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.

September 2014
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Apollo 16 Rover Footage Revisited

Heh, I tried this with some of the dashcam timelapse video from my Iceland trip (using the Deshake plugin for VirtualDub), with similar it’s-gonna-make-me-chunder-but-it-so-cool-I-can’t-look-away results:

Remastered, Stabilised Apollo 16 Footage Of The Lunar Rover Looks Just Beautiful.

Would have been easier on the stomach if they’d cropped to a full frame instead of using floating borders, but you gotta admit, it’s beautifully crisp video.

3D Printing and Laser Machining…At the Same Time

Very cool: Hybrid Machine Combines Milling and Additive Manufacturing

By using laser deposition to build up the part, while employing milling throughout the process to machine critical features as the part is taking shape, the machine can produce a component through additive manufacturing while also producing it to its completed tolerances within the same cycle.

And it does pieces roughly twice the linear dimensions of commonly-available sintering-based machines.

Not that long ago, people were speculating on the applications of 3D printing in lunar or martian settlements, or on board the ships going there and back. At the rate things are going, we’ll be printing the spacecraft themselves soon.

A Rare New Bacterium Thrives In Spacecraft Cleanrooms | Popular Science

Since we’re building our prototype in our conference room and my garage, we won’t have to be concerned about this – A Rare New Bacterium Thrives In Spacecraft Cleanrooms:

Just because we haven’t found this weird little guy elsewhere doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in nature. “We find a lot of bugs in clean rooms because we are looking so hard to find them there,” says Parag Vaishampayan, a microbiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who described the microbe in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. “The same bug might be in the soil outside the clean room but we wouldn’t necessarily identify it there because it would be hidden by the overwhelming numbers of other bugs.” He says Tersicoccus phoenicis could live in caves or deserts, where it could survive on almost no nutrients, as in the cleanrooms.

This is an interesting point…how can we ensure planetary isolation if we can’t ever be sure that we’ve killed all the hitchhikers, because we either make incorrect or incomplete assumptions about what will kill them all or (in the extreme case) our knowledge/assumptions about what actually constitutes life blinds us to their presence? If your methods that should kill all bacteria don’t do so, and lead you to discover oddball extremophile-like species previously hidden from you, how do you know that when you’ve successfully eliminated those something else won’t appear (the competition having been removed), or that there isn’t something you simply can’t see?

Those who have read Niven/Pournelle/Barnes’ Legacy of Heorot will readily recognize some potential problems here.

Which is not to advocate for absolute isolation – rather, we may have to accommodate ourselves to the reality that contamination will occur no matter what we do so long as we interact with other planets. It’s certainly going to occur if we send settlers, but will occur with any probes as well. If we discover signs of life on Mars, for example, we may never know with certainty that they aren’t the result of cross-contamination (barring some truly bizarre differences), the knowledge that something could however improbably have survived spacecraft sterilization inducing a form of Observer’s Paradox.

Government is Magic

An excellent essay on the decline of competence: Sultan Knish: Government is Magic

The essay is worth reading in full, along with the additional related points and examples in the comments, but this part sticks out for me:

Competence is built on the unhappy understanding that things won’t work because you want them to, they won’t work if you go through the motions, they will only work if you understand how a thing works and then make it work by building it, by testing it and by expecting failure every step of the way and wrestling with the problem until you get it right.

Is this not one of the core principles of engineering? Good engineering is not defined by how positive and nurturing your work environment is, or how diverse your team/organization is, or whether you’re compliant with the latest revision of some ISO or CMMI standard, it’s defined by whether the product of that engineering performs or fails at its intended task.

The Contemptible Propaganda of the Democrat Party

…on full display:

Democrat Propaganda on Shutdown


I thought after eight-plus years in political activism that there was little Democrats could do to make me loathe them more. Well, here’s something.

Yes, I recognize that the superficial intention of the comment is Republicans want to stop Obamacare from covering the uninsured. But the literal meaning is that Republicans want to stop every single American from getting any healthcare. That’s no accident of lexical ambiguity. That was meant as a subliminal message to slip by the conscious awareness of a casual reader. It’s no more accidental than Barbara Boxer’s comment yesterday that Republicans want to defund Obamacare simply because they oppose healthcare for women – if you take her at her word, Republicans want all women to be denied healthcare.

It’s a dishonest and disgusting display of partisan hate. Every Democrat should be ashamed of this.

Mars (One) Needs Women!

Yes, of course it will need men as well, but for any viable permanent colony women of child-bearing age will be required. Which is why it’s interesting and positive that there are quite a few Mars One Applicants from that particular demographic.

Now, whether or not they’re qualified is another matter. I’d easily circular-file half the applicants from their text blurbs alone (as I would with the male applicants of the same age range), as they indicate a complete lack of understanding of what education and skills building and living in a Martian settlement might require of them (or indicate personality attributes which could cause problems in the social environment of a settlement).

On the other hand, it’s hard to tell from the information provided whether or not someone would be qualified as a settler. The real purpose of posting these videos is not related to candidate selection, anyway, but rather a means of generating public interest in Mars One through direct public involvement. They are, however, an interesting insight into what a slice of the public believes space settlement involves.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

A good review, like any piece of journalism, derives its value from its objectivity. A good review should not be the ravings of a fan; it should take a sober, impartial approach to the material being reviewed, and strive to strike a balance between even-handedness and aggressive critique.

In that spirit, then, I cannot in good conscience call this piece a “review,” much less a “critique.”

Joss Whedon has long since had my devout attention as a fan; he first grabbed me with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and he cemented my devotion with “Firefly.”  And while I would like to think my enthusiasm for everything he has done since then (“Dollhouse,” The Avengers, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) is well-founded in a developed, semi-critical aesthetic, the truth is that he never fails to please me. I am nearly guaranteed to adore anything and everything his creative vision touches.

Enter “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Whedon’s small-screen follow-up to the superhero -fest The Avengers. Set in the same universe, and featuring a couple of the same characters, the new series occupies a much smaller footprint. Yet somehow, impressively, it succeeds in magically magnifying the grandeur and awe of its big-screen predecessor.

One of the problems with superhero movies is a problem of scale. Superheroes are by definition larger-than-life characters; they inhabit a realm of ability and consequence that none of us can truly imagine, much less empathize with. When Iron Man stops an alien invasion of the Earth, he saves countless millions (or billions) of lives. When Thor defeats the rampages of his evil half-brother Loki, he saves millions more.  In his off time, Tony Stark collaborates with Bruce Banner on unimaginable technology that would forever advance the realms of particle physics and bioengineering.

Whereas today, I got a half-decent start on an Android phone app and carried a few boxes up some stairs. And that left me wiped.

The gulf between these two realms is vast, and the danger with any superhero movie is getting so caught up in the grandeur of the macro world of gods and monsters and billionaire-playboy-philanthropists that the scale of their adventures gets lost. When a small town in New Mexico gets destroyed in 2011′s Thor, it’s a fun spectacle, but does anyone think of the coffee shop owner whose entire life savings just got wiped out in one fell Asgardian swoop? When the Hulk runs rampage on a college campus in 2008′s The Incredible Hulk, do we really stop to consider the poor group of sophomores injured or killed by falling rubble?

I don’t. Or I didn’t. Now, having seen the first episode of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, I am hoping that will change. Unlike the Marvel Studios films that preceded it, this series promises to involve us deeply in the lives of ordinary people—and in the lives of those not-quite ordinary (but nowhere near godlike) government agents who help us see the consequences of a world in which giants walk the Earth.

Foremost among our guides in this tour is Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced in the first Iron Man  film (it should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen previews of the series that reports of the character’s death in The Avengers were, as Twain might have said, slightly exaggerated). Coulson is, as ever, smart, capable, cool under fire—but most importantly, uncommonly decent. “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way!” he thunders at one point, when told that saving an endangered civilian is impossible. “We need to come up with a third option, one that doesn’t involve Mike’s son losing a father.”

Best of all, Coulson is unflaggingly, disarmingly funny. Humor intermixed with high drama and tragedy is one of the signature moves in any Joss Whedon drama, and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is no exception.

The rest of the ensemble—the reliable Ming Na Wen as Agent May, along with newcomers Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet—round out the team with a fantastic combination of strength, enthusiasm, and promises of future mysteries.  As ever, Joss Whedon also gives time to a few favorite ensemble actors (Ron Glass from “Firefly,” J. August Richards from “Angel”, and Cobie Smulders from The Avengers), as well as a generous smattering of tantalizing, mysterious hints of things to come (“He doesn’t know, does he?”).

What makes all of this work, however, is what will undoubtedly set this new series apart: its focus on the ordinary. In the pilot episode, we meet Mike, an average guy, down on his luck, who has been given super-powers. He’s been offered a taste of greatness normally denied the rest of us but displayed so flamboyantly by the heroes we now know inhabit the earth. Mike’s frustration with his own limitations rings very true, even intimately familiar. It’s human nature to strive for more, and to grow angry when we see others moving far past limits that we ourselves can never transcend.

“You said it was enough to be a man,” Mike says, “but there’s better than Man. There’s gods. And the rest of us, what are we?  They’re giants. We’re what they step on.”

And this is the perspective that makes “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” soar. Suddenly, we are no longer just flying high above New York City with Iron Man and Thor; we are also down on the ground, amid all the other potential casualties. We stand among the ants looking up at our heroes with a mixture of awe, admiration, and frank envy.

Not many writers could successfully bridge this gap. As he has proven time and again, though, Joss Whedon not only has the imagination to successfully inhabit both worlds, he has the rare skill of being able to move back and forth between them. Doing so, he expands our perception, helping us to grasp the scale of a world that holds both the unimaginably huge and the all-too-imaginably humble.

I can’t wait to see where he takes us next. Fortunately, I only need to wait a week.

“Oblivion”: More Clever Than I Expected

Like many Tom Cruise vehicles of late, Oblivion seems to have come and gone with little fanfare. Indeed, I was surprised to see the DVD on a stand at the grocery store last week – I didn’t know it had already come out and been (ironically) consigned to its titular state.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s actually one of the better movies I’ve seen in the past year. I won’t describe it in detail so as not to give away the numerous Serling-level twists in the story, but suffice to say that it’s entertaining and worth watching. The special effects are impressive, as is the futuristic creative design (the “tower” sets in particular). The bulk of it appears to have been filmed in Iceland, which amused me – anyone who has done the Laugavegur hike or visited Jökulsárgljúfur National Park will recognize much of the post-war New York City. The story premise and various gimmicks were clever and believable, and the leads (Cruise, Riseborough, and Kurylenko) delivered respectably layered performances (particularly Riseborough as Victoria, with her tragic subconscious dread of discovering the truth).

There were shortcomings, including Morgan Freeman as Morgan Freeman’s Usual Character, the typically improbable Armageddon-refugee-chic costumes, the colorful but unlikely depiction of the Moon, and the oops-we-forgot-about-lightspeed moment near the end. But on the bright side, unlike Elysium  and pretty much any movie of late, Oblivion is pleasantly free from obvious political preaching and product placement. No, really…there’s no blaming humanity for the war, no contrived subplots about racism or homophobia, no moralizing about the environment or capitalism, no anti-human ruminations on just how depraved and awful and evil humanity really is, no risible rodberrification of contemporary social issues, no tendentious illustrations on the dangers of technology. Which is nice. For a change.

Overall, Oblivion has the same feel as far as production, performance, and writing quality as the similarly-ignored Looper, which I was also surprised to have enjoyed.

You Have Done Well, Grasshopper

On August 13th, the Falcon 9 test rig (code name Grasshopper) completed a divert test, flying to a 250m altitude with a 100m lateral maneuver before returning to the center of the pad. The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.

Grasshopper is taller than a ten story building, which makes the control problem particularly challenging. Diverts like this are an important part of the trajectory in order to land the rocket precisely back at the launch site after reentering from space at hypersonic velocity.


Movie Review: “Elysium”, “Europa Report”

Sharlto Copley is a South African actor who first came to prominence in 2009, in director Neil Blomkamp’s excellent District 9, a tour-de-force of relatively low-budget, indie science fiction film-making. This weekend, Copley came to American theaters in two new films: Blomkamp’s big-budget follow up, Elysium, which stars Matt Damon, and in the indie film Europa Report, in which Copley’s is arguably the most well-known name in the cast. Both films delve into science fiction to explore important themes and ideas, and each film relies on its own distinct visual style.

That, however, is where the similarity ends.

In District 9, Neil Blomkamp burst upon the scene as a visionary new director of science fiction. In it, he told the story of Wikus, played by Copley, a hapless bureaucratic dweeb who finds his conscience torn, challenged, and tested, due to his involvement with the “Prawns,” a stranded race of insect-like aliens restricted to a shanty ghetto in Johannesburg. The film is a thinly-veiled allegory for the horrors of apartheid, and with it Blomkamp proved his willingness to use the trappings of science fiction to draw stark moral challenges to the economically and politically privileged.

In his new film Elysium, Blomkamp plays on many of the same themes, though this time he has shifted targets from the apartheid government of South Africa to the modern United States, embroiled in the question of illegal immigration. Though one might think that the more topical theme would enhance the film’s impact, over-broad performances and simplistic writing sabotage the film from the start. As so many critics of America’s immigration policy do, Blomkamp unwisely conflates the “Haves vs. Have-nots” narrative of the Occupy movement with the question of Hispanic immigration, throwing in a healthy dose of “Free health care” polemics for good measure. The result, philosophically, is a mess, aiming for populism but falling far short into caricature.

In this regard, he is not helped by the performances of his actors. Matt Damon shambles through the role of Max, a semi-reformed criminal trapped in a 22nd-century Los Angeles that is now one big slum. William Fichtner plays a smaller role, providing a regrettable caricature of a spoiled, wealthy industrialist, and Jodie Foster turns in her worst performance to date, overacting her way through the role of Delacourt, the scheming Defense Minister for the wealthy denizens of Elysium. Sharlto Copley does some of the most interesting work in the film as Kruger, a soldier of fortune whose barely contained, homicidal rage propels him to his conflict with Damon.

Stylistically, Elysium carries forward the torch from District 9, relying on the same shaky camera work that lent the earlier film much of its documentary realism and intimacy. Here, the technique simply seems jittery, unfocused, and has the unfortunate effect of making some of the sequences harder to follow. The sole redeeming note from a production standpoint is provided by the spectacular special effects depicting the orbital habitat, Elysium, and the launch and low-orbit flights of the shuttles carrying passengers to and from the space station.

Thematically, though, the film is disastrous.

Rather than engaging in any meaningful exploration of the questions being considered, Blomkamp chooses to paint the issues in the most simplistic, one-sided terms you can imagine. The wealthy  of Elysium, hoarders of seemingly cost-free,  miraculous health care that can cure any disease or injury, exclude the impoverished Earth-bound rabble more from “Dog in the Manger” pettiness than from any practical reason. In this world, there are no material limitations to explain unequal distribution of goods; some people are just selfish and hateful, and that’s that.

As compared with Elysium‘s heavy-handed, barely disguised metaphors, Europa Report uses the tropes of science fiction—in this case, a near-future exploration of our solar system—as an opportunity for character study.  The movie portrays the way that different individuals respond to fear of the unknown, and the sacrifices we are sometimes called upon to make in service to our own ideals. It’s a far subtler approach, though there is plenty of drama, and as such it does a more effective job of using a fantastic scenario to thoughtfully delve into its themes.

Directed by Ecuadorian Sebastián Cordero, Europa Report tells the story of a privately-funded mission to explore Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, host to perhaps the only other liquid-water oceans in the solar system, and thus, potentially, another home for biological life.

Stylistically, this film is striking: adhering to the “found footage” sub-genre of films, its contents are derived from on-ship cameras which record the story of the mission, and the tragedies and difficulties they face both en route to, and upon their arrival on, Europa. Despite the fact that “found footage” films are nothing new (The Blair Witch Project famously launched the sub-genre in 1999), the film manages a fresh, intimate tone, presenting realistic portrayals of the stresses and high emotions that can accompany such a mission.

Despite (or perhaps because of) having almost no marquee names in the cast, this movie boasts a roster of subtle, understated performances. As in Elysium, Sharlto Copley offers a well-crafted performance, though he plays a very different character. His James Corrigan, a technical specialist and engineer, provides one of the most emotionally wrenching moments of the film. Modestly-known actress Embeth Davidtz gives a quiet performance as the earth-bound mission controller, Dr. Unger. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a set of skilled unknowns and barely-knowns, including Michael Nyqvist, Dan Fogler, Anamaria Marinca, and Christian Camargo, whom Dexter  fans might recognize as Dexter’s murderous brother from the first season. Each works solidly within the ensemble, contributing to a strong story without indulging in showy or hammy performances.

In telling a story like this, the obvious temptation for a more cynical filmmaker might be to posit some conventionally selfish, narcissistic, or short-sighted flaws in one or more of the characters which bring doom upon the rest. Certainly this is a theme that has been well-explored in modern science fiction: the recent film Prometheus was pretty well done in by this temptation. To Cordero’s credit, he engages in no such ploys; though his characters are not perfect, and each struggles with his or her own frailties, each crew member exhibits heroism and dedication to his or her own highest ideals, right up to the end. In an age of cynical movies and cheap, overblown heroics, it’s a brave choice, and it rings true.

Some have expressed disappointment in the “big reveal” of the ending; to those I would say: You missed the point.  Even though the format presents a conventional “What is it?” sort of mystery  to be solved, that answer is not ultimately the point of the story; rather, the movie delves into the important question of how we as frail, imperfect human beings strive and achieve greatness in pursuit of our own individual ideals.

At its best, science fiction uses the plausibly fantastic as a canvas on which to paint the most timeless of human themes. At its worst, it can fail at any number of points: by extending what is imaginable so far into what is not, as to strain plausibility; by rehashing tired, too-well-explored themes; by sacrificing storytelling to technical accuracy. In the final analysis, Elysium fails because it relies on the conventions of the genre to hide its flaws, which are themselves born of a certain intellectual laziness. Europa Report stretches itself beyond the limitations of its small-budget production and indie film constraints, in order to tell a well thought out story that touches on the timeless.

Elysium: 76% — C/C+

Europa Report: 91% — A-