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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

The Standard Model

When my grandfather was a young man, atoms were the basic building blocks of matter. In fact, the very term was derived from the Greek word atomos, which means indivisible. By the time I was a young man, that basic unit of matter had been divided into protons, neutrons and electrons, which were then believed to be the basic units of matter. Since then, new discoveries revealed that those three once basic units are in fact made up of several sub-particles generically classified as Fermions (named after the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi) and shown in the attached chart. For some time, these particles, or units of matter, were thought to be the basic ones of which all larger particles are composed. Recently, however, new evidence has surfaced that “imply that they (the particles shown in the chart) are instead built of still smaller components.” *

The quoted article highlights, albeit unintentionally, an underlying problem we face as we strive to understand the universe, both on the micro and macro level. It seems that no matter what we discover, the more we know, the less we know. Each layer of knowledge that we peel off the onion of the universe simply reveals another layer beneath it. And paradoxically, that layer always seems larger and more complex than the one that covered it. So the amount to be known keeps growing, while our ability to comprehend this new information remains the same. The problem is much the same in the macro universe of stars and galaxies, but I will discuss that in future post.

Some years ago I saw a presentation by Arthur C. Clarke, the scientist and science fiction writer, on the subject of fractals. Fractals are mathematical expressions that create identical or similar patterns that repeat no matter how closely viewed. You have no doubt seen visual representations of fractals on the web and in some modern art. These would just be neat parlor tricks of interest only to mathematicians except for one salient fact as pointed out by Clarke: while the mathematically generated fractals are infinite, they have many finite analogies in the natural world. River networks, blood vessels, DNA molecules, crystals, snowflakes, and broccoli are just a few examples of finite fractal patterns. But if finite fractal patterns clearly exist in nature, and infinite patterns exist in math, what prohibits infinite patterns in nature?

Infinity is not a term embraced by many scientists except mathematicians. Physicists and other practical investigators into the micro-world want no part of infinity. Hence the notion that there may be an infinite number of ever smaller sub-particles, similar to fractals, or at least so many as to be effectively infinite, is an unacceptable concept.  In their minds, there must be a final particle or set of particles. I believe the reasons for this conviction are psychological rather scientific. After all, everything in our normal lives is finite and these are the experiences that condition our assumptions and beliefs. We are born, we live and we die. As individuals, our part of the life cycle is finite, and this fact carries over into how we look at the natural world.  Scientists are human and are not immune to the bias toward finiteness that is hard wired into all of us. In addition, the notion if infinity has religious connotations attached to it that many scientists find repellant and associate with superstition.

However, being neither a scientist or a theologian, as a science fiction writer I am free to speculate. It is quite possible that we will never find that “god particle,” the most basic of the basic, the building block of matter and therefore the universe.  Instead, we may be faced with an ever more complex micro-world that truly is a world without end.

*The quote and the chart were taken from an article entitled “The Inner Life of Quarks,” in this month’s (November, 2012) issue of Scientific American by Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab.

Artificial Gravity

One of the methods of developing artificial gravity in a ship traveling on interplanetary journeys lasting many months is to apply spin to the ship.  Studies have shown a practical limit of this method to be that a rotational rate in excess of two rpm (revolutions per minute) will cause dizziness in the passengers. To counter this problem, several engineers have proposed dividing the ship into two parts: a crew section and a service module. A long cable would run between the two parts and they would rotate around a common axis. Using this method, if one were to limit the rotation to say 1 one and a half rpm, the longer the cable, the greater the sensation of gravity, the shorter the cable, the lesser the sensation of gravity.

To calculate how long the tether must be to generate a simulated gravity of one sixth G at one and one half rpm, you need only apply a relatively simple formula:

 

R = G / ((pi * rpm)/30)2

 

R is the radius of the circle described by the crew compartment expressed in meters and G is the desired rate of acceleration expressed as meters per second. After doing the math you arrive at a figure of 66.7 meters. That would be the approximate distance from the axis to the crew/cargo section. Since the axis of rotation is located at the center of gravity of the system, the service module would be either closer or farther from the center depending on whether it is heavier or lighter than the crew quarters.

Note: A portion of this explanation is taken from my forthcoming story: Ribbon to the Sky.

Conference Call 10-13-12

Only two participants: Stargazer NZ and Doug Turnbull

We discussed the near Earth asteroid 2012 TC4. Discussed earlier detection as well as methods of deflection of dangerous objects. We only had 10 days warning for this one. It was about 56 feet across.

We discussed terraforming and its application to Mars and Venus. Venus seems extremely impractical as one couldn’t really settle there until the job was done, while Mars could be settled today. Inoculating Mars with methane producing bacteria might be one way to do it. I am not a particular fan of terraforming.

Stargazer believes Mars is natural place for manufacturing for the space faring culture we see developing off the Earth in the future.

We discussed the “face on Mars” and the willingness of people to believe fantastic things about Mars. This doesn’t seem to transfer to other celestial bodies. I pointed out that all the SF written about Mars may be contributing to it.

No others joined the conversation on this day. Next call: Saturday October 27th at 11 AM EDT (15:00 UT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Islamic Rage”

At some point those of us living in the civilized world need to realize that these protests in the Mohammedan world are fake. They are events orchestrated by the governments of the nations in which they occur, governments that since the Arab Spring are controlled by the Moslem clerics. They are also being used by our own government and their stooges in the mainstream media to engage in actual and defacto censorship of unpopular views. Youtube took the video down, which is an act of self-censorship borne of fear. An obscure movie that depicts Mohammad as an uncouth, unwashed, barely literate (try reading the Koran sometime), homicidal, pedophile, has not “caused” the riots. They are simply a trumped up excuse that is being repeated by the world press as though it were fact. If the movie, which was made six months ago didn’t exist, another “cause” would be created. The attack on the consulate in Benghazi was a well organized and coordinated assault using heavy weapons. Hardly the methods of a spontaneous protest. These middle eastern despots and clerics keep their people in abject poverty and when they start getting rebellious, the leaders identify some outside enemy against which they can redirect the people’s attention. Despots have used this method controlling restless populations for centuries. Instead of encouraging self-censorship, our government should be defending the rights of people with non-mainstream views to make themselves heard. One of my ancestors was an Abolitionist when that viewpoint was considered “extreme” by the mainstream press and was illegal to voice in some states. The Abolitionists weren’t afraid to speak the truth and we shouldn’t be either.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter is a relatively new version of an old method of raising money: the public offering of shares. It is being used as a financing option for artists, movie makers, entrepreneurs with ideas out of the mainstream, and now space exploration.I believe that this method of financing space exploration and development, along with the more traditional corporate model used by Space X and others, will gradually replace governments as the financial prime movers in the space game.

Throughout the 20th century, politicians have garnered votes by creating programs that now have large and powerful constituencies: food programs, farm subsidies, housing programs, student loan and grants programs, a host of federal grants to universities and other public entities, a vast military industrial complex and others more than I can name here. Governments are proving to be unreliable  investors in space travel as their budgets are strapped and politicians look for places to cut projects without sacrificing votes. NASA and its employees are an expensive, high value, investment with not many votes attached when compared with other more popular programs. This explains the indifference of both presidential candidates toward both manned space flight and robotic exploration. Even in the light of Curiosity’s triumph, neither of them pays anything other than lip service to the space program. The President claims it as his triumph, even though the program was started while he was in the Illinois Legislature. If it had failed, I guarantee he would be running away from it fast.

This problem is not limited to the United States. As the worldwide recession continues to broaden and deepen, ESA’s budget is being cut as are Roscosmos and the budgets of the other space-faring nations. For this reason, those of us who believe that human space flight and settlement on extraterrestrial bodies is an important goal for mankind, need to look to other agencies and institutions for the money to finance these ventures. Kickstarter is once such possibility and I am sure others will follow. Private foundations, private and public corporations, as well as small, single mission ventures such as the one described in the web article below may well be the wave of the future in space exploration and development.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/880837561/skycube-the-first-satellite-launched-by-you?ref=live

 

 

Moons of the Solar System

A comparison of the moons of the solar system. There are many possibilities for colonization and development.

Olympus Mons at Sunrise

Look at the features near the end of the shadow. They almost appear to be frozen lakes. This photo was reportedly taken from one of the Mars orbiters, however I don’t know which one or when. Anyone with more information on this, please comment on Facebook.

Margin Call

Margin Call

I saw this thriller last night, except it was a Wall Street thriller. Set in 2008, Jeremy Irons turned in a really good performance as the ruthless/creepy CEO of an investment house (loosely patterned after Lehman Brothers) that discovers that the formula they have been using to balance their assets/liabilities ratio and to define the value of those assets is fatally flawed. Kevin Spacey did a great job as the head of sales who was charged with shedding these toxic assets, despite knowing that he is cheating his customers. The assets are Mortgage Backed Securities, financial instruments with which, in my financial counseling days I became more familiar than I cared to. They gave several really cogent explanations of what was going on such that I think most anyone who is paying attention could understand. The news people never really did that during the actual crisis, preferring to repeat the insider jargon that the real experts had fed them, but with no actual understanding of it. Also as former mortgage banker, I found the whole thing very familiar as it was one of the few times I saw an event coming. I saw many of those “assets” created in the early part of the decade. For all of the “derivative”  nature of the assets, it is really just banking 101. Do your due diligence as well as maintain adequate collateral and reserves.  They did none of that and the outcome was absolutely predictable. It is an outstanding movie and worth a watch.

The eventual impact of the landslide started at Lehman Brothers was pretty large. My own 401K nestegg was cut in half during the course of a few months and it has never completely recovered. Possibly in the form of a kind of epilogue they could have shown the huge effect this had. The collapse of the value of the securities actually began in 2006. I noticed a spike in the amount of default counseling clients I had. We went from 2-3 per year to several hundred in that year. It took a while for the “market information” to reach the big investment institutions, but when it did, that was when they started playing “hot potato” and passing those tranches of bad loans off on others.  From my side, as a banker and then a counselor, I could watch what was happening, but not until 2008 did I realize how epidemic those bad loans had become. Since they were mixed in with the investment grade loans, the effect was to make everything suspect, hence there was a collapse in value. When I was in banking, my end of the bank did the investment grade loans, but if they were declined, we referred the client to the “B paper” side and they had a whole variety of products including the now infamous “liar loans.” I often wondered who actually bought these risky loans and in 2008 I found out: all of us. Even the investment grade loans began to decline in quality around 1999 with the advent of automated underwriting.  Fannie and Freddie got very sloppy. I moved over to financial counseling for a non-profit in January of 2003. I’m glad I did. I felt cleaner almost immediately as I knew some of the stuff that was happening in mortgage lending was all wrong.

Environmental sustainability

In prediction mode

The “sustainability” argument has been used for years as a justification limiting economic growth. But that growth doesn’t need to mean more cars and more stuff, because they are not the only indicators of wealth. Education, leisure time, good health and health care, second careers and so forth are added wealth. Also, our use of resources is constantly evolving. In a century, I’ll wager that most everything in the way of “stuff” will be made of ceramics, carbon matrix and other materials made of resources that are essentially unlimited. Metals are already being used less and less in the developed countries. Hydroponics is still a new technology, but will eventually replace the current industrial style farming that is so wasteful of land and resources. The crops, including “meat” will be grown in closed systems, right there in the cities where they are consumed. Also, there is a movement back to all around farming, where livestock and crops are all grown together in a self circulating and almost closed system. Livestock is fed with the grains grown right there on the farm which in turn are fertilized by the animal waste. The overall environmental impact of human activity will continue to diminish as electronic communication lessens the need for physical travel. These changes are occurring right now, but many are in their infancy and won’t be fully realized for decades.

Shadow Show

Shadow Show: All-new stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury

Shadow Show,  billed as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury,” was compiled while Bradbury was still alive and in fact, he wrote a brief introduction to the book. The collection of short stories was edited by Sam Weller, a Bradbury biographer and Mort Castle, a writer of horror and fantasy stories.  Harper Collins sent me this book through Goodreads with the expectation that I would write a review. Since I give away copies of my own books in hopes of getting a review, I felt it was only fair to do it for them. First off, since I am a hard science fiction reader and writer, Ray Bradbury is not near the top of my list of favorite authors, but he is on the list. I like a few of his stories and find his slightly off kilter characters and situations sometimes amusing. Like Rod Serling did with his television plays, making stories appear to be science fiction or fantasy, allows the author to confront the reader with an otherwise uncomfortable concept or truth without repelling him, and Bradbury always did it with great style.

This is a collection of 26 short stories, all written in the “Bradbury tradition” by established writers of fantasy, horror and science fiction. They vary in quality and in weirdness. Weirdness is a Bradbury mainstay: if it ain’t weird, it ain’t Bradbury. Quirky, tricky, ironic or surprise endings are another Bradbury trait and most of these have that as well. Ironic humor is another Bradbury method and a couple of the stories in particular come to mind. HEADLIFE by Margaret Atwood is one where the mean spirited protagonist gets his comeuppance in a particularly well deserved fashion. HEAVY by Jay Bonansinga is a hilarious story about the weird relationship between a predatory Hollywood agent and a washed up actor who is dying of cancer. That Bonansinga can find comedy in that situation is a tribute to his creative talent. FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY by Gary A. Braunbeck is classic Bradbury social commentary about a man under house arrest because he is too fat and therefore visually displeasing to the general public.

Several of the stories I found impenetrable, but not wanting to poison the water for some of the less famous, I’ll limit my negative comments to Harlan Ellison’s entry, WEARINESS, which is at the very end of the collection. This may be a personal thing, indeed it almost certainly is, as this type of fiction is quite fashionable among those who imagine themselves to be intellectuals, but stories that deliberately try to obscure their meaning leave me flat. This one does just that. It is too cutesy in the way it attempts to confuse the reader. In addition, Ellison writes an afterword that is twice as long as the story itself in which he informs us that he knew Ray Bradbury and that Ray Bradbury was a friend of his, in contrast to all those other people who claimed to know Bradbury but were really just passing acquaintances. Whether he was referring to the several other writers in this collection who told stories of meeting or corresponding with Bradbury is unclear.

Of the collection as a whole, the good outweighs the bad by a fair amount. I don’t read books that I don’t like and I certainly don’t review them. The fact that I found most of the stories engrossing enough to finish tells me that they are pretty good.  I am not a fan of this particular genre, but if you are a Ray Bradbury fan, this book is well worth your time.