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.

October 2014
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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

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.