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Soyuz launch to ISS

Expedition 31 Crew Launch A Soyuz rocket just sent two Russians and an American to the ISS. Is the Baikonur Cosmodrome becoming the space port of the world? If so, what do you think about that?

Aliens anyone?

The subject of aliens is one that will get an often heated conversation going in a New York minute. Opinions range from “they live and walk among us” to “it’s all a silly hoax,” with a broad range of views in between. Where do you

The Man Who Conquered Mars

This blog string will be a part of a contest called the Author Blog Challenge in which writers will be required to post a 250 word blog on a subject decided by the creator of the challenge. The first subject or “prompt” is: Describe your

Know the ending before you start

I write my novels and stories knowing the beginning, the end and the principal themes before I start. From those basic facts, I then plan out chapters with notes about what I will cover in those chapters. After that, I begin writing the individual scenes

Bring Back Illustrations!

“Serious” books for adults and young adults do not have illustrations these days. Pictures are relegated to comic books and graphic novels. During the 19th century, however, illustrations were quite common. Pick up early editions of Dickens works or Robinson Crusoe and you will find

Virtually Speaking Science

This is the transcript of the chat after the Virtually Speaking Science show I did with Alan Boyle.


Snapshot _ VIrtually Speaking Science at th, Exploratorium (145-2 (1)

[16:55]  Archivist Llewellyn: Hi Patio

[16:55]  Archivist Llewellyn: Hi Alan Boyle 🙂

[16:56]  Albert Gainsbourg: (The theme from “My farovite Martian.) :=))

[16:56]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: Albert Gainsbourg, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[16:56]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Sorry for walking over people ;-)\

[16:58]  Widget Whiteberry: 2 min

[16:58]  Widget Whiteberry: prepare to toggle or refresh

[17:00]  Albert Gainsbourg: Bingo!!!

[17:00]  Widget Whiteberry: and we are live

[17:01]  Albert Gainsbourg: I have a good feed to audio.

[17:01]  Widget Whiteberry: alan sounds good

[17:01]  Widget Whiteberry: welcome everyone

[17:01]  Patio Plasma: listen in media turn off music

[17:01]  Widget Whiteberry: listen on audio or media channel or – to open your browser – click on the BTR button on stage

[17:01]  Widget Whiteberry: Patio, we are feeding through both channels

[17:01]  Albert Gainsbourg whispers: Music chanel has the autio too.

[17:02]  Albert Gainsbourg: Channel

[17:02]  Widget Whiteberry: Precede questions with QUESTION (caps) to make them easy to spot

[17:03]  Patio Plasma: I guess I heard music before it switched

[17:03]  Albert Gainsbourg: :=))

[17:05]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: CB Axel, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[17:06]  Widget Whiteberry: Hey CB, welcome

[17:06]  Chat Range: DougTurnbull Resident [10m]

[17:06]  Widget Whiteberry: Bau! gtsy

[17:07]  Bau Ur: 🙂

[17:09]  Abiss interior Barca Chair – White L whispers: Hi Quirk Sugarplum! Touch me for Menu. Say /1a to Adjust.

[17:10]  Abiss interior Barca Chair – White L whispers: Hi Ozymandias Zehetbauer! Touch me for Menu. Say /1a to Adjust.

[17:12]  Widget Whiteberry: Please IM me if you would like an invitation to the Exploratorium group …

[17:13]  Albert Gainsbourg: Rest stops at least.

[17:14]  Patio Plasma: QUESTION do they sample the surroundings many times a day with the Laser ?

[17:16]  JackZizzler Resident: There is absolutely no substitute for actually being there, eh? 🙂

[17:16]  Albert Gainsbourg: QUESTION: Will there be anyway to determine prehistorical Solar cycles?

[17:17]  Albert Gainsbourg: Probably not. Cycles way too short.

[17:19]  Curious George: Hello, everyone

[17:19]  Bau Ur: Hello! Good to see you, Curious!!

[17:20]  Patio Plasma: Thanks re ChemCam laser answer

[17:22]  JackZizzler Resident: QUESTION Elon Musk (and others) have set their sites on human habitation of Mars. How will the work of MSL and the other missions that have happened in recent years help to shape eventual colonization?

[17:25]  Albert Gainsbourg: Look for a sing “Barzoom”.

[17:25]  Albert Gainsbourg: sign

[17:26]  Albert Gainsbourg: QUESTION: Is Mars far enough away from the Sun that UV radiation is reasonable with an Ozone layer?

[17:27]  Dae Miami: QUESTION: Will the dry tholeitic basalts really make for good soil?

[17:27]  Dae Miami: on mars

[17:29]  Albert Gainsbourg: QUESTION: Solar radiation or Cosmic?

[17:29]  Orendatrail Resident: QUESTION: Does Doug believe that he will live to see a human being standing on Mars?

Snapshot _ VIrtually Speaking Science at th, Exploratorium (145-44

[17:30]  Patio Plasma: think about hawaiian weathered basalt re basalt soil. of course weathering will be different on Mars.

[17:30]  Albert Gainsbourg: A mere child.

[17:32]  Dae Miami: @ Patio: basalts on mars are different than on earth

[17:32]  Patio Plasma: HI Dae the results from curiosity from their first drilling were summarized by Grotzinger as similar to a Hawaiian basalt

[17:36]  Albert Gainsbourg: WITHOUT AN OZONE LAYER!!!!!

[17:36]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: Archivist Llewellyn, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[17:36]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: this month length:31  this day:8  wait time:2046300

[17:36]  Widget Whiteberry: Patio! Great model of Curiosity. TY for setting it out here

[17:36]  Widget Whiteberry: audience right ….

[17:37]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Aha, gotcha, sorry Albert

[17:37]  Curious George: Spacesuits have a SPF of 1000

[17:38]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: Ozymandias Zehetbauer, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[17:38]  Patio Plasma: full scale model of Curiosity

[17:38]  Kat Lemieux: We need one of those in the ISM’s Mars VR room!

[17:39]  Curious George: Charley White (aka Jet Burns) and friends are building a Curiosity-like rover to drive to the Burning Man

[17:39]  Widget Whiteberry: fun!

[17:40]  Widget Whiteberry: my son will be a BM Ranger …. I’ll tell him to watch for it

[17:40]  Curious George: I’d worry a lot more about the absence of oxygen and the ambient temperature than about the sunburn

[17:41]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: Kat Lemieux, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[17:41]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: Orendatrail Resident, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[17:42]  Abiss interior Barca Chair – White L whispers: Hi Larry Kondor! Touch me for Menu. Say /1a to Adjust.

[17:43]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: We need your donations to operate.

[17:43]  Widget Whiteberry: Orbiting tip jar courtesy of Albert G

[17:44]  JackZizzler Resident: Re: orbiting tip jar: *grin*

[17:45]  Albert Gainsbourg: People left Europe for the “New World” with the complete understanding that it was one way.

Snapshot _ VIrtually Speaking Science at th, Exploratorium (145-35

[17:46]  CB Axel: Good point, Albert

[17:46]  CB Axel: But the original explorers did do round trips.

[17:47]  Albert Gainsbourg: I suspect that Lewis and Clark though they were on a one way trip.

[17:47]  Curious George: And Americas do have a breathable atmosphere and the same temperature as Europe, so that metaphor is not so good

[17:50]  JackZizzler Resident: It didn’t work out so well for the Portuguese nor for the Spaniards. Alas.

[17:50]  Kat Lemieux: Or for the Roanoke settlers

[17:50]  Kat Lemieux: or many of those at Jamestown

[17:51]  Kat Lemieux: But overall it did work out well

[17:51]  Bau Ur: QUESTION: What are the likely implications for private space technology development of a iUS investment culture that emphasizes short term stock value increases for shareholders who mostly don’t want to hold stocks for prolonged periods?

[17:51]  Curious George: And imagine if there was no air and the temperature was -100 Celsius

[17:51]  Abiss interior Barca Chair – White L whispers: Hi Ivan Hanriot! Touch me for Menu. Say /1a to Adjust.

[17:51]  CB Axel: Woot! Let’s hear it for SL audiences!

[17:51]  Bau Ur: Heh, he mostly just addressed that 🙂

[17:51]  Archivist Llewellyn: Woot SL!

[17:51]  Kat Lemieux: At least there’s (probably) not hostile indiginous residents on Mars!

[17:52]  Bau Ur: Skraelings.

[17:52]  Albert Gainsbourg: QUESTION: Can Doug see us?

[17:53]  Widget Whiteberry: Albert, I’m pretty sure he can

[17:53]  Archivist Llewellyn: Yes, albert, that is his avatar

[17:53]  Albert Gainsbourg: Ahh. Ok. :=))

[17:53]  Widget Whiteberry: betw me and Archivist, he’s been in SL a lot over 2 days

[17:53]  Widget Whiteberry: we covered camera

[17:53]  Albert Gainsbourg: Ok.

[17:54]  Widget Whiteberry: Doug was in finance before writing ….

[17:54]  Albert Gainsbourg: Ahhh. Ok.

[17:55]  JackZizzler Resident: I’m pretty sure I picked up a copy of Doug’s suit from YadNi’s emporium awhile back — a perennial classic!

[17:55]  Thuja Hynes: who will legitimize mining claims off world?

[17:55]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: DJ String, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[17:57]  Albert Gainsbourg: They oxidize Hydrogen Sulfide for energy.

[17:57]  Patio Plasma: better living through chemistry

[17:57]  Widget Whiteberry: If you click on his book covers – on the backdrop – you’ll get to his site

[17:57]  Albert Gainsbourg: :=))

[17:58]  Bau Ur: The Extremophiles would be a great band name.

[17:58]  CB Axel: lol

[17:58]  Widget Whiteberry: and the twitter feeds are following both Alan and Doug

[17:58]  Archivist Llewellyn: You can find his books and e-books on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and Waterstone’s

[17:58]  Curious George: The Jovian system also has plenty of carbohydrates, the moons get tidally squished (volcanos on Io), radiation belts to help mutations… a good primordial soup

[17:59]  Bau Ur: Wonderful. 🙂

[18:00]  Thuja Hynes: thank you Doug!

[18:00]  Bau Ur: Thank you!

[18:00]  Bau Ur: Interesting show!

[18:00]  JackZizzler Resident: Great show!

[18:01]  CB Axel: excellent show. Thank you everyone involved.

Snapshot _ VIrtually Speaking Science at th, Exploratorium (145-30

[18:01]  Patio Plasma: Thanks Doug!

[18:01]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: BDSommerville Resident, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[18:01]  Patio Plasma: Thanks Alan

[18:01]  Phineus Genesis: thanks guys

[18:01]  Kat Lemieux: Thanks, all! Great program

[18:01]  Exploratorium Tour Jar_1: Archivist Llewellyn, thank you for supporting Virtually Speaking. We are grateful for your support.

[18:01]  Curious George: Great show!

[18:01]  BDSommerville Resident: Thank you!

[18:01]  Widget Whiteberry: they’ll stay around a bit

[18:02]  Dae Miami: @ Patio: basalts on mars are different than on earth

[18:02]  Archivist Llewellyn: Applause!

[18:02]  JackZizzler Resident: *clap* *clap* *clap*

[18:02]  Curious George: Bye, all, nice seeing you, virtually speaking

[18:02]  Dae Miami: sorry great discussion

[18:02]  AlanJBoyle Resident: A couple of questions are pending

[18:02]  Dae Miami: i meant to type

[18:03]  Albert Gainsbourg: Appropriate to end with My Favorite Martian. :=))

[18:03]  DougTurnbull Resident: I forgot the last question.

[18:04]  AlanJBoyle Resident: On the soil, I think there were a couple of comments that made good comparisons to Hawaiian basalt.

[18:04]  AlanJBoyle Resident: The Phoenix Mars Lander mission found perchlorates in the soil, which might be problematic for some crops.

[18:05]  AlanJBoyle Resident: But the Phoenix team said the soil would be really good for growing asparagus.

[18:05]  AlanJBoyle Resident: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/25396378/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/test-shows-mars-soil-has-nutrients-life/

[18:05]  Archivist Llewellyn: Yes I believe NASA uses Hawaiian basalt for the mars soil simulant given to educators alan

[18:05]  DougTurnbull Resident: Yes. I’m not a soil expert, but Curiosity will likely answer a lot of those questions. However, the base of volcanoes is well known for having rich soil fro growing crops.

[18:05]  Patio Plasma: OK getting called to dinner great program Widget thanks

[18:06]  DougTurnbull Resident: Thank you for coming Patio Plasma.

[18:07]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Someone was asking about land claims…

[18:07]  Thuja Hynes: me

[18:08]  Thuja Hynes: who will legitimize mining claims off-world

[18:08]  Thuja Hynes: ?

[18:08]  AlanJBoyle Resident: There was a whole discussion over whether land claims could be made, and who would legitimize thm.

[18:08]  DougTurnbull Resident: Good question. My guest on Saturday’s podcast is an expert on Space Law.

[18:09]  Thuja Hynes: excellent I shall look for that

[18:09]  AlanJBoyle Resident: The Outer Space Treaty has been said to rule out land claims on other worlds, but some experts say they see loopholes.

[18:09]  AlanJBoyle Resident: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/could-legal-loophole-lead-land-claims-other-worlds-691258

[18:09]  DougTurnbull Resident: Based on her interpretation of the treaties and there are 5 of them, it is all a common, like the sea. So you take it out, and it’s yours, but the common belongs to everyone.

[18:10]  Thuja Hynes: if there is no native ecology on Mars, then do we allow willy-nilly mining and processing with complete disregard for pollyion?

[18:10]  Kat Lemieux: Once there are settlers there, how will they feel about the “old world” dictating whether they can own property? I don’t think such prohibitions will last more than a generation, if that.

[18:10]  Thuja Hynes: that would be ironic considering MSL’s painstaking efforts to protect the native biosphere

[18:11]  DougTurnbull Resident: Again, theoretically there will be a “regime” set in place to regulate such things, but who and how are not specified.

[18:11]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Right, it’s an issue for “planetary protection”…

[18:11]  Thuja Hynes: pollyion = pollution lol

[18:11]  AlanJBoyle Resident: But some scientists say there’s been so much cross-contaminiation over the past few billion years (due to meteorites) that the planetary protection issue is moot.

[18:12]  DougTurnbull Resident: Yes, the settlers and their offspring will likely thumb their noses at the UN.

[18:12]  Thuja Hynes: good point Alan

[18:12]  DougTurnbull Resident: Yes. I agree. Contamination will likely be a non-issue.

[18:12]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Sounds like the Kim Stanley Robinson series, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars

[18:13]  AlanJBoyle Resident: I loved Robinson’s latest book, 2312.

[18:13]  DougTurnbull Resident: As they become less economically independent, they will not want Mother Earth telling them what to do.

[18:13]  AlanJBoyle Resident: that definitely gets into the planetary territoriality issue

[18:13]  You decline Seanchai Library @ Imagination Island from A group member named Caledonia Skytower.

[18:14]  AlanJBoyle Resident: another take would be Heinlein’s classic, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.”

[18:14]  DougTurnbull Resident: History should always be the guide to the future. People will always act the same no matter where they are.

[18:14]  Albert Gainsbourg: As to the Space treaty, has anyone consulted Vulcan at 40 Eridani A,

[18:14]  Kat Lemieux: Just like the American colonists vs British “companies” and Parliament.

[18:14]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Paging Zefram Cochrane…

[18:14]  Thuja Hynes: it seems as if Curiosity may have a “prior claim”

[18:15]  Thuja Hynes: in terms of prospecting

[18:15]  Kat Lemieux: Ah, invoking my GGGGgrandson!

[18:15]  Kat Lemieux: (my sons are both surnamed Cochrane(

[18:15]  DougTurnbull Resident: It has already extracted a sample, which now belongs to NASA/JPL/USA

Snapshot _ VIrtually Speaking Science at th, Exploratorium (145-39

[18:16]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Speaking of Vulcan, I just saw this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLuP_90sabY

[18:16]  Archivist Llewellyn: Lol Kat — Just a bit of a Trekkie?

[18:17]  Kat Lemieux: Who, me?

[18:17]  Kat Lemieux: I also once had a cat named Tribble

[18:17]  Archivist Llewellyn: woah! cute

[18:17]  DougTurnbull Resident: Funny clip alan.

[18:18]  Widget Whiteberry: going into post production ….

[18:18]  AlanJBoyle Resident: So, folks, I better get back to First Life … thanks for joining us, and congrats to Doug for a stellar debut in SL

[18:18]  AlanJBoyle Resident: Now I’ll walk over some chairs and go poof.

[18:18]  DougTurnbull Resident: Thanks to all from me.

[18:18]  Kat Lemieux: Thanks for coming in world to speak to us!

[18:18]  Albert Gainsbourg: Ewww that’s bad.

[18:19]  Albert Gainsbourg: Have to keep the GOP away from any landing site.

[18:19]  DougTurnbull Resident: It’s a new world to me, but it was fun.

[18:19]  Thuja Hynes: welcome Doug!

[18:19]  Thuja Hynes: lots to learn in SL

[18:20]  DougTurnbull Resident: Yes. This place is wild.

[18:21]  Albert Gainsbourg: Got to “fly” :=))

[18:21]  DougTurnbull Resident: I guess, I’ll sign off as well.

YouTube – Videos from this email

Episode XVI of Mars Pirate Radio

Episode XVI is online now. An interview with space law expert Dr. Edythe Weeks is featured.


NBC/Second Life interview

A recording of my discussion tonight with NBC science editor Alan Boyle and JPL scientist Dr. Joy Crisp.


Podcast Wednesday, August 7 at 8 PM EDT.

I will be participating in NBC Science Editor Alan Boyle’s podcast Wednesday, August 7, at 8 PM EDT. The topic will be the one year anniversary of the Curiosity landing. Mr. Boyle is a journalist specializing in science and technology news and has worked for msnbc.com as a science editor since 1996. Please tune in!


House of Cards

Anyone who has read my reviews knows that I don’t bother to review stories or movies that I don’t like. House of Cards, which is an updated and Americanized version of the 1990 British mini-series of the same title is no exception to that rule. I confess that I fully expected this to be just another of the many failed attempts by American movie producers to re-make a fine British film. The rather sorry U.S. version of State of Play immediately comes to mind. But unlike that dud, this is a live round.

Played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey, Francis Underwood is the central character in this series and the Democratic Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the original, the incomparable Ian Richardson played Francis Urquhart, the main character and Chief Whip of the British House of Commons. The basic premise of the new series is the same as that of the old one. In each case, the main character feels his talents and efforts are undervalued by the leader of their party and they each resolve to right this wrong. Both are devious, devilishly wicked and relentless in pursuit of their aims. As they plot and scheme, both characters occasionally talk directly through the camera to the audience in Shakespearian fashion. As did Urquhart, Underwood ruthlessly uses and exploits people in his quest to achieve power for himself. It is a tribute to the writers and the actors in each series that we continue to want our main character to succeed no matter what evil deeds he does. In an amusing nod to the original series, Underwood borrows one of Urquhart’s favorite lines. When confronted with a question he doesn’t wish to answer, he states: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Diane Fletcher played Elizabeth Urquhart in the original series and was excellent as the Lady to Urquhart’s Macbeth. Robin Wright is equally excellent as Claire Underwood in the new series. Her role is more complex, however, as she has her own ambitious career and is often at odds with her husband when their interests conflict. Robin Wright brings the role off with her usual style. Kate Mara plays Zoe Barnes, the young journalist whom Underwood uses to leak stories damaging to his enemies, and who in turn uses him as a valuable source of inside information. As the ambitious young reporter, Mara is every bit as convincing as Susannah Harker was in the original series. Several other supporting cast members include: Corey Stoll as Congressman Peter Russo whom Underwood blackmails into doing his bidding; Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper, Underwood’s chief of staff and chief fixer; and Kristen Connolly as Christina Gallagher, Russo’s loyal assistant. All of these actors turn in excellent and believable performances.

There is one caveat to my praise for the series. There are occasional lapses into what I can only term coarseness in both the language and the action. For example, in the original series, Francis Urquhart and the young journalist become lovers, but their physical liaisons are understated and held largely off screen. In this series, Francis Underwood and Zoe Barnes also become lovers, but their liaisons are very explicit, enough so that I found them off putting. Now, I can assure you that I am not a prude and am aware that nearly twenty-five years have passed since the original version was made. And no one who has been awake during this period could reasonably deny that social discourse has become increasingly crude. So in their defense, perhaps the producers are simply recognizing this trend by making the dialog and action conform to contemporary standards, or the lack thereof. Nonetheless this coarseness was not present in the very stylish British version and I do not feel it is necessary here.

All that being said, this is a very classy and well put together series. The plot and characters are strong, the cast is top shelf and the production values are excellent. I highly recommend the series and am looking forward to the next season.


The Coldest March

The Coldest March, by Susan Solomon revisits the often maligned Robert Falcon Scott Expedition to the South Pole mounted from 1910 through 1912, but from a much different point of view than that held by the current purveyors of conventional historical wisdom. An atmospheric scientist, Dr. Solomon analyzes the expedition’s detailed log books, scientific records, the writings of the survivors of the venture, and the writings of the men who accompanied Scott on his final and fatal drive to the Pole. She also carefully examines each of Scott’s mistakes, mistakes that he himself notes in nearly every case, mistakes that his critics have contended were fatal and an indication of his incompetence, and she follows their effects on the actual conduct of the mission. Dr. Solomon comes to conclusions that largely discredit Scott’s critics and also shed new light on the vast amount of new scientific information Scott’s large expedition accumulated. She shows that Scott and his scientific team were in fact scientists first and adventures second.

Scott’s critics, viewing events through the crystal clear lens of hindsight, point out errors that were real but not fatal. They are the normal mistakes that one makes as a decision maker in a complex situation. Oftentimes, Scott was the first to point out his errors himself, in his own journals and diaries.  The bumbler and fool depicted by most modern historians of these events would never recognize his own mistakes, much less acknowledge them. His errors were no more than those of any ship’s captain who makes minor logistical mistakes during the course of a long voyage, all of which become irrelevant if the ship is struck by a typhoon. The “ship” of Scott’s final trek was sunk because of ghastly weather, not minor errors in provisioning and equipment.

While not seeking to diminish his achievement, Amundsen’s expedition was a simple flag and footprints effort, with little attention paid to anything other than making it to the Pole and back again. It was well planned and well equipped to do that, but in no respect equaled the scientific ambitions and achievements of Scott’s efforts. That being said, it is important to remember that Amundsen’s success was largely due to his respect for and consultation with Inuits and Laplanders who had the experience and knowledge borne of centuries of cultural survival an arctic environment. The favorable outcome resulting from Amundsen’s choice of practical experience over science and technology confirms the validity of his decision.

At the time when Amundsen and Scott were racing to the Pole, Great Britain was the premier imperial power in the world. The British Empire spanned the globe while British science and technology was recognized as second to none. Coming from such a background, Scott would have been inhuman not to lean heavily on the tried and true methods established in an earlier expedition when he and Ernest Shackleton made it to 82 degrees south and later by Shackleton again, who made it to 87.5 degrees south. Both were British projects and Scott was naturally inclined to trust his own judgment and that of his own kind of men over any other. In addition, the scientific goals and accomplishments of the expedition were so numerous and varied, that the actual assault on the Pole seems almost an afterthought, a necessary concession to the backers of the venture.

Herself a polar explorer and world renowned atmospheric scientist, I can think of no contemporary author more qualified to write this history of the Scott Expedition than Susan Solomon. Her conclusion, based upon temperature and wind measurements made by the explorers at the time and confirmed by comparison with data since collected by modern automatic weather stations, was that Scott’s return trip across the Ross Ice Shelf was battered by weather that not even skilled adventurers with modern equipment could have survived. If Scott’s group had experienced normal weather for the season, they most likely would have made it back to base handily. But they didn’t. Their trek experienced a one in fifteen year freak freeze that doomed them as certainly as it would have doomed Amundsen or anyone else who might have encountered it.

In addition to being thoroughly researched, well organized, and well written, this book has many fine maps and some heretofore unpublished photographs. Dr. Solomon has also prepared several excellent graphs comparing the temperatures and wind velocities experienced by the several polar expeditions of that period as well those recorded by modern instruments. I highly recommend this excellent book for anyone who wishes to get a clearer understanding of the Antarctic explorations in the early 20th century as well as an understanding of what the conditions are like seen from a modern viewpoint.

As a personal note, I was in London in 1973 and went aboard the Discovery, Scott’s ship on his first Antarctic expedition. Parked on the Thames, the ship had many documents and artifacts from the period of Antarctic exploration. At that time my only knowledge of Scott’s final expedition was from a PBS documentary that essentially depicted him as a disorganized incompetent. I vividly recall that the journals, detailed records, equipment and general impression one got of Scott in viewing his effects seemed in stark contrast to that notion, but I never really explored any further. This book vindicates the essentially visceral impression I had 40 years ago.


A Review of Citizen of the Galaxy

Published in 1957 by Charles Scribner’s sons and copyrighted that same year by Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy is the tenth of the Heinlein Juveniles and takes place in a far distant future where humankind has spread widely through the Galaxy. Probably around age ten or twelve at the beginning of the story, Thorby, the main character, is a boy, who lives on a planet where despite being set far in the future, the social organization resembles that of ancient Babylon.

The story opens at a slave auction where Thorby is the object of the bidding. In a scene that is both disgusting and comical, Thorby finds himself sold to an almost penniless beggar named Baslim and his new master appears to be only one step above slavery himself. The first part of the story concerns the evolution of a master-slave relationship into a father-son relationship during which Thorby discovers that Baslim the beggar is not what he seems. As time passes and Thorby grows into a teenager, Baslim gives him messages to deliver to people around the spaceport near where they live. He gradually suspects that Baslim is engaged in some sort of covert activity but doesn’t learn the exact nature of that activity until much later in the story. Baslim utilizes hypnosis to give Thorby a complex set of instructions to be used in the event that anything should happen to him.  When Baslim disappears, Thorby carries out the instructions and after several suspenseful brushes with danger, finds himself aboard an outward bound starship named Sisu.

Thorby’s education continues aboard Sisu. Run by a family of interstellar traders whom he learns owed Baslim a large debt, Thorby is taken in as a repayment for that debt. The family was a member of a larger group of traders who call themselves simply the people, and who regard themselves as culturally superior to the populations of the various planets with whom they trade and to whom they refer as fraki. The ship also bristles with weapons as insurance against attacks by pirates and Thorby spends the next two years in the Sisu learning to become a first class fire control officer. During this time he also receives an excellent cultural education from an anthropologist who happens to be traveling with the ship to study their society. Eventually, Sisu meets up with a ship of the elite space guard and through a convoluted series of events, Thorby learns that like Baslim, he isn’t what he appears to be.

With a point of view first seen from the perspective of a pre-teen child, this book is a departure from the other juveniles in which the protagonists are usually several years older. We get to see Thorby grow and mature under Baslim’s guidance. Heinlein establishes that he believed in the importance of environment on human development by showing that when treated as a worthless slave during his formative years, that is what Thorby became. In a similar vein, as Baslim worked to educate and instill a sense of personal pride in him, Thorby gradually ceased to think like a slave, even though the local social structure required that he continue to act like one. The possibility and value of self-improvement is a recurrent theme throughout the Heinlein Juveniles.

In addition, slavery as an abhorrent but persistent institution is one of the main themes of this novel. Heinlein clearly recognized it, identified it in its many forms and just as clearly hated it. Slavery is there on the first page of the book as well as the last and I am convinced that Heinlein did not regard slavery as a dead institution, else why write it into a story set in a distant future? He knew that slavery existed even in his then modern world of the 1950’s, even as it still does today. While he often metaphorically referred to the communist nations as slave states, the slavery he describes in this novel is the real thing, complete with ownership papers that describe the slave as property and a tattoo on the slave to mark his place in society.

Personal and family loyalty is another theme that Heinlein addressed in this book. Thorby feels loyalty to Baslim and a need to follow his instructions long after he knew he was dead. He finds himself faced with a challenge when those instructions conflict with the new loyalty he feels for his adopted family and with his own desires. Later in the story, the issue comes up again when he discovers his true identity and is presented with a choice between resuming the role he was born to, or pursuing a course of his own making. How Thorby resolves this final conflict is the climax of the book and I will allow the reader to enjoy the discovery.

On the scientific side, sleep learning and hypnosis are used by Baslim as methods of training Thorby, and also of sending a message that uses Thorby as the unwitting messenger. Such techniques have since been largely discredited, but at the time this book was written, were considered by many to be cutting edge science. Heinlein also makes computers a primary method of navigation and fire control for Sisu, even though at the time this book was written, computers were still glorified adding machines that filled up entire buildings, were fragile and temperamental. He presciently foresaw that they would increase in power and reliability while decreasing in size. A weapon used by slavers to paralyze the occupants of a starship is another invention that Heinlein proposes. While seeming far-fetched at first glance, such weapons are currently under study by our own defense department. Finally, the Sisu utilized fusion power for its propulsion and made use of the space/time anomalies postulated by Einstein that we now call wormholes. As always, Heinlein’s science was right at the edge.

This is an outstanding book and it operates effectively on several levels. If none of the other elements I described earlier were present, as a coming of age story with only the psychological themes, it would still be a good tale. But with those themes present this is a great tale. If you like action and suspense woven into a realistic and human story, this book is for you.


A Plan to Reduce Homicides in the US

Below is an outline of a five point plan to reduce both individual and mass homicides in the US.

Law Enforcement:

1. End the war on drugs. After battling for 50 years, with countless wasted lives and mountains of wasted money, it should be obvious to everyone that it this a pointless exercise. We have the highest imprisonment rate as a proportion of our total population in the world. A large proportion of these prisoners are there as a result of the illegal drug traffic and its ancillary crime and violence. Save the billions being spent on drug agents and jails for the other things to be suggested below.

2. Dismantle the internal anti-terrorism apparatus. It is too costly, it truncates privacy rights by creating a surveillance society and it accomplishes nothing. The FBI is quite capable of protecting us without tapping everyone’s phone and reading their e-mail. Abolish the TSA. Let the carriers handle security and pass the cost on to the travelers. Save the billions for other things to be suggested below.

3. Use information sharing to prevent mental patients from buying guns legally. The current instant check system is efficient and non-intrusive, but is only as good as the information it is given. In every case, the mass murderers have histories of mental illness that would have prevented them from buying a handgun in most states, if the sellers had only had the information. They didn’t because instant check didn’t. This can be done with very little money and quickly. Include military semi-autos in the group of firearms that need instant check to buy.

4. Stop illegal gun traffic. Use item 3 to end the illegal gun trafficking, including any being done by the BATF. Banning the private ownership of categories of firearms by law abiding, mentally sound citizens does nothing the stop this traffic. Law enforcement has to focus on the bad guys rather than the objects.


5. Use the savings from 1 and 2 to increase funding for mental health treatment of troubled young people. In many cases, the families had nowhere to turn when dealing with their violently paranoid children. This needs to end. Mental health professionals will tell you that there is no way to predict of a specific individual will commit a mass killing, and I agree with that, but I can make an observation: None of the mass killers were undergoing active psychiatric treatment at the times they committed their crimes. Lots of people fit the “profile,” but the ones who do it are always alone in whatever mental state that allows them to commit these atrocities. We don’t have to let this happen and we shouldn’t.


Flim Flam Man


It is becoming increasingly obvious that the President has no intention, nor did he ever intend to “make a deal” to avoid the looming budget crisis. That it was always his intention to raise everyone’s taxes to the level they were before President Bush cut them should be clear for anyone to see. The so called “fiscal cliff” was set up as result of negotiations between Jack Lew, his Chief of Staff and a former Citibank COO, and Congress during the last crisis over raising the debt ceiling. As a result of the negotiations, if no deal is made, taxes revert to their pre-2001 levels, social security withholding goes up by 2% of earnings, and there will be automatic cuts in defense and other areas of the government. All of these are outcomes favored by the President and his party. He knows that raising taxes on people earning under $250,000 per year will raise three times as much cash for the government as raising taxes on the higher earners. That why the deal was set up this way. All he has to do is say “no” to whatever the Republicans offer and he gets what he wants: more money for his programs, less money for defense and he can blame it on the Republicans.

All of the talk about protecting the “middle class” and taxing the wealthy that he fed the voters during the campaign was a smoke screen covering his real intention which was to simply raise everyone’s taxes. Like any good con, this one worked by making the mark, in this case the middle class voters that voted for him, believe they were going to bilk some other guy, in this case the over $250K set, out of some money, of which they would get a share in the form of government services for which they don’t have to pay. Being the good flim flam man that he is, the President had those voters, more commonly known as suckers, looking at what his one hand was doing while he was lifting their wallets with the other.

Anyway, it’s done now.  Oh, just so you don’t feel left out, for all you social security oldies like me, he has proposed a 5% cut in benefits. I know a lot of you voted for him. Congratulations on a job well done!

Shooting Incident

Predictably, the incident in Connecticut has brought the usual suspects forward to demand gun control. We have 15,000 homicides in the US every year, year after year, decade after decade. Multiple or mass homicides average 150 per year, year after year, decade after decade. That is only 1% of the annual homicides. The huge difference in these two numbers would suggest that the focus needs to be on the larger problem rather than the smaller, but more visible one.

The problem isn’t the weapons. To address that is a cheap and politically easy way to pretend we are dealing with what is really a public health issue. Addressing mental health in a comprehensive way that insures that people can and do obtain treatment for psychological disorders such as the extreme paranoia that propels these incidents is complicated and costly, which is why the pols prefer “gun control.” The problem with it is that it doesn’t address the pathologies that cause the killing sprees in the first place and consequently doesn’t work. The other countries often cited as examples of successful gun control have such public health systems in place. That is why they didn’t have the high homicide rates even before outlawing guns.

We had an assault weapons ban for 10 years and it had no effect at all on the statistics cited above: none. Outlawing AR-15’s will not even touch the issue of homicide, but it will step all over our Second Amendment. I do not trust government, any government, not to abuse a disarmed public. Those who want power over others always clamor for more. This incident simply gives them an excuse. I like all of the Amendments to the Constitution and believe they were put there for valid reasons. All governments should fear their citizenry to a certain degree. It is healthy and Thomas Jefferson agreed. They won’t fear a disarmed rabble, they will simply exploit them.