Friday, 25 May 2012

Kelutral (Home Tree)

Review: Kelutral (Home Tree)

Category: Plants

Author: Unknown, probably Eywa.

Rating: 38%
Kelutral is the Na’vi name given to a species of tree native to the moon Pandora. Although Kelutral is the name of the species as well as the individual, it is popularly used to refer to the enormous structures created when groves of Kelutral intertwine over thousands of years; the massive ‘Home Tree’ as it is known in English is more properly a Kelutral grove. These colonial structures have been known to grow to over 150 metres tall in Pandora’s weak gravity, although their bases tend to be hollow, and they take their structural integrity from a profusion of mangrove-like roots. The trunk of the structure is also supported by a number of ‘pillars’ and a helical core, each presumably a distinct plant. Specimens over 20,000 years old have been identified. Due to their large size and hollow root bole, the Kelutral is often used by the Na’vi as an ancestral residence- as is the case with the Omaticaya, Tipani, Tawkami and Ni’awve tribes. As such, the Kelutral is of great cultural significance to the Na’vi, and the two are often viewed as closely interlinked. They are hardwoods, grow in tropical climates, and are apparently evergreen.
It’s no surprise to me that the Na’vi live in Kelutrals: what else would you possibly do with them? They’re the biggest plants in the known multiverse. Sadly, this is definitely a case where more is not better: the Kelutral is just like a regular tree, only too big to effectively process for wood. It doesn’t bear fruit (if it did, they’d be a serious hazard to anyone in the vicinity), and it takes about twenty millennia to mature. Who’s got that kind of time? Only the Na’vi, who don’t trouble themselves particularly with things like technology, infrastructure or clothing. In that sense, it’s a match made in heaven- but what about other species? For 99% of species, a tree 0.2km tall is just an administration nightmare, not to mention a fire hazard.
From what I’ve seen, the Kelutral seems to look a lot like a large tropical fig, which is a relatively nice plant to look at. The problem is that the fig is most manageable in its bonsai form, and since the bonsai version of the Kelutral would be a normal sized tree, I’m not sure if this could really work. It couldn’t really be used as a decorative plant, unless you had an office the size of a country, and you wouldn’t want one in your garden because if it fell down, it would crush your entire street. If you wanted to grow one, you’d have to make like the Na’vi and live inside it. That’s not the kind of decision you usually have to make in a gardening context.
The Kelutral is, to all intents and purposes, a big, heavy, inconvenient wooden blob which sits on top of Unobtanium deposits. Although there’s no specific reason why they would occur more often over Unobtanium deposits than anywhere else, evidence suggests that they do- it’s as if they’re just trying to be spiteful. Actually, this is probably the best use for them aside from converting to Na’vi and living in them: using them as handy flags to find Unobtanium.
When you come right down to it, how good a home is a Kelutral anyway? Everyone wants to live green, and I’m pretty sure it’s carbon neutral- but heating? Shelter? You can’t just live in the open, even in the jungle. You’d die of exposure before you got through your first week. Apparently it’s full of ‘dimples’ which make good shelters, and the helical core is basically a staircase to help you move up and down the tree easily- Eywa only knows how evolution sorted that out. But even with these frankly unlikely adaptations, the rule still stands: trees don’t make good houses. I won’t even go into the issue of plumbing; suffice it to say, even Shrek has an outhouse with a little moon carved in the door. How au naturale can one go?
Undoubtedly, everyone sees pictures of Pandora and admires its iconic Kelutrals. Pandora wouldn’t be Pandora without them, and the Na’vi seem perfectly happy with them (although they’ve never known any better, so why wouldn’t they be?). There’s no problem with that. Like Mordor’s Barad-dur, though, or Florida’s Seaworld, just because it works in one place doesn’t mean it’ll work everywhere. Maybe it’s a blessing that the Kelutral needs Pandora’s gravity to grow, and wouldn’t be able to live on other planets; it’s definitely a not-in-my-back-yard kind of thing. Well done Kelutral for being the biggest documented tree in the multiverse - but you are absolutely useless to most intents and purposes, and are also a monumental fire hazard. The critical response to Home Tree is just like the moon it grows on: panned-ora.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Salt (NaCl)

Review: Salt (NaCl)

Category: Compounds

Author: Physics and God (Collaboration)

Rating: 75%

Sodium Chloride is a chemical compound commonly known as salt. Salt does, in fact, contain traces of other chemicals- but since the vast majority is sodium chloride, the two are largely indistinct. Salt is a white, crystalline substance which is soluble. Because of its solubility, it is often found in bodies of water- especially on planets complete with a hydro-cycle. Salt is essential to all known and some unknown life, although in large quantities it is usually lethal. It can and has been used as a currency, and due to its distinctive flavour (salty) it is often used as a seasoning by species which have developed structures of culinary preparation.

Salt is quite a good compound. It’s crystalline, which makes it strong, and that also means it’s quite nice to look at. The fact that it’s soluble, not to mention edible, leads to problems however. Keeping salt crystals and maintaining them in any place where there is life or an atmosphere which could potentially support life is difficult, and since these are the only places you would be anyway, the only real possibility of cultivating salt crystals is if you are dead, or were never alive in the first place, in which case it’s difficult to see what use you would derive from them.

That said, salt is generally very useful- as has been mentioned, it tastes quite nice in small quantities, so a little bit goes a long way. It is also very valuable in some cultures, so you can’t complain there either. It’s relatively easy to transport, it stacks well, and you can just pull it out of the ground- the benefits go on and on.

Salt can also be used to inflict pain on any lifeform with a well-developed nervous system, and render land unusable for the cultivation of plants. The more you think about it, the more it’s the Swiss-army-knife of the chemical world. If you were picking one compound to have an infinite supply of, you could do a lot worse than salt. Without salt, after all, there would be no life in the universe. This would probably be a good thing, on the whole, as the emanations of sentient species only ever disrupt the cosmic harmony- but if you were in control of humble sodium chloride, you would have the universe right where you wanted it. In abject fear.

I take a slight issue with the colour; salt is usually white, and almost always very pale in any case. It could be nicer to look at, and it’s all sandy and horrid when it’s ground up fine. If I was in charge of the design, I would have made it soft and brightly-coloured, so that everyone would know instantly how great it was. If the universe had used colours to signal the relative quality of different substances, I wouldn’t have to write these reviews the whole time- and you wouldn’t have to read them. Thanks a lot, universe.

On the whole, then, I think salt is pretty great. It means we have to put up with life in the universe, but overall it’s a pretty great chemical. It has all kinds of uses, and its physical qualities are relatively pleasing. It also inflicts pain, rather than blowing stuff up or catching fire- an undervalued fact, I often think. I highly recommend sodium chloride, one of the few compounds that’s really worth its salt.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Death Star

Review: Death Star

Category: Weapons

Author: Galactic Empire

Rating: 83%

The Death Star is a super-weapon which doubles as a space station because of its incredible size. At least as large as a class four moon, the Death Star destroys entire celestial bodies with a concentrated super-laser shot from a characteristic crater above the star’s equatorial trench. Only two death stars were ever commissioned, both by the Galactic Empire, and only one- that under the command of Grand Moff Tarkin- was ever completed, although the second was operational in offensive terms at the time it was destroyed by the rebel alliance; the second was also significantly larger, boasting a 900km diameter in comparison to the first model’s 160km. The Death Star is spherical and white, and can travel at superluminal velocity; its creation, and subsequent destruction, inspired a range of galactic weapons including the Sun Crusher, the Galaxy Gun and the World Devastator.

The Galactic Empire have really got it spot on with their weapons, and it all started with the Death Star. Sure, DS1 had its share of problems- wait a minute, no it didn’t. It was only the second time they’d ever made one (they made a prototype) and the whole thing- the whole thing- had only one Achilles heel. Apple make bigger mistakes before breakfast each day. DS1 didn’t have anywhere near its share of problems. Sure, the critics are going to get on their high horse, but critics will be critics. If they hate the Galactic Empire so much, why don’t they try getting their weaponry from the rebels? Oh, that’s right, the rebels never made anything, which is why they have to put up with C3PO. Let’s be realistic here.

And it’s not like it was so easy to blow it up anyhow- a lot of rebels did get killed. In fact, only one made it out of a fairly large group, so the Death Star held its own despite bad luck. It got blown up, but in principle it was pretty much a wash. And the rebels used magic. The point is, I’m tired of DS1 being slated because of one little design flaw. It’s not as bad as we’re making it out.

Looking at the weapon itself, my main complaint is the 24 hour recharge time. One planet a day seems like a lot now, but a guy with a Death Star can quickly find himself with a lot of enemies. To be honest, I never knew how fast the thing could go though- it has a network of ion engines which really can crank up the speed. So saying, I wouldn’t be confident steering it; the shape isn’t ideal. Do remember though: this is not a ship, it is a mobile galactic weapon.

Returning to the weapon, in fact, it does concern me that it may be a little too powerful. I’ve got to be honest, there’s a huge novelty factor. It’s extreme, it’s cool, it’s different (blowing up entire planets, I mean)- but at the end of the day, I usually don’t need to kill everyone on any given planet. Even if I did, I don’t know if I’d want to destroy the planet too. I know, it’s an extreme statement- and I get that, believe me. But realistically, I’m going to fire that twice before I’m bored of it- and then I’d be better off with a cheap ‘n’ cheerful lightsaber.

DS2 just exacerbates the problem. If I already have a 160km Death Star, do I really upgrade to a 900km model? The specs are practically identical. It’s not a good way to spend money; flash, yeah. Sensible, no. No, no, no.

Pretty much everything about the Death Star is cool- even that almost-impossible-to-reach weakness. And if galactic weapons had stopped there, no one would have complained. But they didn't, and the simple fact is that the market is a very different place now than it was when DS1 was completed in 0 BBY. Expect to see it get higher ratings when concept weaponry comes back in; until then, I’d take a DS1 if you feel keen. But don’t force yourself.

Friday, 2 December 2011

猫手 (Neko-Te)

Review: 猫手 (Neko-Te)

Category: Weapons

Author: Anonymous Ninja

Rating: 85%

The Neko-te, or cat’s paw, is a weapon favoured by Japanese ninjas. It consists of a pair of glove-like contraptions (although they can be used individually) worn on the hands, the fingers of which terminate in offensive blades or needles. The Neko-Te is an example of the Kakushi Buki school of weaponry- literally, the hidden weapons. As such it is designed primarily as a weapon of self-defence, although a skilful ninja will be able to use a pair of Neko-Te to open the main arteries of an opponent. Use of the Neko-Te is still taught in the Bujinkan and Jinenkan Dojos under masters Masaaki Hatsumi and Manaka Unsui respectively. Freddy Krueger, the dream-murderer who achieved notoriety for a spate of murders in 1984, also favours a variant of the Neko-Te.

It’s obvious even to the most pacific mind that the Neko-Te is a pretty cool weapon. I think maybe the best thing about it is the animal reference- it just makes the whole thing a little more varied and colourful. Would they have been as popular as ‘cutting gloves’? Or ‘Sharp Hands’? I can’t see it catching on. With cat claws though, you get the allusion to a predatory animal; it’s very similar in principal to X-Men’s Wolverine, but the gay costume is optional.

There is the issue of the fatality count; when I’m picking my top ten weapons to take to a desert island, I want them to have a high killing power. That’s the point of a weapon, surely. Or is it? The Neko-Te philosophy is partially about defence- but it’s also a weapon that specialises in causing a lot of pain. Why kill your enemy when you could slice them all over with an intricate network of lacerations? Sure, with the Neko-Te you can’t make someone dead- but you can make them wish they were dead.

Don’t forget your fear factor, too- which plays into the animalistic persona. A guy with a sword is just that: a guy with a sword. The Neko-Te are somehow more integrated, and become a part of your outfit as much as your panoply, and will definitely put the fear of imminent and painful death in the hearts of your enemies- which is where it belongs.

It’s a defensive as well as offensive weapon, which at the end of the day is very practical; why carry one of each? In fact, since they’re gloves, the Neko-Te allow you to carry none at all. You could actually still hold an axe, or a gun, or a baseball bat- although these probably wouldn’t do justice to the elegant Japanese armoury. It really is a very practical weapon, when you think about it, and stealthy too- don’t forget, they’re designed to be easily concealed.

The flipside of this is the fact that it’s harder to do almost anything when your fingers end in knives. I won’t go into detail, but it’s probably safe to assume that this weapon has a pretty high accidental injury factor. Scratching, nose picking and especially rubbing your eyes are all very bad ideas; not much of a problem for ninjas, who have impeccable manners and are never tired, but for everyone else you’ve got to be very careful. Not a weapon for beginners, that’s what I’m saying.

Overall I would definitely recommend the Neko-Te to any race with appendages on which to wield them- as long as you’re experienced enough to handle it. You’ll need plenty of training, but it will be worth it in the end, especially if you’re as thoroughly vindictive and egregious as the race who conceived them (if you’re asking yourself whether I’m referring to the Japanese or the human race, then you have way too much faith in both of them). Armourers everywhere, take note of the Neko-Te.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Trojan War

Review: The Trojan War

Category: Wars

Author: Agamemnon

Rating: 89%

The Trojan War, culminating in the siege and sacking of Troy, was a conflict which took place around the 12th or 11th century BCE. It was fought between the Trojans and the Achaeans, over the madrigal rights to Helen of Troy; initial disagreements arose after Paris was awarded the love of Helen by the Goddess Aphrodite, despite the fact that she was already married to Menelaus. Paris ten fled with Helen to Troy, and Menelaus gave pursuit- bringing with him an army the likes of which the world had never seen, under the command of Agamemnon, his brother and king of the Mycenae. The siege of Troy lasted for ten years, and when it was finally defeated via the cunning of Odysseus it was razed to the ground.

The Trojan War is a big favourite- that first war to which all other wars must be compared. What could be more compelling? Warfare by land and sea, involving great heroes and gods walking on earth in human form; courage, cunning and carnage... Ideal. It’s become the unrelenting subject of human art and endeavour for the whole life of modern civilization on Earth. It even stands the test of modern expectations though; the weaponry might seem dated, but all the necessary elements are there.

World War One was sometimes known as the ‘war to end all wars’, exhibiting the kind of hilarious optimism so epidemic in the human species. In any case, it seems likely that the Trojan War was the war to begin all wars; to set the tone and the precedent for all subsequent conflicts. I think we can all agree that a war to begin all wars makes a lot more sense than a war to end all wars- and Troy set a very high standard for conflicts in years to come.

A vital element of the Trojan War’s success is the divine intervention. The Greek pantheon are very helpful in this respect, and unlike the Abrahamic God have no qualms about getting involved on both sides of the conflict. Zeus and Hera really knew how to keep the flame of war alive, and Troy as an event certainly owed more to the incredible team of Gods working tirelessly behind the scenes than to ostensible heroes like Hektor and Achilles. There’s no doubt that they prolonged the conflict beyond comparison, and the whole thing is just so much more colourful with some supernatural pyrotechnics.

If I had one criticism, it would be that there’s not enough of a moral slant going on. The Greeks seem to be mildly evil, but not decisively, so it’s hard to know whether good triumphs over evil. Equally, there’s no underdog- the fortress of Troy had never been breached, and the Achaean army couldn’t be defeated. Sure there’s the spectacle of irresistible force meeting immovable object, but where’s the humanity? It’s a niggling doubt, but a doubt nonetheless.

Often, in war, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact winner. Not so with Troy- the old horse trick was enough to ensure a total victory- and what a great and original way of doing it! So creative, so unexpected... masterful. There’s not very much information, but it’s safe to assume that the death toll was respectably high. When you take into account the destruction wreaked within the walls, we’re definitely on the right side of slaughter. The Trojan horse, and the sacking of Troy, are the perfect end to the perfect war: five stars.