Communion Of Dreams

Moon Base अल्फा ?
February 26, 2011, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Science, Space, Survival, Travel

Interesting news from the Indian Space Research Organization: discovery of a very large lava tube which looks like it’d be very suitable as the basis for a habitat/research facility on the Moon.

From the Calcutta Telegraph:

New Delhi, Feb. 23: A giant volcanic cave beneath the moon’s surface discovered by Indian scientists last year through an analysis of archived images from the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft may be a candidate site for a future human habitat.

Researchers at the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, analysed 3D images from Chandrayaan-1’s Terrain Mapping Camera to identify the 1.7-kilometre long cave in a region of the moon called Oceanus Procellarum.

The hollow structure created by ancient volcanic lava flows on the Moon may provide lunar explorers a natural shelter from radiation storms and extreme variations between day and night temperatures encountered on the lunar surface, the SAC scientists said.

Glad to see someone is thinking about the future of humans in space.

Jim Downey

Phase change.
February 25, 2011, 1:26 pm
Filed under: Emergency, Failure, Isaac Asimov, Politics, Predictions, Science Fiction, Society

There’s a sign in the desert that lies to the west
Where you can’t tell the night from the sunrise
And not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Have prevented the fall of the unwise*

Almost prophetic, isn’t it?

The homepage for Communion of Dreams has the following description:

The world I have envisioned in this book is recognizable, in the same way that the 1950’s are recognizable, but with a comparable amount of unpredictable change as between that era and the present. Most authors will avoid writing about the near-term future, because it is easy for a work to become dated. I’m not that smart.

Unpredictable change. Rapid change. Protests in Egypt started just a month ago. Protests in Libya started just a week ago. Then there’s Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Even China has started to get nervous about controlling discussion of events around the Mediterranean.

If we had Asimov’s psychohistory, perhaps we would have been able to foresee this shift. But even then, I have my doubts. It is one thing to say “people want freedom” and another to not be surprised by what is happening. You can call the internet, Twitter, and mobile phones transformational technologies all you want, but that doesn’t mean you understand *how* the changes they augment will actually play out.

History is full of odd twists and small turns which topple rulers and determine the outcome of wars. Yes, certain forces can come together to create the right environment – to supersaturate the solution, as it were – but then almost any kind of catalyst can precipitate a radical change, and which kind of catalyst makes a difference. I think this is what we are seeing with the sweeping turmoil in the Middle East and Mediterranean – a phase change, as it were, from one reality to another.

This isn’t the first such phase change I have seen. The collapse of the Soviet Union was another. I grew up thinking that it was an implacable enemy, a monolith which would last forever if it didn’t kill us all first. When I traveled behind the Iron Curtain in 1974 I would never have been able to predict that 15 years later the whole thing would just tumble into dust. But then again, no one else did, either.

And that’s the thing. As I work now on the prequel to Communion of Dreams, set just a year in the future (but not our future – a related one near at hand) it is easy to envision other kinds of radical change which would come to create the world of my novel . . . and perhaps our own.

(2/26/11) An addendum: for a further, and much more insightful – not to mention more informed – discussion of the changes in the Middle East, read this article.

Jim Downey

*Alan Parsons, Turn of a Friendly Card.

These are a few of my favorite things.
February 25, 2011, 9:50 am
Filed under: Art, BoingBoing, Music, YouTube

High speed photography, explosions, art, music. Wow:

Jim Downey

Via BB.

Step by step.
February 24, 2011, 12:46 pm
Filed under: Brave New World, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, tech

Two more technological news items that bring us closer to the cybertech from Communion of Dreams. The first is a millimeter-scale computer designed for implantation in an eye to monitor for glaucoma:

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—A prototype implantable eye pressure monitor for glaucoma patients is believed to contain the first complete millimeter-scale computing system.

The second is a big step forward in brain-activated control of mechanisms thanks to an implanted grid of electrodes:

The method is called electrocorticography, which involves placing a thin plastic pad full of electrodes on the brain’s surface to measure its electrical activity. And it holds promise as being more accurate and telling than other efforts to understand the brain.

* * *

The goal behind decoding the brain’s signals is to allow individuals to control machines with their minds alone. The science holds tremendous potential for people with limb loss, spinal cord injuries and neuromuscular disorders to move and communicate.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, coming up with the tech of 2052 was mostly a challenge because I had to figure out what would slow things down enough that whatever I said sounded plausible.

Jim Downey

(Hat tip to my sis for the second link.)

February 23, 2011, 9:30 am
Filed under: Humor, movies, Science Fiction, YouTube

Good lord, this is funnier than hell, and very well done:

I particularly like the fangs.

Jim Downey

Via TR.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.”*

About a year before I was born, the Strategic Air Command had a little movie made for training purposes. Here’s a nice clip from it:

And here’s a bit explaining the story behind the movie:

Washington, D.C., February 19, 2011 – “The Power of Decision” may be the first (and perhaps the only) U.S. government film depicting the Cold War nightmare of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict. The U.S. Air Force produced it during 1956-1957 at the request of the Strategic Air Command. Unseen for years and made public for the first time by the National Security Archive, the film depicts the U.S. Air Force’s implementation of war plan “Quick Strike” in response to a Soviet surprise attack against the United States and European and East Asian allies. By the end of the film, after the Air Force launches a massive bomber-missile “double-punch,” millions of Americans, Russians, Europeans, and Japanese are dead.

60 million American casualties, actually, when all was said and done. And that was the “winning” scenario.

Is it any wonder that much of the popular culture (and the science fiction) of the time was concerned with dystopian futures, frequently involving apocalyptic nuclear war? It truly was a form of MADness.

And we came a lot closer to that actually happening on several occasions that most people realize. I’m not going to bother to dig up all the references, but in addition to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Yom Kippur War there were multiple instances of false alerts due to mechanical and communications failures which came to light following the end of the Cold War.

Is it any wonder that I have a hard time getting too worked up about the threat of ‘terrorism’? When you grew up expecting a nuclear holocaust, the prospect of random bombings doesn’t seem that big a deal.

Jim Downey

*Of course.

Proper analysis.
February 21, 2011, 2:24 pm
Filed under: Government, Guns, Politics, Predictions, Society

Got a note from a friend last evening:

Isn’t it cool to actually use the scientific method to figure these things out? I feel like I should send a thank you note to my high school chem teacher.

* * * * * * *

Last week one day when it was warm, I took advantage of the opportunity to get out to a nearby shooting range. I needed to proof some test loads for one of my guns, before I reloaded a bunch of ammo to those specs. That went fine.

I also planned on getting in a little pistol practice with a couple of my pistols I rely on for self defense. That didn’t go fine.

One of the guns had a problem. It failed to fire. I checked the ammunition, and determined that the firing pin wasn’t striking hard enough to initiate combustion. This was bad, and could have led to all manner of very negative outcomes.

* * * * * * *

Listening to the Diane Rehm Show this morning, they were talking about the protests and political situation in Wisconsin. One of the people Diane spoke with was the current Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels. Governor Daniels had been Director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush II Administration.

During the discussion, Gov. Daniels started in on how government deficits were what was driving the problems in Wisconsin. And he made a comment to the effect that this was just a reflection of the problems we’re having all across the country, particularly at the Federal level.

So far, so good. Deficit spending really *is* a problem, and it needs to be resolved at all levels of government. I couldn’t disagree with Gov. Daniels a bit on that.

Then he said something else: that the problems were all due to government spending, and that further cuts had to be made, in particular to the ‘entitlement programs.’ By this he meant Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

* * * * * * *

Yesterday I had the time to take apart the pistol which had malfunctioned. Based on what had happened, I knew to look at three possible causes: a problem with the ammunition; a problem with the firing pin; a problem with the spring which drives the hammer forward into the firing pin.

I had ruled out the ammunition as a likely cause. Yeah, the first couple of rounds I tried were reloads (my own), and it was possible that I had either gotten a bad batch of primers or they hadn’t been seated properly. But the third round I tried was factory ammunition. Factory ammo can also fail, though in my experience that is fairly rare. The chance that I would have three failures in a row with different ammunition struck me as highly unlikely.

So I’d probably find the source of the problem in the gun, with either the firing pin, or the hammer spring.

I did the basic dis-assembly, breaking the gun into a couple of main components. One of these was the bottom of the gun, the part that has the frame & grip. At this point I could test the strength of the hammer manually, and see whether it had adequate power. It did.

So I turned my attention to the top of the gun, the part with the slide and barrel and that stuff. Getting to the firing pin isn’t exactly difficult if you know what you’re doing, but it does mean you’re basically taking the whole thing completely apart. And it’s not something you do as part of a routine cleaning – the bit which holds the firing pin and makes it operate properly is pretty closed up, and designed to not need detail cleaning very often.

* * * * * * *

Income disparity in the US has gotten consistently worse for the last 40 years. It’s about twice as bad now as it was in 1968.

Remember the Social Security “lockbox“? How about the “peace dividend“? Do you remember how, during the latter part of the Clinton Administration, there was so much of a budget surplus that there was actually a discussion about the damage it would do to our economy if we retired too much of the national debt?

What happened? Where did these huge deficits come from?

Actually, I think there are a whole bunch of reasons. An economy as massive as ours is subject to a huge variety of forces, both internal and external. But let’s boil it down to the bare essentials:

  • Increased spending.
  • Decreased revenue.

Gov. Daniels, and most of the rest of the political class these days, is saying that the problem is almost entirely increased spending. And that therefore, the way to fix the problem is to decrease spending.

That would perhaps work. But what if it is due to decreased revenue instead? The Bush tax cuts, recently extended, dropped the US federal government’s total income from taxation below the historical averages. Furthermore, we’ve seen a steady decline in tax rates on the upper income earners and corporations for the last 50 years – the top marginal tax rate during the Eisenhower administration was 91%. For most of the Reagan Administration, it was 50%. During the Clinton years it was just under 40%. It dropped to 35% thanks to the Bush tax cuts.

And during the same time we’ve seen such huge declines in the tax rates, we’ve also seen a growing disparity in income distribution.

* * * * * * *

Got a note from a friend last evening:

Isn’t it cool to actually use the scientific method to figure these things out? I feel like I should send a thank you note to my high school chem teacher.

My friend was responding to the information I had shared about the problem I had with my gun, and how I had tracked it down thanks to a little application of the scientific method. Proper analysis, test the theory, draw conclusions. Problem solved.

But he could have just as well been responding to trying to determine what was the problem with our national deficit.

I think most people don’t really mind some income disparity – we all want to think that we will be rich, ourselves, one day. But the analysis of what is going on with the deficit is another matter, particularly when you start talking about making substantial cuts to programs which make a huge difference for the bottom end of the income distribution. Just going back to the tax level and policies of the Clinton era would not solve all our problems.

But it sure as hell would be a good place to start.

Jim Downey


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