Communion Of Dreams


Sights and insights.

A mix of little things, playing catch-up for the last couple of weeks …

Why catch-up? Well, this might explain why I took a break for a while there.

And we’re off …

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First thing, thanks to all who downloaded Communion of Dreams over the weekend, or helped to spread the word about it. There were a total of 693 downloads worldwide — and that includes various European portals, as well as Canada, India, and Japan! Pretty cool.

For those who have gotten the book, once you have a chance to read it please take a few moments to review it on Amazon or elsewhere – it really does help, and as I am finishing up writing St Cybi’s Well the feedback is most welcome.

Because, yeah:

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A long, but quite good, read about the value of the ISS: 5,200 Days in Space

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And a fun bit of perspective from xkcd about getting there:

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Some great images from one of the sites I’ve mentioned here before: Pentre Ifan

Petre Ifan is a haunting burial stack that stands in a verdant Welsh field as one of the most complete and dramatic stone dolmens still found anywhere on the planet.

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Wow.

X-rays stream off the sun

Go see the full size image and explanation of the science. Worth it.

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An excellent read by an old and dear friend: There’s an App for That: Cancer in the Modern Age

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And another excellent read, all in all. But this paragraph is so painfully true:

“Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.”

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Any others to add? The 10 Sci-Fi Films That Defined 2014

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Of course, reading is always better for you: Brain function ‘boosted for days after reading a novel’

See? I’m actually making you SMARTER! Keep that in mind when you write a review, will ya?

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And that’s enough for now. I need to get back to my “strange and solitary activity”.

 

Jim Downey



“X” marks the (new) spot.

As I mentioned the other day, news of the new Google Lunar X Prize organized by Peter Diamandis is getting a fair amount of attention, and appropriately so. It’s good to see Diamandis pursuing his dream, as I wrote about in this post about the Heinlein Centennial Gala:

And then Peter Diamandis‘ brilliant, inspiring presentation about how he considered Heinlein to have written not just visionary fiction, but had actually mapped out a functional business plan with The Man Who Sold the Moon. Diamandis said his dream, his goal, was to be there to welcome NASA back to the Moon when the Constellation Program vehicle arrives. This brought a standing ovation and cheers.

Indeed. And with the new Google Lunar X Prize, there’s a fair chance that could actually happen. If private space companies can land a remote-operated vehicle on the Moon under the prize guidelines by 2013 (most people are of the opinion that it’ll happen sooner), then I’d bet that scaling up the tech used to accomplish that to have people – perhaps even Diamandis himself – on the Moon before NASA’s target date of 2020 for Constellation is certainly possible. Remember, we went from having barely function sub-orbital craft to the Apollo 11 Moonshot in just 8 years.

One of the things I find particularly interesting is a bonus possible under the Google Lunar X Prize guidelines. Here it is:

• BONUSES: An additional $5 million in bonus prizes can be won by successfully completing additional mission tasks such as roving longer distances (> 5,000 meters), imaging man made artifacts (e.g. Apollo hardware), discovering water ice, and/or surviving through a frigid lunar night (approximately 14.5 Earth days).

That one bit right there in the middle that I bolded is what I’m talking about. It simultaneously nods to the accomplishments of NASA and also thumbs its nose at the agency. It perfectly sums up the mixed emotions many in the private sector feel about the government’s involvement in space exploration and development: respect for what was accomplished in the past, yet a burning desire to prove that the private players can do more, do it faster, and do it for less money.

I haven’t begun work on it yet, but one of the ‘intervening’ novels of my future history series (between Communion of Dreams and the prequel I’ve started titled St. Cybi’s Well) would be set sometime in the 2030s at one of the Israeli colonies on the Moon. The main character would be an artist who is on sabbatical there, exploring how the space environment effects an aesthetic sensibility. And one of the scenes I’ve envisioned would have him visiting the site of the first Lunar Landing, which has been carefully secured to preserve it as it was left by Armstrong and Aldrin, in order to use the site as inspiration. I must admit, I sort of hate the thought that there would be additional rover tracks there in order that someone could claim a bonus for the X Prize.

Jim Downey



The morning after.

Yes, I should write about the Google X Prize. I’ve even met Diamandis, at the Heinlein Centennial. But it’s been getting substantial coverage in the media. I do have some thoughts beyond “that’s cool” – but am, I think, understandably preoccupied with other personal matters right now. Perhaps this weekend.

OK, things are still sinking in, vis a vis my post yesterday. To a certain extent I feel like my life has just undergone a paradigm shift, as nothing has really changed and yet I see most things in a different light altogether.

A couple of friends have been a little surprised at my wariness about this change. I guess that I have been so conditioned at having people not do the right thing that I am somewhat stunned that this institution is going the right direction with this collection. And, honestly, I’m not used to the notion that things might be going the right way for me, as well. But I meet with the head librarian next Tuesday to iron out details and get the first installment of books, so it really looks like this is going to happen.

I’ll need to make some actual changes in how I work. Since closing the gallery, I’ve been fairly casual about my work hours and the ‘business end’ of the business. I think that’s understandable, since my primary concern has been caring for my MIL, not being a conservator. So I need to lay in some additional supplies, get a large fireproof safe, sort out my accounting software, streamline some of my work habits, establish standardized tracking procedures for handling this volume of work, et cetera. All stuff I know I can do – I ran an art & framing business which had multiple employees and scores of artists we represented for five years – it’s just a matter of getting all the procedures and software set up properly.

So, while I still feel astonished, and pleased, I’m less frightened. Typical for me: I can face just about anything, so long as I have good information and the freedom to sort it out and come to terms with it.

Jim Downey



Death wins.

This morning, when I went to check on her after hearing some stirring, my mother-in-law looked at me and asked if I knew where her toothbrush was.

“Yes. I know where it is. When you get up, we’ll be sure to use it.”

This simple reassurance allowed her to get back to sleep, and when we got her up at her usual time about 45 minutes later, she had completely forgotten the whole thing. See, she is well into the arc of Alzheimer’s, and has slipped to the point where she doesn’t really know where she is or who is around her most of the time. But little things like knowing that she has her own toothbrush, and she can use it, seem to make her happy, give her a measure of security. I don’t try to understand it. I am too exhausted for that. I just try to roll with it.

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Last night a friend sent me the first news reports of the explosion at Scaled Composites, indicating that two people had died and others were injured, evidently during a test of one of their rocket engines. After reading the brief news item, I replied:

Well, shit.

But as everyone involved said during the Centennial – this is going to happen. And while we have to work to take precautions, we can’t allow it to stop the future.

My friend responded to this with:

Yes. If people say we should stop, I have just two words for them:

Apollo One.

My parents knew the astronauts. And if we’d let that fire stop the space program, well……..

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I met Brian Binnie at the Heinlein Centennial. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s OK. Brian was the pilot of SpaceShipOne for the two flights which won the Ansari X Prize. He works for Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites. During his inspiring presentations and discussions at the Centennial, he conveyed a simple, honest love for what he did. He made no pretense that he was a brilliant engineer or scientist (though he holds a couple of advanced degrees), and poked fun at his own public speaking skills. He came across as a regular guy, highly skilled in flying test vehicles, and more than a little amazed to have been involved in making history. I like regular guys, people who are smart and extraordinary but don’t take that too seriously.

I hope Brian wasn’t one of the people hurt in the explosion. But even if he was, I bet that his attitude won’t change, and he’ll still be convinced that private spaceflight is worth the risk. On one of his test flights ofSpaceShipOne , the ship was badly damaged and he could have easily been killed. Obviously, that didn’t stop him then. I’m sure Brian, and all the others at Scaled Composites, will be going over the data from the test to see what happened, and how to avoid it in the future.

7/28/07 Update:  Scaled Composites named those killed in the blast:  Eric Dean Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg; Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave; and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi.  No word on the injured.
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Panel Finds Astronauts Flew While Intoxicated

Jul 26, 2007

A panel reviewing astronaut health issues in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest has found that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk.The panel, also reported “heavy use of alcohol” by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour “bottle to throttle” rule applied to NASA flight crew members.

You know, if you were going to strap me as cargo to the top of a chemical rocket with a 1-in-50 chance of catastrophic failure, I might well be still a little drunk, too. Oh, not if I was going to be responsible for flying the damned thing. But if I was just along for the ride? Yeah, I can see getting drunk before hand.

But that’s no way to run a space program.

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One day last week a steam pipe ruptured in New York City, killing one person and injuring many others. Each day in the US over 100 people are killed in vehicle accidents, and about half that number are murdered.

I was orphaned in early adolescence, one parent murdered and then the other dieing about 18 months later in a car accident. I came to understand death much earlier than most people in our country do. I’ve had a few close calls myself, all of them stupid and unexpected things that had my luck gone just a little differently, I would have died. Now, at middle age, I’ve got the typical health risks for a man which could mean an early and unexpected death.

But I don’t worry about that. Death wins. Every time. None of us gets out of here alive. We are all going to die, sooner or later. The only real thing that matters is that we live life as completely as possible, loving, creating, building the future. Brian Binnie understands that, and I’d bet that the others at Scaled Composites do too. I like to think that my parents understood that. My mother-in-law, who may not understand this on an intellectual level, still experiences life, still worries about her place in the world, still wants to make sure that she can brush her teeth.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



The Gala

Take a look at a map of the US. Let your eye more or less gravitate to the center. Chances are, what you’re looking at isn’t too far from Kansas City. Now, notice just how far this is from an ocean.

So, why the hell were most of the entrees at the buffet supper for the Gala at the Heinlein Centennial some kind of seafood? That was the question that everyone at my table wanted to know.

And since I live in this part of the country (about 2 hours from KC), I was the designated spokesman. What I told them was that a) it’s likely that the hotel providing the catering made the decision about the offerings, and the organizers just chose from a list, b) that seafood was likely chosen to ‘show off’ a bit, and c) besides, there are these things called airplanes, which can (and do) bring fresh seafood to even us uncultured louts in the Midwest.

Nah, the entrees were fine. What was actually a much greater concern to me was that for some reason, they had exactly ONE chocolate cake on the dessert table. And that was the *only* chocolate dessert. Huh? At a SF convention? I’ve not been to many, but my experience with other SF and Fantasy fans would lead me to believe that they’ve got a higher-then-usual appreciation for chocolate. Lord knows I sure do. But I got no cake that night.

Anyway, there was a reason why the Centennial was held in the middle of the nation. A fairly good reason, too: Robert A. Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, about an hour south of KC, and he spent a lot of his early years in Kansas City. Other places can (and do) claim him as one of their own, but KC was as logical a place as any to host the event. It was kind of fun to see the sign on the local SF club table which read “Join the same Science Fiction club that Robert Heinlein joined!” Fun stuff.

The Gala dinner was supposed to be dressy, and most people complied. (There were almost no people in costume all weekend, btw – another way in which this event differed from the Cons I’ve attended.) My friend ML and I joined a table full of charming chaps (well, of course they were being charming to her. Any straight male should be. And many are.) I had kicked in the ‘extrovert’ program, and was being outgoing to the point where one of the other people at the table asked me if I was the designated ‘celebrety’ who had been assigned to the table. Um, no. I dialed down the gregariousness a bit.

Dinner over, we left the round tables at the back of the hall and moved to row seating at the front. It was time for the Gala presentations and entertainment.

This comprised lots of various and sundry awards – Centennial writing awards, SFRA awards, John W. Cambell Award ( later I’ll tell how Ben Bova, this year’s winner for his novel Titan, came up and introduced himself to me…a particular thrill, since I have most of the action in Communion of Dreams take place on the surface and in orbit around that moon. OK, update – the story of that is told here.).

There were also speeches honoring and remembering Robert A. Heinlein, naturally enough. And then Peter Diamandis‘ brilliant, inspiring presentation about how he considered Heinlein to have written not just visionary fiction, but had actually mapped out a functional business plan with The Man Who Sold the Moon. Diamandis said his dream, his goal, was to be there to welcome NASA back to the Moon when the Constellation Program vehicle arrives. This brought a standing ovation and cheers.

The featured remembrance of Heinlein was provided by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, via pre-recorded message from his home in Sri Lanka. It was touching, all the more so for the evidence of Clarke’s own failing health.

Following were more presentations and performances, including information about the Stardance Project, a duet by Spider and Jeanne Robinson, an impromptu rendition of The Green Hills of Earth (the filk song popular in the SF community, drawn from Heinlein’s story of the same name), and finally ending with a screening of J. Neil Schulman‘s new offbeat movie Lady Magdalene’s. I decided to skip the last, but ML told me later that it was fun in a very silly sort of way.

There’s an excellent collection of images from the evening to be found here on the Midamerican Fan Photo Archive. I love people who know how to use a camera – a skill I never acquired.

Jim Downey



Fox and squirrel.

Standing there, looking out the window to the driveway just below, I saw the fox take the unwitting squirrel. One quick, quiet leap from behind a tree, a snap, pause to snap again at the struggling grey mass, and it had breakfast. A pretty, lethal thing, yellow-red short fur, characteristic long legs and bushy tail, eyes sharp as it looked around. Probably weighed twelve to fifteen pounds, lean and long. Made me consider keeping the cats inside.

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Peter Diamandis received a standing ovation for his presentation on the absolute need to go into space. It wasn’t just that the attendees at the Heinlein Centennial Gala were predisposed to his message – it was because his energy and enthusiasm swept away all doubts that this was *going* to happen, that it was economically inevitable, once we realized that it was actually possible. What’s that? Charlie Stross and others have said that while something like asteroid mining might be possible, it won’t lead to colonization? Yeah, that’s the argument. But Diamandis calculates that one 0.5 kilometer metallic asteroid will contain a *lot* of valuable metal…to the tune of 20 Trillion dollars worth. Sure, such asteroids only comprise about 8% of the known bodies anywhere near our space…but still, you’re talking tens of thousands of such asteroids of varying size. That’s a damned big incentive to build infrastructure, and once the infrastructure is in place, once the basic research has been done and there are multiple private corporations, countries, and even private citizens exploiting this resource, there are going to be some who find it advantageous to actually locate in space (semi-)permanently.

Diamandis joked that his strategy is going to be to issue a lot of ‘put options’ for the precious metals, then announce that he is going to go grab one of these asteroids and use the procedes to finance the expedition. Hey, when a man worth that kind of money makes such a joke, people should take it seriously.

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I watched, one afternoon last week, while my mother-in-law suffered a slight TIA. She was sitting in her wheelchair, having just gotten up from her afternoon nap, and was finishing some yogurt. I was sitting and talking with her, when she just slowly sort of folded in on herself. While she is 90 and suffers from Alzhemer’s, she is usually capable of responding to direct questions about immediate events (how she feels, if she likes her yogurt, et cetera), but she suddenly went quiet, almost insensate. I checked to see whether something like a heart attack was in process, and asked if she was hurting or if there was some other indicator of a serious emergency. Eventually I got enough information to conclude it was likely ‘just’ a TIA or some similar event, and got her back in bed. I monitored her, and all seemed to be well. She woke two hours later, with no evidence of damage. But it was an indication of her condition, and likely a hint at things to come.

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I want to have Jeff Greason’s baby.

Greason (pronounced ‘Grey-son’) is the head of XCOR Aerospace, and is one of the many companies trying to build the infrastructure of private commercial spaceflight. He and his company have accomplished a lot in the development of dependable, reusuable, and powerful rocket engines…engines sufficiently well engineered that they show no indication of wearing out after even thousands of operating cycles (being turned on and off). As he explains, the two biggest problems previously with rocket engine design was that there was wear leading to failure on both the throat of the engine (where the burning fuel exhausts) and on the nozzle (which creates the high thrust needed). The XCOR designs have engineered these problems out, and they’re still waiting to find out what other life-span problems the engine might have. And once you have dependable rocket engines, you can build a reusable and dependable vehicle around them.

But that’s not why I want to have his baby. Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

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In one of the sessions, people got to talking about what drives technological development, and one of the big things that people focused on was war. This has been a common theme in a lot of SF, including my favorite series Babylon 5 (see the Shadow War arc). I don’t entirely buy it. I tend to think that economics are a bigger force in tech development – even in wartime, most of the tech developed isn’t something like a pure weapon such as the atomic bomb; it is all the support infrastructure which has dual-use and can be adapted easily after a war because it is economically advantageous.

But this discussion took another familiar turn: that only after we have threatened ourselves with extinction through something like a nuclear war, would we find the will to go into space in a big way. That, actually, is one aspect of Communion of Dreams, but I don’t see mankind being able to survive a major nuclear exchange and then still have the capability to get into space. The infrastructure necessary to support a space-faring tech is really quite extensive, even if you have just small private companies and individuals building and using the rockets/spaceplanes to get to low-earth-orbit. Take out that infrastructure…wipe out the industrial base of the major nations, or even kick it back 50 years…and you will not have access to the kinds of composite materials, computing systems, et cetera, which are necessary components of any spacecraft. Burt Rutan will not be making SpaceShipTwo unless he has the parts – it’s that simple.

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There are a few things I’ve learned in my 49 years here. One is that we age, and we will die (sure, I’d love for Heinlein’s rejuvenation technology to come into play, or some version of ‘Singularity’ to save me from personal extinction…but I’m not counting on it.) It might be through something like the advancing senescence of global warming which we should see coming but act on too late. It might be something quick and unexpected, perhaps one of Diamandis’ $20 trillion rocks taking us out before we get around to using it for other purposes.

We should be like the fox, not the squirrel. The quick-witted one. The one who takes the future and makes it his own, rather than the one who is unpleasantly surprised for a brief and painful moment.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)