is that Labour really tried very, very hard, to remove Corbyn. The effort is important. Had they sat meekly by then they would share in the responsibility, so having a dreadful "leader" would still be fair. But they didn't - they used every means at their disposal, but Corbyn did the unthinkable and didn't resign after massively losing a no confidence vote*. This is such a bonkers scenario that apparently no-one thought there'd be any need to make the result legally binding, i.e. that a leader who lost such a vote would automatically be removed. Of course they'd have the common decency to leave in such an eventuality, because who would be idiotic enough to think they could run a government if they couldn't run a credible opposition ?

* Oh, and now he's claiming the system is rigged. Remind you of anyone ?

Analogy : a long-term but somewhat socially distant colleague drives you home one evening from a party. As they're looking a little ill, you're not entirely sure about this but there doesn't seem to be much of a practical alternative. They start looking worse and worse throughout the drive. Pretty soon they're swerving a little and you ask them to stop. They refuse. They run over a cat and now you're shouting at them to let you out but they still don't stop. Now they're actually vomiting in the car and you're screaming at them to stop but they actually lock all the doors and start punching you in the face instead. The car crashes into a pile of fluffy kittens and explodes, with small burning kitties flying from the wreckage like flaming meteors and everyone dies horribly.

OK, maybe you made a mistake by getting in the car. Maybe someone even warned you this person wasn't safe to drive with. But they never told you they were an actual deranged psychopath from whom their was no escape. So is it fair that you should die in the burning wreckage because you made a mistake but are prevented from correcting it despite your efforts ? Is it fair that we should have an election while the main opposition party has a leader that almost no-one wants and has tried very hard to remove ?

Yet for all that the election is naked opportunism, when we're in an era in which Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary, the only safe prediction is that there are no safe predictions. The polls got the last general election badly wrong. Can they do so again ?

I don't know. However, I've firmly fixed my voting preference to the Liberal Democrats. When you're in a knife-edge Labour-Tory minority constituency, this may ordinarily seem like a wasted, even stupid, vote. But rightly or wrongly, I believe the current state of affairs means that we're not in ordinary circumstances at all. Given this uncertainty, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats are the only sensible choice. And since I was highly critical of third-party voters in the American elections, let me explain why.

Firstly, my assessment of Corbyn and most of his supporters is that they've confused the ends and the means - their policies and their principles are one and the same. To take a relatively emotionless issues, consider nationalising the railways. I - along with a majority of the British public - support this, because I think it will reduce fees and increase reliability. Privatisation doesn't seem to have worked well at all in Britain. But I'm not emotionally wedded to the idea in the way a typical Corbynite appears to be : show me a credible alternative that could make privatisation work (as it does, to varying degrees, in other parts of Europe) and I'll happily go along with it. A typical Corbynite, however, will froth at the mouth like a rabid dog against any alternative. It MUST be nationalisation, anything else would be an act of moral bankruptcy !

So it seems to me with pretty nearly all of Corbyn's ideas : he isn't willing to negotiate or compromise because he isn't able to - they are core parts of his identity. His early token gestures of "kinder politics" rapidly gave way to a distinct nastiness; a total lack of wisdom as to when to talk and when to threaten. This, in my opinion, is because he has made policies into moral issues, and in my personal experience it's very much harder to change someone's opinion about moral ideologies than pragmatic issues. For all my left-wing leanings, this is because I see (again rightly or wrongly) those policies as the best way to improve the lives of ordinary people. I don't want to make the government bigger because I have a sexual fetish for big government, as Corbynites seem to. Hence, my own moral principles and those of the Corbynites are incompatible in a way that was not the case with previous Labour leaders.

Secondly, on a more pragmatic point, there seems to me reasonable evidence to doubt the certainty of a landslide Tory victory. The Lib Dems recently won some spectacular victories in by-elections. Labour are so unpopular it looks extremely unlikely that they can win. Anecdotally, I know too many once-devoted Labour supporters (both young and old) who are literally disgusted with Corbyn to take any claims of a shock Labour win seriously. But surely a shock Liberal Democrat win is even more unlikely ?

Sure. But the Tory minority is tiny. It's far less implausible to suggest that it might be reduced to nothing and the government replaced with a coalition of the left. I accept that we won't get a shock Labour or Lib Dem win, but would a Tory loss be so unexpected ? Anger at Brexit is widespread, austerity is unpopular. With a sensible leader at Labour's helm I doubt there'd be much talk of a Tory landslide at all. So I do think there's a chance of an upset. More pragmatically, Cardiff voted strongly for Remain, so in my constituency the Lib Dems now have a chance to appeal to voters in a way they previously haven't, since no other party is so staunchly anti-Brexit.

Which brings me to my third and final point : Labour are currently, in effect, pro-Brexit. To my mind this is the single most important political issue in a generation, and their leader has rendered them impotent. This is not acceptable to me. If I vote Labour, then despite my overwhelming preference for virtually every other of Labour's policies over those of the Tories, on this one, single, dominating issue I'll still get what the Tories and UKIP (urrrggh !) are championing. And since this will have massive knock-on economic effects, I don't believe any of Labour's other, nicer policies will be workable post-Brexit.

That, then, is why I'm not voting Labour. If I do I will now endorse someone who stands for both different principles and policies than my own. I don't want to endorse someone who mobilises the hard left, who are every bit as idiotic as the hard right. I don't trust Corbyn, who I see as unprincipled and inflexible. I don't want to vote for Brexit, I want to stop it, not just get someone else (who seems even less willing to compromise than May) take over the process. So even if I do vote for Labour, I won't stop Brexit and I'd be electing someone whose principles I morally object to. What's the point in that ? Stopping the Tories hardly seems worth it.

All in all, the best course of action seems like voting for the Liberal Democrats. I agree with them on almost as many issues as Labour. It's a risk - a huge risk. The might not get enough seats to make a difference. And yes, last time they made an almighty mistake - I can't be sure they won't do the same again. But the Tories stated goal is a hard Brexit, and Labour's is scarcely any better, so if I vote for either of them I'll definitely get what I don't want, whereas with the Lib Dems I might not. In essence, there's nothing left to lose at this point. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but that's because this post is explanatory, not activist. Do not think this is a choice I make comfortably. Ideal options in politics are rare indeed, but this time, they all suck more than usual. What fun.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Tutorial : Let's Get Dirty

As you may or may not know, I've jumped on board the VR bandwagon. In order to create 360 3D VR content with Blender you have little choice but to use the Cycles rendering engine, which for me at least is a fairly steep learning curve from the old material editor. Recently I got quite frustrated trying to use Cycles to do the trivial task of using one stencil to act as a stencil for another, so here's a quick, basic tutorial on how to do this from the perspective of someone new to Cycles but used to the original Blender Internal engine and material editor. I don't guarantee that this is the best way to do things, just the one that makes the most sense to me.

A very nice tutorial on some slightly more complex materials can be found here, but it's an hour long video. I won't cover nearly as much as that in this short post, but hopefully I'll give enough of the basics that the Cycles workflow won't seem so scary by the end. It really isn't that different to creating standard materials, it's just that you have to think more about what each button is doing and configure those buttons yourself.

I'll assume a basic working knowledge of Blender (where all the buttons are, how to organise windows etc.) but little or nothing about Cycles materials. I'll cover :

  • How to create standard image and procedural textures
  • How to use bump mapping
  • How to mix textures using different shaders or by mixing their colour/alpha information directly
  • How to use one texture as a stencil for another, with some Cycles-specific quirks to watch out for
  • How to arrange things to make the Cycles node window seem less intimidating.

1) Getting started

First, change the rendering engine to Cycles (top menu bar, the drop-down menu that says "Blender Render" by default). Then set up a window environment suitable for editing the materials. In Cycles this is done almost entirely via nodes, so we're going to need a nice big window for that. I like the following setup :
The left section shows the 3D view of the scene, the middle one is the node editor, and the right is the standard properties window.
Notice that on the left I've set the shading method to "rendered" (the little sphere at the bottom of the left panel, next to "object mode"). This gives a realtime preview of the scene. I've got a single Sun lamp pointing at an angle to the plane, but in more complex scenes you'll see the full effects of shading so this can be a great way to see what you're material will really look like. This setting is also available for the standard Blender engine. You also get a preview of the material in the usual panel, just like with the regular rendering engine.

A word of warning : the realtime preview can be unstable. Save your work often, and if in doubt, revert to the classical technique of rendering after making changes to the material. In the Rendering menu there are various options you can set to speed up rendering time; for this example, try lowering the number of samples in the Sampling panel.

Anyway, select your object and add a material just like normal. In the node editor you'll see the following :

What is this ? The "Diffuse BSDF" thing is scary and not at all an intuitive label. What it is is the way in which the diffuse component of the material is constructed. This is then linked to the material's output, in this case to the surface. I won't look at volumetric materials or displacement settings in this tutorial, just the regular surface shaders. We also don't need to worry about any of the material settings on the right, though it can be helpful to open the "preview" panel, here shown closed.

The first thing to understand about this Diffuse node is that it contains more information than colour. If you were to create a node containing only colour information, such as an image file, and link it to the material output surface socket directly, it wouldn't work. It needs that other information contained in the Diffuse node, even if all you wanted to do was set the colour.

Fortunately if you do just want to set the colour, that's easy. You can click on the colour picker in the Diffuse node and set it there directly. Or, more usefully, you can generate the colour from other nodes (in very complex combinations) and use that as the input to the node. Let's start with an image texture node : Shift+A -> Texture -> Image Texture. Use the file selector in the Image Texture node to choose the image file to use. Then connect the Image Texture node to the Diffuse node by clicking on its colour output socket and dragging the line to the input colour socket of the Diffuse node.

But, confusingly, although the material preview will look correct, the render preview won't. Thing is this setup by itself doesn't work. Just like with regular materials, we have to tell Blender what texture coordinates we use. So now add a Texture Coordinate node : Shift+A -> Input -> Texture Coordinate. Draw a line from its "generated" output socket to the "vector" input socket of the Image Texture node, and both the render and material previews should be what we'd expect.

Hooray ! Now you may be wondering about the other sockets on the Diffuse node. "Roughness" changes the shading style but its effects are subtle so let's not worry about that. "Normal" is used for bump maps. The way you set this up is to add a "Bump" node (from the "Vector" section of the Add (shift+A) menu) :

Just like trying to connect the image texture directly to the material output, if you'd tried to connect it
directly to the Normal socket on the Diffuse node, it wouldn't work - the Bump node converts the data into a format it can process correctly. But note how here I've cheated by using the colour of the material as a measure of its height. This works quite well in this case, and in many other cases too, but you could also use a completely different source for the bump information - another image or a procedural texture, for example.

You might also be wondering how we can alter the texture scaling. For that we need to add a Mapping node from the Vector submenu. A useful trick here - first move the Texture Coordinate node a little way off to the left. Then add the Mapping node and position it over the connecting link between the Texture Coordinate and Image Texture nodes. Notice how the link turns orange. When you left click to accept the new node, the links will be set up automatically. Then you can alter the texture scaling parameters in the usual way.

Now it's starting to look quite a bit like a regular Blender material, except that you can both see and control how each part relates to the rest.
One final extremely useful thing to be aware of : frames. Frames are (sort of but not really) meta-nodes, a way to group nodes together so they can be easily moved in blocks for tidy screen organisation. They also let you label blocks of nodes so you can see at a glance what each part is doing. Add a frame from the Layout option of the add menu. Then you can stick the nodes inside it just like parenting objects together : (shift) select the node(s) you want to add in the frame, then shift-select the frame and press CTRL+P. The frame automatically reshapes to hold the nodes. You can un-parent them in the usual way with ALT+P.

Label the frame with the N menu and edit the "Label" parameter near the top. I got rid of the Mapping node here because it's not necessary for this example.
If you select the frame you can move all its nodes around at once. Obviously this isn't much use for this simple material, but, as we shall see, it becomes essential for more complex materials - especially if you re-use them months later !

Now that we have the very basics out of the way, let's get on with setting up multiple textures in different distributions.

2) Multiple textures

Note how I chose the frame to include the whole shader in the above example. That's because one way of mixing different textures is to generate a new shader and then mix them together, so it makes sense to have each frame contain a complete shader. But we don't have to do it that way. A perhaps more intuitive method is to generate the other texture and have the colours combined before they're input into the Diffuse node. You can have shaders made up of multiple textures mixed with other shaders, so things can get extremely elaborate - and far more powerful than what you can do with Blender's standard material editor.

For example, let's add a second texture on top of our image texture. Let's first create a simple procedural noise texture on its own. For this we need two additional nodes : Noise Texture (from the Texture submenu) and the ColourRamp (from the Converter submenu for some reason - I'm not sure the layout of the add menu is particularly sensible, but never mind). Set them up like this :

You can have multiple Material Output nodes if you like, so you can create this node setup without having to remove the existing one. The output nodes that's used (i.e. the material that's displayed) will be the one that's active.
It should be fairly self-explanatory - the parameters are very similar to Blender's standard internal noise textures.

Now comes the interesting part : overlaying the noise texture on top of the original concrete texture. Let's first try this by using a different diffuse shader for each texture and mixing them. We only need to add one more node to do this - the Mix Shader node from the Shader submenu. The base layer (the concrete in this case) goes into the top socket and the overlaid "dirt" - the white fuzzy noise goes into the top. The really important bit is that the "Fac" socket which controls the mixing should come from the Alpha socket of the dirt colour ramp.

This alpha-based mixing was automatic in the original Blender materials. Now we have to specify it, which is a bit more work but also gives us more control.
You can see that this gives us exactly what we'd expect - a concrete texture with some white splodges, with the dominance of the white controlled exactly by its alpha value (if you need to modify that alpha value, send it through a Math node (Converter submenu) before it goes into the Fac socket). Places which should be totally white are totally white. All is well with the world.

Now let's try the other approach of mixing the colours before we send them into a single Diffuse node. We eliminate the Diffuse node of the dirt texture and (optionally) unparent the Diffuse node from the concrete frame. Then we add a MixRGB node (colour submenu) and, equivalent to what we did before, we put the colour output of the concrete texture into the first slot and the colour of the white patches into the second. Again we use the dirt's alpha channel to control the mixing.

Uh-oh ! This has sort-of worked, but very badly. The dirt is mixed, but now its dominance is not properly determined by its alpha. Parts which should be totally white still clearly show the concrete image. Why is this ? Watch what happens if we eliminate the Bump node :

Ahh, now we see what's going on. It wasn't that the colours of the concrete image were showing through, it's that the normal map was causing bumps that were independent of the dirt texture. If we insist on using the mixing colours rather than shaders method, there is a way we can keep the bump mapping - we use the dirt texture to set the strength of the bumps. We need to use the alpha output of the dirt for this, but since we want the white patches to be smooth we need to invert it (Colour-> Invert).

A bit messy, but it works. The nice thing about this is that by altering the "Fac" slider in the Invert node we can change the strength of the effect, so that you could still see the bumps of the concrete in the white patches a little bit if you wanted to. You could get the same effect with the mixing shaders method too, just by dragging the output of the Bump node to the second Diffuse shader as well as the first.

Of course you don't have to use a simple noise texture - you could use a Musgrave, which has a lot more parameters, or a wave (equivalent to the old "Marble" texture)... or more interestingly, you can link another texture to the input scale and distortion sockets. You can get arbitrarily complicated effects like this. And because of the node setup, you're no longer limited to arranging things in the strictly-linear manner of the original material editor.

3) Controlling where the dirt appears

We might be happy having great white splodges all over the place, but we'll often prefer it if they only appeared in a few places on the material. That is, we want patches controlling where the patches appear. Especially for very small patches of dirt - you might not want a uniform coating of dirt, flecks of paint of whatever over your whole material.

This had me stumped for the longest time, and then I felt very silly when I realised how easy it was. Then I felt a bit less silly when some kindly soul pointed out to me that a small mistake can have big consequences here.

All we need to do is make another texture that defines where the splodges appear and use this to multiply the colours of the dirt. So our distribution texture should be white where we want the dirt to appear and black where we don't. Or we can use its alpha channel, which is slightly simpler that setting the RGB colours, but it doesn't really matter. Then we use a Math node to multiply the two alphas (or colours) together, by setting the method to "Multiply" instead of the default "Mix".

The colour of the dirt is generated by a single noise texture, and it's mixed with the base material in the same way as when we had a single texture. The only difference is that now the alpha mixing is done not by the alpha channel of the dirt itself, but by a multiplied combination of the dirt's alpha and the dirt distribution texture alpha. So dirt distribution section only affects the distribution of the dirt and nothing else.

You can download the .blend file here. Play with the scale parameters in both the the dirt distribution and dirt textures to see what effect they have. If you change the dirt distribution scale, you should change the large patches where the dirt appears, whereas if you change the dirt scale, you should change the size of the smaller sub-patches.

But be careful ! There are two pitfalls here :

1) To see the effect really clearly, there should be a large difference in the scale parameters - the dirt scale should be around 10x larger than the dirt distribution (larger scale means more texture within the same area). But if you go to the other extreme, you can break it - a larger scale of the dirt texture than its distribution scale means you won't see any sub-patches.

Keeping the scale of the distribution texture at 1 but altering the scale of the dirt texture from left to right (10, 25, 50).
Keeping the scale of the dirt texture at 50 but varying the scale of the distribution texture from left to right (1, 25, 50). The distribution scale has the strongest impact at small values - once it gets as high as the dirt scale everything becomes uniform, so varying it just shrinks the size of the individual patches rather than controlling where those patches appear.

2) The position of the colourband sliders matters. Keep the distribution colourband unchanged and try moving the dirt colourband sliders around. If you move them too far to the right, the sub-patches can become too small to see or disappear entirely. Too far to the left and the sub-patches become larger than the patches, so changing the scale doesn't have any affect. A similar problem happens if you move the dirt distribution colourband sliders - it can seriously screw everything up.
A good guideline is to start with both the colourbands having markers in the same positions, then tweak it from there. So if you're making your own material, start simple and gradually build up the complexity - make sure each stage has the effect you think it should have.

Keeping all the texture scales constant but varying the position of the dirt colourband controllers (keeping their relative offset the same but moving them both to the right). In the left image the size of the gaps in the dirt are so small that they're barely visible, whereas in the right they're so large that the dirt is barely visible. This is not what happens with a single texture, where you'd have to move the colourband markers to the extreme ends to get such a strong effect - here you get unexpected behaviour if the markers are just a bit too far from the centre. And in those situations altering the scaling of the textures will give some very strange results. 

Well that about wraps this up. There are lots more aspects to creating materials, obviously, but hopefully that's enough to break the ice and show that Cycle materials aren't so scary. Since non-video tutorials are in short supply, I'll try and do more of these assuming that stuff doesn't keep getting in the way.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Ask An Astronomy Anything At All About Astronomy (XXXVI)

The questions are seemingly inexhaustible. I'm beginning to think they'll never end. Who knew space could be so complicated ?

They say there are no stupid questions. They should read questions 4 and 5 in full. Then they should skip down just past question 8, where there's a special surprise this week. Honestly, I dunno whether to despair that the current generation are such complete nincompoops or rejoice that the next one already looks to be considerably better.

1) What term should we use to describe systems of planets around other stars ?
Microsoft® Windows SuperPlanets Professional Home Edition (Service Pack 1).

2) What about that alternative to dark matter ?
It's too complicated and smells of fish.

3) There are so many other explanations instead of dark matter, is dark matter as good as the others ?
No, it's better.

4) Is this black hole heading towards Earth, and if not why are they reporting it ?
No, and because of liberal media bias.

5) Can black holes move through space ?
Yes, but only on Tuesdays.

6) Can gravitational waves fling black holes around ?
Wheeee !

7) Could we move a black hole with an electric charge ?
Yes, but if I had to choose I think I'd feel safer inside the hole - and that's not sarcasm.

8) I think this article about black holes is wrong, but I'm not going to tell you why.
Well okay then.
- No, but seriously, I insist on not telling you why.
I don't think you understand how this works.
- I'm going to keep talking anyway about how I won't tell you why it's wrong.
Please don't.

SPECIAL EDITION ! This week I received my first ever hand-written (!) questions from 7 year old Daniel Phillips. Daniel rightly understands that the best person to ask about astronomy is not his mummy or daddy but an astronomer (well what did you expect when his daddy studied philosophy ?). So I hope that these answers will be basically correct and that they'll make sense to Daniel. I don't normally record the name of who's asking (for all sorts of reasons) but I'll make an exception in this case.

I've put your questions in a different order, Daniel, because I think this will make the answers easier to understand.

1) How many stars are in the sky ?

2) Is the Moon a giant asteroid ?
Your mum's not a giant asteroid.

3) What is the Sun ?
Hot !

4) What are the stars ?
Also hot.

5) How many planets are in the Solar System ?
Some of them.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Cesky Krumlov : Why Medieval Art Desperately Needs To Jump The Shark

Tired of Prague ? Searching for something more exotic and crazy in the Czech Republic, filled with thrills, spills, dangerous monsters and death-defying escapades ? Well you won't find any in the sleepy town of Cesky Krumlov, a tiny medieval place about a hundred miles south of Prague, near the Austrian border. What you will find is a pretty little town that's a pleasant diversion for a weekend.

It takes almost exactly two hours to get to Cesky Krumlov ("Czech Crumb Love" - no not really) by car or about two days by foot. It's your choice, I'm not judging. How long it takes by balloon or camel is left as an exercise to the reader.

We stayed in this nice little B&B, which finally answers a long-standing mystery : why I keep seeing the word "penzion" everywhere. It turns out the Czech Republic is not overflowing with pension-collection centres, but guesthouses. I suppose that's more logical.

Although it was out of season and the weather was bad, this place was fully booked. Czechy Kelvin-Helmholtz is a popular place, so book in advance. Everyone else thought the guesthouse was "OK, not great", though personally I give it massive brownie points for having an exceptionally comfortable bed. I usually sleep extremely badly anywhere new, but not here.

Mind you, that might have had something to do with the excessive amount of walking. First we walked into the centre of town...

That's us, walking.
... which is a pretty little place, even in the damp and somewhat miserable weather.

Checky Krum Lust really is tiny, you could walk from one side to the other in half an hour. But if you go around all the streets and visit the many and various museums, you can easily spend all day on your feet. Which we did. But that's OK, considering how many weekends I spend watching Netflix.

Could this be the world's only nightclub with a medieval water wheel ?
We began with the town's main attraction, since during the low season it's not fully open and even then it's only open for limited hours : the rather fine castle. This is an impressive castle-palace with an extremely dramatic multi-level arched bridged linking two enclosures on different hills.

The castle itself is imposing but not spectacular from below. Like many Czech castles (not including Karl's Stein), it doesn't really look like a castle except in a few isolated areas. It's hard to get a sense of the layout of it even from its interior, though a model in the museum (one of only two parts we could visit) makes it clear that this was a huge fortified area - and definitely a proper, fighting castle, not the fortified palace it appears today.

The museum is good, and quite extensive, though the focus is on the latter stages of the castle as a palace. The other part we visited was the impressive baroque tower, which has a suitably commanding view over the whole town.

After that we went for lunch in a nice restaurant where the food was overpriced and there was a problem with every single order except mine. You win some, you lose some... I suppose that's the compensation I get for being the only single person in a group of nine.

Then we went to a bunch of museums. I forget the order, but there was the torture museum (very silly and the scariest thing was the noise the rotating gate makes), the mirror maze (not bad, actually), and the moldavites museum.

I have tiny feet ! Tee hee hee !
Moldavities are a very interesting and rare form of glass, formed by meteor impacts. The museum was fun, though for all the wrong reasons, with the very first explanatory panel opening with the memorable line, "65 million years ago, the dinosaurs had a bad day." The short video was probably better suited to astrologers than astronomers, narrated by a strange man describing how touching the moldavites made him feel their "cosmic energy" and gave him a "Buddhist attitude". There was also an interactive impact simulator where you use your hands to set the size of the asteroid and hurl it towards the Earth. It didn't work very well, and when it did it gave very inconsistent results. Sometimes the asteroid explodes in the atmosphere yet causes massive ecological damage, sometimes it impacts the ground and causes a massive crater but no burning. Very mysterious.

Then there was even more walking and nice views of Chicky Camelot until we all decided it was time to collapse.

The next day we left Chucky Krumloops for a nearby castle which I can't remember the name of because, unusually in Czech, it's got too many vowels. This castle also had a genuine medieval history, but it suffered from reconstruction (not restoration) much later, so the modern thing is very nice but little more than a fantasy stately home.

This castle was open, but because of the low season the tours were only in Czech with English printouts. On the slightly positive side, we got free entry into an art gallery. I'm not a big fan of art galleries, but this one, it must be said, was exactly the same as all the others. Lots of paintings and sculptures which you walk around thinking, "yes, that's definitely a painting" or more analytically, "well I wouldn't want that on my wall." I really don't get it.

The first level of the gallery was by far the worst. It had a nice enough opening quote by someone, explaining that only the audience can bestow meaning on the art. That's reasonable enough I suppose, but it seemed to me an excuse to justify putting a stick in some concrete and calling it art without any explanation. It was really all that I hate most about modern "art", little more than pretentious twaddle that probably earned some pot-smoking layabout enough money to make a Faberge egg omelette, or something. At least give me some description of what in God's name the artist was thinking so I can rant loudly about how, "Well I don't think much of that ! Doesn't look much like a commentary on socioeconomic policy in Aztec Mexico to me !". Instead I just had to endure a lengthy series of meaningless nonsense, reading the labels for lack of anything better to do.

The second level was slightly better, though what it God's name the artist was thinking here was all too clear : God. Well, at least the paintings and sculptures looked like what they were trying to imitate. But how many identical sculptures of Christ being brutally crucified (sometimes very graphically) do we really need ? Do we really need yet another identical painting of the adoration of the Magi ?

If only the artists from galleries one and two had met, they might have learned something from each other. The modern ones would have discovered some technical skill beyond finger-painting, and the medieval ones would have had a good dose of surrealism. The Adoration of the Magi with a Happy Shark. Jesus dying on the cross but someone shouting in a speech bubble, "He's only MOSTLY dead !". Anything would be better than a dreary series of identicalness that turn the so-called Greatest Story Ever Told into The Most Uninteresting Sequence Of Depictions You'll Ever See.

The third level, impressionism, was much better. Here there was some remarkable technical skill of conveying detail and realistic lighting while painting the sort of brush stroke a 5 year old would feel ashamed of. And they look nice dammit. OK, none of them were particularly provocative or anything, but who cares ? None of the other paintings were either clever or looked nice. And dammit, I think nice-looking paintings are a darn sight better than all those stupid ones of tins of soup or Christ spilling his guts all over the place.

After enduring this strenuous ordeal, the day concluded with the tour of the castle. This wasn't bad considering it was all in Czech, but I came away with the distinct impression that the owner was a complete deranged psychopath who must have really hated deer. Stone animal heads festoon the exterior, real ones cover every square inch of the interior that's not plastered with firearms.

I know that this was a different age when animal rights meant little, and it was all jolly good fun to take the young 'un's out to blast the wilderness into oblivion (literally - they had children's hunting rifles), but this guy was pathologically obsessed. Even the ladies rooms were plastered wall-to-wall with assorted guns. The interior designer's instructions must've been something like, "I want to be no more than two arm length's away from the nearest firearm at all times, in case a deer suddenly appears and I have to shoot it. Did I ever tell you about that time a deer tried to ravage my wife ?! Nasty little devils, deer. Almost as bad as foreigners. Can't trust 'em. Gotta shoot 'em sixteen times to make sure they're dead. Sixteen ! Yes. What was I saying ? That's right, shooting foreigners. Now, the thing about foreigners is..."

Then we escaped the Deer Extermination Centre, had a a very late lunch, and went home. And everyone lived happily ever after, except for the deer because they were all dead.