The great AI race is now on

The other day I got Bixby – Samsung’s virtual assistant – on my phone. My phone also has Google assistant while my laptop and tablet have Siri. I am surrounded by virtual assistants, possibly the precursors to AI (Artificial Intelligence if you have just arrived in civilisation). I’ll be honest, I keep forgetting to use them.

These days the news is full of stories about the rise of AI. Well, Trump, North Korea, Brexit and AIs. Everything is basically alarming and it is hard to know what to be most shit scared about next. Recently an AI beat the world’s best GO player, Microsoft made a chatbot that became racist frighteningly quickly and China made several chatbots that started to praise America and were shut down. So good and bad.

The other day Vladimir Putin gave a speech where he said that whichever nation leads in AI will be the ‘Ruler of the World’. This then prompted Elon Musk to tweet:

“China, Russia, soon all countries w strong computer science. Competition for AI superiority at national level most likely cause of WW3 imo.”

So pretty scary all round. Being a massive optimist, I don’t think it will necessarily be all doom. People often think Skynet from Terminator or the Cylons. I agree with Mr Musk that killer robots for the army are probably a massively stupid idea. We need to tread carefully and when I look at the people currently in charge, I can certainly see urge for panic. But with calmer more intelligent minds helping out maybe it will all be ok. If you look at the history of nearly everything – some things are great and some are shite, yet still, we humans persist.

An AI might be like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – handy but mostly a bit annoying. Or like in Star Wars, where they can do robot stuff but are essentially like people (although in Star Wars, they are basically slaves which is bad). On a more positive spin, the AIs in Iain M Banks Culture novels are bloody great. In ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ robots and AIs are actually in charge and the aliens’ culture is massively better off. So who knows? It is going to happen and if you look at Trump, North Korea and Brexit, maybe we should welcome the robot overlords.

Maybe they have taken over already and we are all living in the Matrix. As long as I can drink beer, eat steak, travel a lot and play games, I am happy. All hail the robot overlords!

 

 

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VR Apollo 11 experience PS4

I downloaded this a few weeks back and finally gave it a go. If you are a regular reader then you are probably aware that this sort of thing is very much my cup of tea – I love space exploration, astronomy and VR. So I am happy to report that I loved the VR Apollo 11 experience.

There are some interactive elements – such as docking (fairly easy) and landing (fairly impossible) – but this is essentially a documentary experience. The makers went to a lot of effort to make the experience as accurate as possible and they did a superb job. For example, the landscape you see during the landing sequence is the real photo mosaic NASA created and used to train the astronauts. Obviously, you don’t experience things like the G-force of take-off (get someone to sit on you), or the terror, but when you leave the atmosphere and can look out of the window at Earth, it is pretty amazing. I also learned some things I didn’t know about how the Apollo modules worked which was pretty cool.

The company that made this experience is called Immersive VR Education and if you click on the link you can see a lot more information. I did the VR Apollo 11 Experience on a PS4 but it is also on Oculus and Vive and so on. If you are interested in space and VR I highly recommend it. Here is a trailer which will give you a vague idea – just without the VR.

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Short, fun travel tales!

BookcovertraveltalesI haven’t done this for ages, so it seems the perfect time to publicise my short collection of lighthearted travel tales. “Australia, Morocco, and Thailand. Three True Travel Stories“. Instead of the usual blurb, which you can read on Amazon, I thought it would be good to copy in a couple of reviews from the US website. I promise I don’t know them. They are ‘Top 1000 Reviewers’ and I should be so lucky to know such important people.

“Some young folks hit the backpacker trail to gain self-enlightenment and seek spiritual awareness and save the world. With admirable honesty, the author admits that (at twenty-one) he was looking for fun, with the emphasis on avoiding boredom, staying drunk, and getting laid. Not surprisingly, he had more luck in the first two areas than in the third.

Don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as a stoned-and-stupid Spring Break saga. This man is a professional writer and a damned good one, and he knows how to tell a story. He also has a keen eye for the absurd, even when he’s looking in the mirror. The first (and longest) section recounts an adventure in Australia when he and three friends try to earn traveling money picking pears. Unfortunately, the beautiful farm of his imagination (think A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL) turns out to be an “outback gulag” and the friendly, generous rural inhabitants consist of a hostile, dishonest farm owner and a pair of hard-working (and hard-drinking) Albanians.

The second story involves getting stranded in the Atlas Mountains during rainy season and taking a hair-raising ride back to civilization (or closer, anyway) in a van packed with Berber tribesmen. Why are the windows covered? “Il est preferable de ne pas regarder.” (It’s better not to look.) The third finds our hero living in Bangkok with his American-educated Thai fiancee Nim where he experiences a strange (typically Thai) overthrow of the government. The Prime Minister is unpopular, so the military steps in, sends the police home, the King okays the deal, and Happy Hour goes on. (That was in 2006.)

My only complaint about the book is that it is far too short and I wasn’t ready for it to end.”

And another:

“‘Ladyboys from the Mambo cabaret strode confidently down the cracked pavement on ridiculously high heels. Further down the road, another elephant mingled with the traffic. “Everything looks pretty damn normal,” Chris said.’ Funny stuff from 3 “paid holidays” focusing on the highlights (or lowlights depending on one’s perspective) of the author’s encounter with a giant Australian spider covering his chest nipple to nipple, riding along with a vanload of Moroccans as it teeters on the edge of a waterlogged roadway, or surviving what is (hopefully) a bloodless coup in Thailand while being serenaded at a downtown bar. So, all I have to say is what three destinations are we headed off to next? Very entertaining book!”

You can buy this here: Australia, Morocco, and Thailand. Three True Travel Stories. I’d be ever so grateful:

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International Space Station on Google Street View

Until I visit the International Space Station for real (please invite me), this will have to do. Google Street View is pretty amazing and helps you visit cool places like Angkor Wat, the Great Barrier reef, the Colosseum in Rome, Times Square, the Palace of Versaille, Stonehenge and more. Having been to all those places (yes, I mentioned them just to gloat), I can confirm it isn’t quite as good as the real thing but it is still pretty amazing. Especially if you have VR and imagination.

Well, now you can visit the International Space Station in Google Street View thanks to science and technology and some amazing people. (Click the link.) These 360 shots were made with a DSLR and a lot of patience. The results are pretty amazing and kudos to all involved. In case you have time and want to know more about how this was all done, there is a handy and interesting video:

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65,000 people sing Bohemian Rhapsody before Green Day gig

This has been around for a week or so but thought I would share as it makes me smile and if I want to see it again, I can just come here. With all the shite going on in the world this is just uplifting.

This was in Hyde Park in a city I have spent half my life in – London. A city that knows how to have fun. The clip was filmed as the crowd waited to see Green Day at a sell out gig of 65,000+. Mrs Word of Ward and I would have been there if we had been in London and in previous summers have seen the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and so on. The vibe is superb as you can probably tell in the clip.

In this case the drummer’s camera was on and the speakers played Bohemian Rhapsody. Londoners love a sing a long and everyone loves Queen. It’s not often you hear 65,000 people sing. Enjoy:

Far Cry Primal Review

Far Cry Primal is a lot like Far Cry 3 and 4 except it is set 12,000 years ago so instead of a ludicrous amount of guns and grenades, you have spears, arrows and clubs. And sabretooth tigers. What I mean is that the overall structure is similar in that you explore, forage, kill the wildlife and take over bases and territory while undergoing a variety of missions in a very loose narrative. If you have played previous Far Cry games, you will already know what you are doing.

Udam like to eat people

What sets Far Cry Primal apart though, is the setting. Which is superb. You play Takkar, a member of the Wenja tribe. At the beginning of the game you stumble upon the Oros Valley which is a huge and wild place consisting of mountains, forests, grasslands, swamps and lots of hungry animals. The valley is dominated by two particularly nasty tribes -the Udam and the Izila. The Udam are big and tough and eat people, while the Izila are painted blue and like to set people on fire. So you and your scattered tribe are definitely the good guys.

As is the norm with Far Cry (and most games), you start off weak and fairly useless and gradually work your way up to becoming a one man killing machine. In Far Cry Primal you aren’t just out in nature with a gun and are occasionally attacked by a random animal, you are part of the food chain and very much at risk. The survival aspect works really well in Primal and you can find yourself wandering along happily collecting wood and flowers when you are suddenly attacked by a pack of dogs. You may then flee and jump in a lake only to be eaten by a crocodile. The landscape and valley of Oros is alive and gorgeous. Mammoths and sabre tooth tigers remind you where and when you are while you marvel at a beautiful lake and the grazing woolly rhinos nearby. At night, the animals get particularly vicious and at first the sun setting sends you fleeing for a reassuring campfire.

My sabretooth pal Mr Toothington

One thing that really makes Far Cry Primal different however, is that you gradually build your tribe with members of the Wenja you find wandering about. These include specialists that give you special skills. One such skill is the ability to control animals and this brings a whole new element to the game and how you play. You can scout out an enemy camp with your owl, which can also drop angry bees and a bomb that makes the enemy go nuts and attack each other. If you have a leopard you can get it to sneak attack lone baddies or you can use your bear or sabretooth tiger to attack one group while you charge in from a different direction. You can also ride some of the creatures, which is pretty handy given the size of the world you are in. Once I had the hardest and most scarred sabretooth in the valley I just stuck with it. That was just my preference though, as I had grown attached to the fluffy fella.

The enemy are all pretty mean and the AI is generally pretty good. The weapons at your disposal are fun and satisfying to use. The world and characters are brilliantly animated. There is no denying that Far Cry Primal is a superbly made and incredibly fun game to play.

They’re not endangered yet!

There are only two negatives for me. One was that I got a bit bored exploring caves. These can be deep and complex and while some are fun, others are just confusing and have one specific route. This is really minor and not even an essential part of the experience. The other was that the baddies are ok as are you. Which sounds like an odd complaint but I recently played Far Cry 4 and the main enemy, Pagan Min was a superb psychotic and there was a reason why the main character (you) played the role he did. In Primal, you don’t really have much personality, you are just a good warrior and the baddies are fairly average with fairly average boss fights.

These are minor quibbles though. Far Cry Primal is a great game and a lot of fun. I highly recommend it if you want an FPS with a unique slant. I am already missing my cave and sabretooth buddy. Here is a trailer:

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Documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany, 2017

Documenta is a huge art festival that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every 5 years. This one, the 14th, is also simultaneously taking place in Athens. We went to Kassel a couple of weeks ago, so thought I might as well post a load of pictures. I am sure the one in Athens was just as nice.

If you want more information on the festival you can check out the official site https://www.documenta.de/en/ 

As stated in the link: “Over 160 international artists present works conceived for Documenta 14 at more than thirty different sites, public institutions, squares, cinemas, and university locations.” That is a lot of material.

We didn’t see all the artists because we are mere mortals but over the course of two days and 50,000 steps (according to my pedometer), we saw a hell of a lot. If you fancy going, the official site gives tips on how to get there. We ignored the advice as we also went to the Sculpture Project in Muenster. Because art.

I won’t go into too much detail as Documenta should be experienced and I can’t write pretentiously / lexically dense / cleverly enough to match a lot of ‘art writing’. The pretty photos should help a bit. I do have a few personal highlights and a very vague itinerary if that helps those deciding to go.

The main section and hub of Documenta is in the centre of town where there is an Acropolis made of books. It was a work in progress when we went but it was pretty amazing. There is a lot of stuff around this area with all the principal sites about 10 minutes walk from each other. You can also buy tickets, get maps, press passes and so on.

We did all the central stuff in one mad burst and the plan was then to have a beer and food and take it easy, finishing up the next day. However, after a large German ale and currywurst, we were sufficiently revived to see more. So we then took in two more sites that were amazing and completely different. One was in an abandoned subway station and the other in an old post office. Both are highly recommended.

Without further ado, here are the aforementioned loads of photos. (If you click on them, they get bigger.) They don’t really do credit to Documenta as that would take hundreds of pictures and a better photographer than myself. The festival runs until 17th September. Enjoy.

 

 

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I’m back in Bangkok

Dear everyone,

I’m back from holiday and settling into the calm serenity that is my home in Bangkok. It was a superb but exhausting trip to the UK and two arts festivals in Germany – Documenta in Kassel and a sculpture project in Muenster. I am pleased to announce that travelling with just my Samsung S8+ and iPad Pro were more than up to fulfilling all my needs for work. Which was actually quite a welcome surprise and bodes well for the future.

I will be writing up the trips and will be back to posting my usual drivel at the usual rate from now on. Thanks for bearing with me during this superb time.

Missed you lots, etc,

The Word of Ward.

Travelling with just an iPad Pro and phone as a writer

When I was younger I used to travel with a pen, a writing pad and a small pile of books for both entertainment and work. Now I need a phone, a tablet/book (for entertainment) and a laptop because as a writer these days, everything has to be done right bloody now. I remember when I was 18, way back in 1990, one of my first jobs was covering a yacht launch. I just had a notebook and the magazine I was writing for hired a photographer. I wrote the text the following morning in the office and the rest of stuff was done by others. Simple times, let down a bit by the fact that I was 18, there was free booze, and I got drunk and lost my notebook. It is probably a good thing that I didn’t have an iPad Pro or smartphone back then.

These days you need to turn things around a bit more speedily but happily, laptops and phones now weigh nearly bugger all. Another great step is the rise of the hybrid laptop/tablet, which weighs slightly less. I am about to leave the hot and rainy Bangkok and go to the apparently warm and not too rainy UK. After that will be a trip to Germany and the towns of Kassel and Muenster for Documenta and a ton of art. I am a bit worried as I have made the momentous decision to travel with just my iPad Pro (for writing and entertainment) and a Samsung 8+ (for photos and the internet) and no laptop. I haven’t travelled without a laptop for over a decade and I will need to be writing things on a daily basis. There will be a lot of walking involved this trip and weight will be a key factor.

This may be of interest to very few people except other writers. I think my websites will be fine, it is everything else I worry about. In addition to writing articles, press releases, brochures, websites, a novel and so on, I also edit random things like doctoral theses and promotional posters. Will this combo be enough for everything? I have a huge power-bank that can fully recharge the iPad and phone, so battery power or lack of outlets won’t be a problem anymore. I save everything to the cloud, so if things get complicated I can go to an internet cafe. We shall see. If this is all possible, then my spine and editors will be happy. I look forward to a future with no wires needed and a single, unfoldable device that does everything. Hurry up technology.

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Batman Arkham VR review

I’m a big fan of Batman, VR and reasonably priced games, so Batman Arkham VR was a perfect proposition for me.

It was one of the first games I downloaded and tried when I got my PSVR and it truly didn’t disappoint. It isn’t perfect but it is great. It is essentially an interactive 90-minute story featuring you, the Batman, being the world’s greatest detective. Sadly you are also not also the world’s greatest ass-kicker because most of the scenes are static and the action takes place off stage. You move from point to point and then look around. This may sound dull and negative but this is actually a superb game and one I highly recommend. If you have played any of Rocksteady’s other Batman games, you will be aware that they are pretty damn good at this.

I can’t talk much about the story without giving it away. And this is mostly a story. Happily, it is a really good one.

What makes this game so worth it is the experience of being Batman, the detective work, and the high-quality VR. You also get cool gadgets – a scanner, a grappling hook, and unlimited batamarangs. I was still new to the whole VR thing when I played this, so it was a pleasant surprise to see just how damned immersive it can be when you use move controllers and the headset tracking. At one point, I was on a fire escape and found that I could lean forward and peer into someone’s apartment. Later I was in a morgue and used the controllers to pick up charts and interact with a variety of objects, all of which I could peer under and around. Finally, of course, there is a moment where you look at yourself in a mirror and you are Batman. Then you make Batman dance like an idiot. (I hope I wasn’t the only one.) As a relative VR noob, it was well worth it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Batman Arkham VR and hope they make it a full game. Ideally, a game where you also get to punch someone, although this may result in a load of hilarious real-life injuries. If you have just bought a PSVR and are looking for a fun experience for about £15, then give this a go. Also, try Rush of Blood.

In case you are still uncertain, here is a trailer:

 

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Incredible thumb magic

How the hell does he do this? Ok, I guess everyone knows how this guy does the old ‘disappearing thumb’ trick, it is as old as – probably the thumb. Babies and early hominids are wowed by this trick, but no one else. Until now! Ok, I am building the whole thing up a bit but it is pretty cool and probably the finest display of thumb magic I have seen. And I have travelled extensively. If you have 20 seconds, check this out:

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Science in America

This is a great video featuring the always watchable Neil deGrasse Tyson about what science is and why it is important. It is also slightly depressing. Essentially, if you are against science, you probably don’t understand what science is. From a purely personal point of view, I would also like to add that you are an idiot who needs to assess the way you get information. Science is simply a way to find out information. To test stuff. To learn.

I remember a friend of mine whose mother sold crystals that allegedly helped plants grow. I was young enough to think this was amazing but old enough to be slightly sceptical. I assumed that this had been tested and that was why people spent so much cash on them. But I then discovered that they hadn’t been tested and everyone bought into it on belief alone. Even then, (I was around 10,) I was baffled about this. I wanted to get some identical plants and put crystals in half and see what happens. Sadly I didn’t have enough cash to try this myself and I soon found out that my questioning was actively discouraged. People, especially the people who sold or bought the crystals, didn’t want it tested. It was a valuable lesson.

If you are against science, you are against the kind of progress that allows you to read this on a computer anywhere in the world. I guess it just annoys me that so many are wilfully choosing ignorance and opinion over facts. Actually, I am getting pissed off just writing about it so I will hand over to someone more eloquent – Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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NASA Images and Video Library

This is bloody superb. NASA has opened an archive site that hosts 140,000 files of space-related awesomeness. It should keep you in screensaver images for a long time – possibly forever as they said they will continue to add to it.

There are great pictures here and as we launch ever cooler and more sophisticated satellites, this site should just keep on giving.

You can access all the pictures here.

The full address is: https://images.nasa.gov/#/

As always NASA – if you read this and need a writer/blogger/good-looking-journalist adventurer type to go into space, I fully volunteer. I am in perfect health and have never even had a filling.

Anyway, check it out their site. Here are some samples to whet your astronomical appetite. Enjoy:

 

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Until Dawn: Rush of Blood review

I finally got my PSVR headset (about a month ago) and have been loving it. So I thought I might as well review one of the few games I have played thus. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is a lot of fun for the price. Not brilliant, but certainly enjoyable and a good intro to VR. Costs vary but I paid around £15, which seems about right.

Here is the plot in as much as there is one: You are on a rollercoaster on your own and some crazy guy injects you with a drug, possibly, that makes you see crazy things. And there are psychopaths loose around the ride. And there may be ghosts. You also might be descending into Hell. Alright, fuck it, there isn’t much plot. I haven’t played any other Until Dawn games so frankly, I have no idea what is going on.

Basically, Rush of Blood is a horror shooter on a rollercoaster. I highly recommend using Move controllers because they make the shooting experience more immersive, interactive, and a lot more fun. There are quite a few jump scares and a lot of gore, so if you don’t like either then maybe this isn’t for you. To be honest, I am not that bothered either way when it comes to scares or blood, yet I really enjoyed myself. The controls are responsive, the visuals are clear and sharp, and the shooting itself is immense fun. Even at the start, where you are mostly shooting at balloons and pottery, it is a pretty good laugh. Things just amp up from there.

I have played a couple of other PSVR games and have enjoyed them all to various degrees. It is possible that if I was more experienced in VR then Rush of Blood might be less impressive. As it is, if you are a newb, then give it a go. I wouldn’t pay much more than  £15 and if you can get it for less than that, definitely go for it. There are a few moments where the roller coaster speeds up that might give you motion sickness, but I didn’t find any problems. Possibly because I was focussed on keeping an eye out for zombies, bats, or giant pigs.

To conclude: I don’t think Rush of Blood is a classic in any way but if you are looking for a new game to try out VR, then it is worth a go. Here is a trailer:

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People are Photoshopping Mr Bean into everything

I think this is one of the greatest things I have seen on the internet. People are photoshopping Mr Bean’s superb face into everything from movies to politicians to classical works of art. It has caused me to grin like a loon for about an hour now, so I thought I would share. This is an internet meme I fully support.

I know technically it is actually Rowan Atkinson’s face, but it is clearly Mr Bean. Mr Atkinson is so awesome that you can actually differentiate his character’s faces, even though they all technically have the same face. If you get what I mean. I have travelled a lot and Mr Bean is everywhere as he doesn’t really speak and his brand of logical insanity has a universal appeal. I even had beers in a Mr Bean cafe / bar in Ho Chi Min. Anyway, enough waffle.

Let’s start with the classics:

Now let’s get political by mocking a famous figure of hatred! BeanLaden.

There are a ton more but I think the movie ones are my favourite. I would watch the hell out of any of these. Enjoy.

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Stunning flight over Mars using NASA images

A highly talented and possibly slightly bored fellow called Jan Fröjdman has taken lots of detailed photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and put them together to create an amazing flyover of the red/brown planet.

For the past 12 years, the Orbiter has taken over 50,000 images using its HiRISE camera, which are available to anyone online. Mr Fröjdman then coloured these images, edited them together, and turned the result into something that resembles a high definition flyover of the planet. It took him 3 months and is stunning. I would love to go to Mars but will probably wait until they have organised return flights.

Check out the video here:

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Baby Driver by Edgar Wright

I keep meaning to post fewer trailers but then great looking trailers keep coming along. If Baby Driver wasn’t by writer/director Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, etc) I would probably just think it looked quite fun and has a great cast –  Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx. But it was directed by Edgar Wright, so hurrah.

The film is due out in August 2017 but has actually already premiered at the South by Southwest film festival the other day. Even more excitingly, those who saw it have rated Baby Driver incredibly well. It’s a bit frustrating that the rest of us have to wait so long.

I could waffle on more but there is no need. Here is the International trailer for Baby Driver:

 

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Worst Catfish Ever

In case you didn’t know, to catfish is when someone pretends to be someone else online (usually someone way more attractive) and then strings some poor sod along. Sometimes it’s for money, other times because… I don’t know, people are weird. It is often a sad story involving really lonely people who are ridiculously gullible and really nasty sociopaths who will get their comeuppance if there turns out to be an afterlife. Sometimes people are just bored morons.

So is it ok to make jokes about it? I think yes. You should be able to satirise things and if you are intelligent enough, you will realise that mocking something isn’t the same as condoning it. Also, the more it is mentioned, the more someone might think twice before falling for a complete stranger online and then sending them money and pictures of their arse. I’m in my 40s and have never made a new friend online, so I feel pretty safe. I have reached an age where frankly, I know enough people already and don’t care about meeting more.

So having said all that here is the ‘Worst catfish ever’. It made me laugh.

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Sir Patrick Stewart reads 1-star reviews of famous monuments

I saw this on some site or other and had to share. (It is a GQ video.) Sir Patrick Stewart is a legend and I am not just saying that as a huge Trekkie. Essentially this clip just mocks things really dumb people have said but with a classically trained Shakespearean actor delivering the words. Which is great, right?

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What it’s like to land on Pluto

Pluto

If we ever stop dicking about being mean to each other on this planet, we may start exploring space. Or maybe the lunatics taking over the asylum (aka Earth) will give science the impetus to escape our gravity well and start over elsewhere. Either way, I spend a lot of time dreaming about going to other planets. Or even dwarf planets.

It seems NASA is much the same as they have stitched together 100 photos from the New Horizons flyby in 2015 to give an idea of what it would be like to land on Pluto. In colour! Enjoy.

 

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