2012 Prometheus Award Finalist

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A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.

November 2014
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Razr Burn

Having tried to resurrect mine last fall in hopes of unlocking it and using it Europe (and having just switched from Blackberry to a Galaxy S5 last week), this caught my attention: Razr Burn: My Month With 2004’s Most Exciting Phone.

Her cellphone experience is significantly different from mine.

Maps: I gave up using anything map-related on my past Blackberries. It was faster to look it up on a regular computer and write down what I needed on an an index card before leaving, or to text others for directions if I needed them en-route. I could be directly under a Sprint cell tower in downtown Denver and it would take a minute or more to load/refresh a map.

Digital Cameras: I very rarely ever use the camera on my phone. In offloading my recently retired Blackberry, I found that in two and a half years with the thing I’d taken about 150 pictures. Total. My Razr I think had about a dozen in it when I retired it in late 2008 after two years, and the first Blackberry had maybe three dozen on it in 2011. An increase, to be sure, but nothing compared to the several hundred pictures I will take on any outing involving a real digital camera (or the fact that one of the digital cameras I use is converted for infrared…try that on your phone.)

Threaded Conversations: I suppose she’s right on this, but I didn’t have text message service on my Razr, so I can’t really compare or relate. No, really. I didn’t have text service. That in itself is an interesting then/now comparison.

SMS vs. iMessage: Can’t compare since until last week Blackberry’s messaging app was the only one I’d ever used, Android’s doesn’t seem to be any different, and I will never use one of the iCult’s products or apps. While I don’t understand the nature of her iFrustration, I do feel a little schadenfreude that she feels it. Because cult.

Swiping Tick: Not sure this is the same thing, but I noticed after purchasing a tablet last year that I frequently forget my older Kindle is not touch-sensitive…typically after being momentarily baffled as to why it’s ignoring my swipes.

Battery Life: Amen, sister! Preach it! Just before I replaced my Razr with my first Blackberry, I took a two-week trip to Sweden and Central Europe. And even though it was two years old at that point, I only had to recharge the phone maybe twice. Not that I was using it much, but it was still active the whole time, serving as my watch/alarm clock. The last Blackberry, even after replacing its battery a year ago, needed to be put on the charger every night lest it be dead by dawn. Neither Blackberry traveled well – even starting with a full charge and being turned off during flights, they’d still die in a third or a quarter of the usual time. The S5 seemed to work fine on my trip last week…at least, on a full charge and in airplane mode, with active use during the layovers, it still had about 50% charge at the end of the travel day, which is a great improvement.

I would disagree with her, though, that “being without a smartphone is goddamn miserable”. I frequently forget mine, and have over the past year taken to carrying it in my laptop bag or loose in the car rather than on my person, and typically leave it in the car when I go to places I don’t need it with me for logistical reasons. I even debated getting a dumb phone rather than a smart phone when I replaced my old one last week, and am not entirely sure why I stayed with the smartphone (had they offered simply a phone with text capability and a wifi hotspot with which I could have used my tablet or laptop, I might have done things differently).

One thing I do miss about the Blackberry, however (and the reason I stayed with them for so long) is the keypad. I hate swiping. Hate it. After a week and a half, I’ve given up and just gone to pecking out each individual letter (or using voice entry if nobody’s around) since it’s faster and less frustrating than having to swipe and delete even the simplest words like “to”, “in”, “of”, and “at” three or four times. And even then, since it’s one finger doing all the work over a larger area and there is an almost-but-not-quite imperceptible lag as the onscreen keyboard interprets your taps, it’s still much slower than the phsyical keypad on the Blackberry.

And I still haven’t figured out why tapping the big green “Answer” button that appears onscreen when someone calls you does not, in fact, answer the incoming call…Blackberry had a physical button for that, wisely so I think.




ExoTerra Wins Asteroid Redirect Mission Study Contract

Yep, we got selected under the “Adapt Commercial Spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle” category:
NASA Selects Studies for the Asteroid Redirect Mission

ExoTerra Resource in Littleton, Colorado: The “Multipurpose SEP Module for ARM and Beyond” study will define concepts for an extensible multipurpose Solar Electric Propulsion module designed for launch on Falcon 9.

Congratulations to the other winners on the BAA – it’s an interesting mix, and not quite what we would have guessed as the outcome.

Supersonic Decelerator Test

NASA Is About to Test a Mega-Parachute at the Edge of Space

The system in question is a combination of a large parachute (Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute) and the smaller of two inflatable decelerator designs (the 6m Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator for robotic missions, or SIAD-R). (More here [pdf])

I’ve seen images of the larger SIAD-E a number of times, but didn’t know there was a smaller implementation of the concept. Interesting. As is its cousin the IRVE concept (in a way the inverse approach, using a small nose and large inflatable body, the latter composed of a stack of smaller torii rather than a single large torus).

Marvel and NewSpace

Anyone else notice the cameo by SeaLaunch’s command ship in the new “Captain America” flick?

Maybe I missed earlier reports of it, but it surprised me. But yet it didn’t, given the Iron Man franchise’s habit of cameoing actual aerospace companies and personalities.

Makes me wonder if the Marvel Cinematic Universe people have a “thing” for space.

No Country for Young Men

Richard Fernandez hits on something that bothers me about the mindset of the country: No Country for Young Men

The big giveaway is we as a civilization don’t want to go to the planets any more, because the old don’t want to go anywhere. Imagine clambering into spaceships! The very idea gives us the shivers. Only the young and immortal travel to places where they may never be able to get Ibuprofen…

And in consequence the future, rather than beckoning to us, envelops us like a shroud. America which was famous for optimism, has sold its birthright for a mess of Obamacare and Obamaphones, like an old couple that have given up sweeping and tending a house that grew too big now that the kids have left.

It overstates a bit the part about us not wanting to go to the planets any more, given the number of robotic exploration missions in progress and planned for the next 5-10 years.

What bothers me is that he may well be right about our desire as a nation to settle space. Sure, we have people like Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos routing around the traditional (ie: old) model of manned space being the province of civil agencies and military bodies. But while there is plenty of interest and enthusiasm in industry and advocacy/activism circles for what they’re doing, I don’t get the sense that there is any sort of broader interest in or optimism for the long-term goals that these new players could enable – namely, space settlement.

Instead, the old conflict between robots and humans is cited, as if “exploration” were the sole reason for the existence of everything beyond Earth – look at it, take samples perhaps, but don’t otherwise touch it. “Robots can do a better job exploring.” “Robots are cheaper to send out to do exploration.” “Robots are less risky.” But robots aren’t humans and thus can’t be settlers. The mindset Fernandez describes would seem to cover this – the “geriatric culture”, as he puts it, would naturally prefer safety over risks, and that which fits in their fixed-income budgets to a venture whose costs and benefits can only be guessed at in advance.

This mindset also helps explain the despicable attitude of people like Patrick Stewart who believe that humans should just stay home, sitting in the corner of the universe until they’ve thought about what they’ve done. The argument is that, because we’re so wicked and naughty as a species, we don’t deserve to travel to and settle other worlds – we should be grounded until we learn to behave better and clean up all our messes. What is this if not the thinking of a punitive parent or grandparent, aimed at putting wayward youth into its place?

As Fernandez hints, this is a cultural problem that leads us towards stagnation and decline while others (whose motives and philosophies may be anathema to our own) fill the gap. If we as a nation choose living in the constrained present instead of looking ahead to (and working to fashion) an expanding future, it doesn’t mean others will feel compelled to do the same. It just means we get left behind.

How Many People Does It Take to Colonize Another Star System?

Popular Mechanics asks the question, but doesn’t look too deeply for alternative answers.

It’s a pretty interesting study, just looking at the different sizes of possible “classic” generation-ship missions and how to both ensure survivability (against unexpected problems en-route) and maintain genetic diversity (necessary for adaptability to unknown conditions en-route and at the destination). Small starting populations, obviously, aren’t as robust and end up significantly less diverse – the threshold seems to be around 10,000, and the ideal is around 40,000.

Which, hey, if you’re able to send a generation ship at all, making one carry 40,000 (or as suggested, several ships each carrying part of the whole for better redundancy) is probably the least of your problems.

Of course, there is a way to make it work with a much smaller crew and still have all the genetic diversity you could ever need: frozen embryos. Or perhaps, by the time such a mission became feasible, genomes stored as data and “reconstituted”.

Given the number of times this has been used in science fiction, I’m a little surprised that they didn’t at least mention it as alternative fix (even if it was not part of the study).

Re-Reading Some SF Classics

I just finished re-reading Dune for perhaps the fourth time, and am about two-thirds of the way through Footfall for I think only the second time. Both are good, of course, but they seem to have held up in different ways over the years.

I think the last time I read Dune was around 2003, and for whatever reason it seemed like a different telling of the same story this time around. I hadn’t noticed before that most of what seems to make Paul seem like a “super being” is the result of native intelligence and agility maximized through Bene Gesserit training. There is a Nietzschean element to it, of course, in the sense that twenty millennia of selective breeding seem to have re-centered the bell curve of native abilities a bit to the right among the elites (thus the recurring discussions over who is “human” or not). But what impresses is not some inborn advantage over the ordinary mass of humanity (talent or natural gift) but the various avenues through which they train themselves to apply the small statistical advantages they have (skill). Even when Paul obtains prescience, it seems to be more of a curse than a useful tool, and doesn’t really impress one with its exotic or godlike nature. It simply makes Paul fairly good at extrapolating where his actions in the present will lead in the future.

All of which actually makes the book just as interesting as the “superbeing brings corrupt galactic empire to its knees” story I had remembered reading – it’s more nuanced and sophisticated in this take, because unlike a cliche superbeing Paul can actually fail, and the story hinges on his application of understanding and skill rather than unlikely magic superpowers.


I don’t think I’d re-read Footfall since I first read it in 1986 – the summer after Challenger, whose loss dated the book before I even got to read it. The story was published in 1985, and the bulk of the action appears to take place around 1994-1995, which means the world situation and technology are remarkably out of synch with what happened in reality over that span of time.

Rather than make it hopelessly dated, these things make the book an interesting window on how the world looked back in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s of the novel, the Soviet Union (and with it the Warsaw Pact, the Iron Curtain, etc.) was still seen as a permanent feature, having not disintegrated over the period 1989-1991 – yet concern over the loss of the satellite countries and buffer republics in the chaos of the invasion haunts the Soviet characters, and anticipates the disintegration that actually happened (albeit peacefully and under far different circumstances) in that period.

Computers were still at the IBM PC level, and the internet is not an (overt) element in the book at all – which is amusing, since even if they couldn’t be expected to foresee its privatization in 1993, the internet existed in 1985 among the very defense institutions featured prominently in the book, and was designed to survive the sort of communications disruptions inflicted on Earth by the Snouts.

What are particularly interesting, though, are the relationships between and actions of the various characters. One forgets when surrounded by the fruits (and nuts) of modern feminism and Progressive identity politics and such what fiction was like before those ideologies became ascendant in the late 1990s and early 2000s…and more to the point, before those ideologies corrupted so much of mainstream science fiction and turned it into a hackneyed propaganda mill grinding out politically-correct stock heroes and stock villains and box-checked tokens in place of realistic characters with realistic mixtures of virtue and fault who respond to the situations of the stories based on who they are (individual natures) rather than what they are (identity group membership).

Warning: Humans

It’s an amusing concept, but it suffers from an annoying voiceover and the sense that there’s just a bit too much earnestness behind the attempts to be clever.

What if the rest of the alien universe was terrified of humans?


Coffee-Table Mars

NASM has what looks like a fascinating exhibition of select images from the MERs: Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars

I’d love to see NASA eventually issue a series of Full Moon-style coffee-table books, giving the highlights of each of the rovers.

Elon Musk On Colonizing Mars

Not sure what he says in this clip because watching interview videos makes my skin crawl, but I’m sure it’s something interesting:

Elon Musk On Colonizing Mars

On the other hand, the blurb alone on this one made me chuckle:

Here’s How Elon Musk Can Tell If Job Applicants Are Lying About Their Experience