Communion Of Dreams


Out for a stroll.

I mean, who doesn’t want to get out now and again, stretch your legs a bit?

More info here:

Recently, NASA released some pretty spectacular footage captured by an astronaut wearing a GoPro camera while spacewalking around the International Space Station. In the videos, Earth slowly rotates below the space station while astronauts fiddle with cables, install antennae, and work on the robotic arm.

 

Jim Downey



That’s just cool.

Via BoingBoing, fun video from NASA of the unboxing of a shipment of the first printed tools and tests parts from the ISS:

Perhaps it’s just the conservator in me, but I loved the documentation process, and how they’re going through everything carefully. No doubt that some or all of those items will eventually wind up at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

 

Jim Downey



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



“Wouldn’t you?”

Man, Chris Hadfield is such a treasure:

And you can pee upside down, which I did, just for fun. Wouldn’t you?

Great little list about the reality of spaceflight at this point in time. Perfect perspective for this weekend, since he manages to capture and convey the wonder and excitement so many of us felt from the Apollo era. It’s so easy to lose your vision, your enthusiasm, in the grim plodding of day-to-day life.

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Thanks to all who helped make the recent anniversary promotion of Her Final Year a success! Worldwide there were about 150 downloads – not a huge number, but it is progress. I hope the book can help those who downloaded it.

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Progress continues on St Cybi’s Well. Hope to wrap up Chapter 9 in the next couple of days.

 

Jim Downey



By the book.

From Chapter 7 of St. Cybi’s Well:

Long training had taught him to put his trust in facts. In objective, testable reality. You didn’t fly a space shuttle – even one which had been stripped down to the bare essentials for transporting sealed sleeper modules – by the seat of your pants. That would very quickly get you killed. You flew it by the book, with close attention to your instrumentation and computer systems. Because your instincts would lie to you. Your hopes and dreams had no place in orbital calculations. The only miracles which existed were the ones created by careful science, proven engineering, and rigorous quality control.

 

And from a great entry today on Bad Astronomy:

The European Space Agency has put together a fantastic and enthralling video that goes through the steps taken to bring the space travelers down. This is seriously worth 20 minutes of your time.

 

Yeah, it is really cool to watch them go through it all by the book. Find the time to watch it.

 

Jim Downey



Watch this.

Yeah, what Phil said:

Stop whatever you’re doing (unless you’re performing brain surgery) and watch this astonishing and enthralling time-lapse video, showing the Earth from space using photographs taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station

Ahh …

Oh, there’s a new review up for Communion of Dreams. Here ’tis:

I rarely read sci-fi anymore, but this reminds me of the best I read when I was younger. There’s a lot of background on the worlds the author is creating, followed by a resolution to multiple problems in the worlds. I truly enjoyed it.

If you’ve read the book and haven’t yet gotten around to posting a review, please consider it. It’s a little thing that does more than just massage my ego — it helps others have some idea what to expect from the book. And every so often I do things like give away nice hand-bound copies of the book . Thanks.

 

Jim Downey

 



Yes, this *is* the future.

How cool is this?

How cool is Chris Hadfield?

 

Jim Downey



A matter of perspective.

It all depends on your point-of-view:

 

Jim Downey



Looking back: “Yes.”

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 24, 2007.

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I have a special place in my heart for Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday program. Oh, I’ve long enjoyed his reporting and work at NPR, but in particular it was the experience of being interviewed by him in 2001 for my “Paint the Moon” art project which endeared him to me. As it was just at the beginning of the media coverage of that project, and most people as yet didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the project, it would have been easy to mock the idea and portray me as something of a fool – but Simon was kind and considerate in his interview with me (which took almost an hour to do from my local NPR station facilities), and the end result was an interesting and insightful segment for his show.

Anyway, I go out of my way to try and catch the broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday each week, and today was no different. One of the segments this morning was an interview with Pat Duggins, who has covered over 80 shuttle launches for NPR and now has a new book out titled Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. In the course of the interview, Simon asked the following question (paraphrased; I may correct when the transcript of the show is posted later): “Are Americans unrealistic in the expectation of safety from our space program?”

Duggins paused a moment, and then gave an unequivocal “Yes.”

I had already answered the question in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. Further, everyone involved in the space program, from the politicians who fund it to the NASA administers to aerospace engineers to astronauts to the journalists who cover the program, should all – all – be very clear that there are real risks involved but that those risks are worth taking. Certainly, foolish risks should be avoided. But trying to establish and promote space exploration as being “safe” is foolish and counter-productive.

I am often cynical and somewhat disparaging of the intelligence of my fellow humans. But I actually believe that if you give people honest answers, honest information, and explain both the risks and benefits of something as important as the space program, they will be able to digest and think intelligently about it. We have gotten into trouble because we don’t demand that our populace be informed and responsible – we’ve fallen very much into the habit of feeding people a bunch of bullshit, of letting them off the hook for being responsible citizens, and treating them as children rather than participating adults. By and large, people will react the way you treat them – and if you just treat people as irresponsible children, they will act the same way.

So it was good to hear Duggins say that one simple word: “Yes.”

What we have accomplished in space, from the earliest days right through to the present, has always been risky. But for crying out loud, just going to the grocery store is risky. None of us will get out of this life alive, and you can be sure that for even the most pampered and protected there will be pain and suffering at times. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, and to collapse at the first experience of hardship.

I think that we are better than that. Just look at all humankind has accomplished, in spite of the risks. To say that Americans are unwilling to accept a realistic view of death and injury associated with the exploration of space is to sell us short, and to artificially limit the progress we make. I think it *has* artificially limited the progress we have made.

One of the most common complaints I get about the world I envision in Communion of Dreams is that the exploration of space is too far along to be “realistic”. Nonsense. Look at what was accomplished in the fifty years that lead up to the first Moon landing. In a world filled with trauma, war, and grief, some risks are more easily accepted. In the world of Communion, post-pandemic and having suffered regional nuclear wars, there would be little fixation on making sure that spaceflight was “safe”, and more on pushing to rapidly develop it.

We can go to the planets, and then on to the stars. It is just a matter of having the will to do so, and of accepting the risks of trying.

Jim Downey



More words.

Following up from Sunday

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

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There was a very interesting discussion on the Diane Rehm show the other day with Stuart Firestein, who is the chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University as well as a professor of neuroscience. The whole thing is worth a listen, but in particular there were a couple of particular bits I wanted to share. Here’s the first:

So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we’re very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it’s a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.

And because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we’ve spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we’ve learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much — and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.

* * * * * * *

I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. We were in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me. It jerked – a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

We had been on a well-organised and, so far, successful trail towards the summit of Everest, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, moaning. Lhakpa shouted down at me and waved me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure.

From here.

* * * * * * *

From about halfway through Chapter 6 in Communion of Dreams:

“But smart how?”

Jon looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and I’m not just talking about the reasoning/emotional/spatial/mechanical sorts of distinctions that we sometimes make. More fundamentally, how are they smart? Are they super-geniuses, able to easily figure out problems that stump us? Or maybe they’re very slow, but have been at this a very long time. Perhaps some sort of collective or racial intelligence, while each individual member of their species can barely put two and two together. There are a lot of different ways they can be intelligent.”

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(Warning – the page from which the following comes contains gruesome images and text.)

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed’s (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

It makes you stupid.

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Again, Stuart Firestein:

And in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person’s personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It’s absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.

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Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Dragon Has Docked:

Dragon has finished docking with the International Space Station. That makes SpaceX the first private company to dock a cargo spacecraft to the space station.

That happened at exactly 12:02 p.m. ET, according to NASA.

* * * * * * *

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Last weekend four more people died attempting to summit Everest. Partly, this seems to have been due to the traffic on the mountain. Yeah, so many people are now attempting to climb the mountain that there are bottlenecks which occur, which can throw off calculations about how long a climb will take, how much supplemental oxygen is necessary, and whether weather will move in before climbers can reach safety.

In theory, everyone who attempts such a climb should know the odds. One in ten people who attempted the summit have died.

But we live in an age of accepted wonders. We think we’re smart enough to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

(PS: I hope to wrap up the third & final part of this set, get it posted this weekend.)