Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?

Recently I’ve been clearing out boxes of old childhood junk from my parents’ attic. This gives me plenty of opportunities to revisit my youth. Here I have an old 90s computer game: Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?

Children who grew up in the 80s and 90s may remember the edutainment phenomenon that was Carmen Sandiego. Always dressed in her trademark red trenchcoat and fedora, Carmen Sandiego appeared in games teaching everything from geography to history, as well as a kids’ TV game show and an animated series or two.

A gentleman thief who was also a lady, Carmen and her henchmen pulled off daring heists that forced agents of ACME to show off their knowledge of the subject matter at hand.

And in 1993, Brøderbund Software, Inc., gave us Carmen Sandiego… in spaaaace!

box-cover
Carmen Sandiego, the famous fiendish femme felon in a fedora, stealing the rings of Saturn.

Sadly, the game comes on four 3.5″ floppy disks, and since I haven’t owned a computer with a floppy drive in many years, I can’t just pop the game in and give it another play-through.

disks
Game comes on four fabulous floppy diskettes. Yes, kids, this is where the “save” icon comes from.

But here’s a look at the system requirements. A bright green banner on the front of the box proclaims “works with Windows or DOS.” The game requires a whopping 8 MB of hard drive space to store all of those nifty VGA-quality digital images.

sys-reqs
A truly 90s-era system requirements list.

I can recall that the gameplay was much like any other Carmen Sandiego game. You play as a detective with the ACME Detective Agency. A heist has been committed, and it’s up to you to solve it.

For this game, cracking the case means traveling to the various planets and moons in our solar system, finding clues by talking to witnesses, wiretapping radio transmissions, or launching probes.

You have a certain number of turns to crack the case (represented as a limited amount of fuel for your rocket). If you identify and nab the suspect before your rocketship’s fuel gauge hits E, a goofy little robotic police probe flies off to make the arrest. You win this round!

box-back
I guess that’s the player character on the left? Handsome fellow, eh?

Assisting you in your mission was the VAL 9000 computer. This wisecracking AI companion occasionally gave basic hints: for example, her digitized voice would warn you when your fuel was nearly empty.

But her primary purpose was to provide access to an electronic database that provided categorized information on various astronomical bodies, astronomers, the Sun, and the nine planets. (Pluto. Lest we forget.)

If I remember correctly, there was even a way to launch the game into an “encyclopedia-only” mode, whereby you could access VAL 9000’s articles, but not play the game. This must have been just prior to the time of “PC encyclopedias” on CD-ROM, so it was probably a novel concept for its time.

Convenient access to information at your fingertips. The 90s… what a time to be alive!

val9000
Greetings. She is a VAL 9000 Computer, and she wants to assure you that she is much less murdery than her more famous cousin.

The henchmen had to be tracked down, but also identified in advance. As with most Carmen games, this is essentially a game of Guess Who: you get clues about the perpetrator’s gender, feature, and in this game, favorite astronomer and favorite writer.

You use these clues to narrow down the list of punnily-named suspects. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a single suspect, you issue an arrest warrant.

henchmen
A couple of Carmen’s henchmen in the game manual. Funny how Carmen recognized non-binary genders even then: you can be male or female… or robot, space jellyfish…

And what “deluxe edition” game box would be complete without some kind of bonus? (Even though this was billed as the “deluxe edition”, I think this was just a marketing gimmick.) That’s right, if you buy this game, not only do you get the latest in Brøderbund edutainment: you also get a copy of Peterson’s Guide to Astronomy, a handy pocket reference for ages 12 to adult!

feelie
Random Feelie

And… that’s it for my look at Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego? It’s a shame that I can’t give this game another play. If you came here looking for gameplay action, the best I can do is link you to a Youtube playthrough playlist that someone else posted. Nostalgiate and enjoy!

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All the Pretty Girls, Kenny Chesney – Flash Jukebox

What if I try to read “All the Pretty Girls,” by Kenny Chesney, as a work of flash fiction? I can already hear you. “That doesn’t make sense, Benny! That song isn’t a story song!”

Well, my name isn’t Benny, and I’m going to try it anyway. You can listen to the song free on Vevo, or read the lyrics on AZLyrics.

Continue reading “All the Pretty Girls, Kenny Chesney – Flash Jukebox”

To English Teachers

Today I happened to find out that my 12th grade English teacher just recently passed away. Even though my senior year was an astonishing mumbleteen years ago, some aspects of that class I remember well.

When I was in school, there was significant “churn” among the ranks of the teachers. Inexperienced graduates with shiny new teaching degrees would arrive, teach for a year, and burn out. Many teachers were first-year teachers, substitute teachers, and people who preferred to be called “Coach”.

Mrs. Loggins was not among these. Already near the end of a long teaching career at my high school (she retired only a couple years after I graduated), she was well-known for teaching English and Yearbook.

What do I remember from her “English Lit” class?

Continue reading “To English Teachers”

Twenty Years Ago

Today I noticed this tweet by way of a blog post by SJ O’Hart that gave me pause.

Could it really be that 1997 was twenty years ago? By the bountiful bowels of Bacchus… I feel so old. In spring of that year, I was a scrawny beanpole of a high school freshman, shy around others yet a little too blathery within my circle of friends. How can part of my life simultaneously seem so recent, yet feel a whole lifetime distant?

Mise-en-scène: a suburban brick house in North Carolina. Temperature is a mild 74° Fahrenheit. Humidity is low, and the winds are pushing an unbroken layer of clouds out of the WNW. (Thank you, WUnderground.) Outside, a mockingbird sings.

Inside, a family is cleaning up after dinner. Perhaps they just finished watching Jeopardy on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. And while the parents intend to continue their CBS experience with an all-new episode of Diagnosis: Murder (spoiler: Dick Van Dyke solves the case), the teenager retires to his room.

There I find him, the eo-ego, my twenty-years-younger self. His thoughts are on… what? School? I struggle to remember what classes I might have been enrolled in for spring semester. Girls? Everything this kid knows about girls couldn’t even fill an awkward lull in the conversation. He has no plans for college, nor any particular ambition: I doubt he can seriously think farther into the future than next week.

No personal computer and no internet in 1997. Our first dial-up connection came a year later. What does he do? He seems as alien to me as I must seem to him.

If I wanted to blow his mind, I could just hand him my smartphone. If I wanted to live a life of luxury, I could tell him to invest in Apple stock. If I wanted to be a hero, I could tell him what happens on a September morning four years from now.

I do none of those things: he and I have both read enough science fiction to imagine a butterfly effect of negative consequences that any such revelation might bring. Still, I must say something.

“Y’know… The college you eventually go to has a motto: Think and Do.” No spoilers here. My 1997 self accepts college as a foregone conclusion, but it would be several more years before he recognizes that motto.

“Both are important. But if you have to choose one… choose to do.”

In the bedroom of the suburban brick home, the time traveler from 2017 vanishes in a puff of smoke, leaving a clueless, socially awkward sci-fi junkie student to wonder what to make of this cryptic message.

5 Places in the Solar System Where Life Might Be Found

5. Mars

Mars has been home to extraterrestrial life in our imaginations since the earliest days of science fiction. Percival Lowell believed that the canali described by Schiaparelli were canals built by an advanced Martian civilization. H.G. Wells wrote of a Martian invasion of Victorian England.

Although the Viking landers showed us an apparently lifeless Martian surface, it is possible that Mars once supported life, and may yet do so. After all, it possesses a (thin) atmosphere, essential nutrients, and fairly abundant solar energy. There is evidence that water ice is abundant, and that liquid water once flowed across the surface. Might there be Martian microorganisms hiding beneath the surface, protected from the harsh chemicals and UV radiation?

4. Titan

pia20713-titan-saturnmoon-labeledfeaturesiau-june2015

After Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan may be one of the most popular places in the solar system for speculation about alien life over the past several decades. Observed by Pioneer 11 and Voyager 1 only as a hazy world surrounded by an opaque atmosphere, the Cassini probe and Huygens lander provided much more information about Titan.

Though too cold for liquid water, Titan’s surface is covered by lakes of hydrocarbons. Its atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, along with methane and other hydrocarbons. This has led astrobiologists to speculate about life forms not based on water, but instead using methane or ethane as a solvent.

3. Europa

europa-moon

This moon of Jupiter possesses a subsurface ocean, kept liquid by the heat from tidal forces exerted by Jupiter. This same tidal flexing could create undersea hydrothermal vents, and there is evidence to suggest that the ocean is in contact with a rocky surface. The presence of a liquid ocean, coupled with an energy source in the form of undersea vents, and a rocky undersea surface as a source of minerals, suggests that Europa is a place that could support life.

Proposals have been made for exploration of the Europan ocean, but the high-radiation environment around Jupiter, difficulties involved in boring down to the ocean, and concerns about contaminating the moon with Earth life have prevented such a mission so far.

2. Pluto

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Yes, the poor non-planet at the edge of our solar system could potentially support life.

Pluto possesses a very thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, and though it was once thought that the atmosphere would freeze when Pluto was farthest from the sun, scientists now believe that it remains gaseous throughout Pluto’s orbit.

Additionally, the New Horizons probe revealed the existence of tholins, a type of organic compound, on the surface of Pluto. If the extreme conditions of the surface make it uninhabitable, life might still exist deep beneath the surface, in a possible sub-surface ocean.

It should not be surprising, then, that science fiction writers have from time to time picked Pluto as a potentially life-supporting world.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Venus – Once imagined as a lush jungle world, we know now that our sister planet suffers from a stifling atmosphere with clouds of sulfuric acid and surface temperatures that can melt lead. Still, extremophiles do exist on Earth, and some speculate that life might survive high in the atmosphere of Venus.
  2. Ganymede – Another of Jupiter’s moons, Ganymede is suspected to harbor a subsurface ocean with more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. Might something be swimming beneath the surface of this largest Galilean satellite?
  3. Jupiter – Hard as it might be to imagine life on a planet with no solid surface, Carl Sagan speculated that balloon-like organisms might float on the Jovian breezes, consuming microorganisms likewise swept around by the gale-force winds. Concept art was even created for his legendary Cosmos series.
  4. Earth. Ok, this one is a cheat. Not only does the third rock from the Sun support life, we’re also fairly certain that there’s intelligent life to be found here. Somewhere. If you’re searching for life in the solar system, Earth is your safest bet.

1. Enceladus

pia17202_-_approaching_enceladus

En-what? Enceladus, one of the larger moons of Saturn, is yet another world possessing a subsurface ocean. Observations by the Cassini spacecraft suggest a geologically active world, with geysers containing hydrocarbon compounds and indicating the presence of a high-pH ocean.

Though highly alkaline and buried deep within the moon, scientists speculate that this ocean may provide the energy sources and support the complex chemical reactions needed for life to form. Life on Enceladus may be powered by chemosynthesis, with hydrothermal vents being a source of chemical energy for the Enceladan microbes.

Incidentally, if you are ever uncertain about pronunciation, Space.com has a handy guide for pronouncing the names of all the planets and moons in our solar system. Yes, even the eighth planet…

Cosmic Trailblazers

Wrote this a while back based on a writing prompt from /r/writingprompts:

“Alexander Pope wrote, ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night. / God said, Let Newton be!'” As soon as I flicked the lighter, the spherical flame danced near my thumb. I touched it to the end of the rolled paper, then brought the other end to my lips and inhaled. “And all was light.”

Forty-eight hours until my next duty shift. With only one week until the SpaceX ship “Ghost of Christmas Future” made its historic landing, I was beginning my final scheduled weekend break. Two days with no landing simulations, no laboratory activities, no maintenance duty. Just me, myself, and I.

And my roommate. In the hammock nearby, he chuckled and stretched out. Most of his free time was spent staring out the porthole, watching Mars grow ever larger. “Care for a hit, Carl?” I offered, but he held up his palm and shook his head. “You know I can’t,” he said sadly.

I shrugged and took another puff. “You know we’re naming our colony after you?”

“Sagan City,” he nodded, still staring out the porthole. “It must’ve bruised your CEO’s ego considerably not to name it Muskopolis.”

“Elon Musk himself allowed us to vote. The scientists were adamant.” Smoke poured from my lips as I spoke, curling in unusual ways as my breath yielded to the air currents from the ventilation system. I closed my eyes for a moment. There was something about microgravity that made mary jane extraordinary. “You’re not pleased? It’s quite an honor.”

“Newton would be pleased,” Carl answered. “I might’ve preferred something more whimsical, like ‘Helium’.”

I imagined stepping out of the “Ghost of Christmas Future” airlock, my boots printing the Adidas logo into the Martian regolith, and there in the distance, Dejah Thoris, princess of Mars, beckoning me forth. “You’d have my vote, but you’d be the minority. I think ‘Bradbury’ was the runner-up.”

“Yes, he told me so.” Carl also closed his eyes. His spectral chest rose and fell in imitation of breathing. His face grew melancholy, as though recalling the experiences of his youth.

“I don’t get it, Carl. You’ve been dead all these years. A ghost. You can’t eat or drink. I’ve never seen you sleep. You obviously can’t blaze, and I’m guessing you can’t get laid, either…”

He nodded wearily.

“So why do you stick around? Why do any of you ghosts stay?”

You could say that “Ghost of Christmas Future” was haunted by its past. Percival Lowell. Angeline Stickney Hall. Robert Goddard. Neil Armstrong. To most of the crew, this would be a metaphor for “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton likes to say. But luck made me one of the point-zero-zero-one percent of humans who is psi-sensitive, and to me, ghosts were as real as farts in an elevator on Taco Tuesday, and often equally unpleasant.

Not the scientist ghosts, mind you. Notwithstanding the unpleasant supernatural chills, pre-mouthwash-era halitosis, and constantly having to lie to the ship psychiatrist, it was amazing to work shoulder-to-spectral-shoulder with the greatest intellects in human history. To be tutored in physics by Albert Einstein. To hear Isaac Asimov opine about our onboard computer AI. Enrico Fermi himself saved my bacon during an incident with a portable nuclear reactor.

But by my estimates, the ghostly population outnumbered the living, breathing crew by more than 50:1. And most weren’t cool like Carl Sagan. There were mindless thrill-seekers hoping to find a bigger rush in death than they did in life. Trekkies from the Original Series days, sixty years ago, who died with their Spock ears on. And at least one prattling geologist from Saint Thomas Francis University who probably bored himself to death. Looky-loos of all sorts.

“No one was as surprised as I to learn that ghosts exist,” Carl explained. “In the thirty-two years I’ve been dead, most of the ghosts I’ve met eventually grow bored, and decide to move beyond.”

“And you?”

“Just because ghosts exist, we cannot presume that there is a ‘beyond’. It’s possible that all these ghosts are simply giving up their existence. Not moving into a heaven or a hell… Just oblivion.”

“And that doesn’t appeal to you?”

Carl thought for a moment. Stars twinkled in his eyes. “When there’s still so much out there to see and discover?” He shook his head and gestured out the porthole. “Someday, perhaps. But not in my lifetime. Not in a hundred lifetimes. Perhaps… not even in billions and billions of lifetimes.”

“Ha, you finally said it!” I threw my spent butt at him in my excitement. It passed through him and bounced off the wall. Ashes scattered in all directions. I drifted over to corral the debris into the ventilation filter. Nothing in the room was flammable, but I wanted no evidence of contraband floating around.

After a while, I positioned myself near the porthole, a few feet from Carl. My velcro shoes gripped the floor, and I swayed in the draft from the air duct. We stared at the red orb, the harbinger of war, our future home. “Carl, dude…” I said, enthralled by the view. “Mars is so big!”

 

In Memoriam: Harrelson Hall

For over fifty years, Harrelson Hall stood on the NC State University campus like a tacky alien mothership hovering over the brickyard (with apologies to the late Douglas Adams) in much the same way that bricks do.

Image of Harrelson Hall
Harrelson Hall, on the NC State University brickyard. By Cgb628 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After five decades, the much-hated building is well into the process of demolition. Most articles will tell you (using as many circle puns as possible) that Harrelson Hall was the first circular building built on a college campus, and has been roundly criticized (sorry) for most of its existence.

Continue reading “In Memoriam: Harrelson Hall”

Resonant Cavity Thrusters

EmDrive. Q drive. Cannae drive. All of these are a class of devices known as resonant cavity thrusters, and for the past few years they’ve been popping up in the media from time to time.

What’s the big idea?

Take an ordinary household magnetron (you’ll find one in every microwave oven). Use it to pump microwave radiation into a resonant chamber of a certain shape (a metal box that’s wide at one end and narrow at the other.)

Turn it on and voilà: even though nothing is emitted from the system, you’ll detect a very small anomalous force pushing the chamber.

Continue reading “Resonant Cavity Thrusters”