Communion Of Dreams


This ‘n that.

Several things of interest, some personal, some news, some related to the book . . .

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I am struck with how powerful just random chance is in determining the course of events. Whether you agree with the Administration’s handling of it or not, just consider how the BP oil leak in the Gulf has come to dominate the attention and course of politics. Who could have predicted that of all the things happening in the world, this would happen? It’s like getting in a car crash – it sort of shuts out every other factor in your life.

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A couple of people have sent me a link to the NYT item “Merely Human? That’s so yesterday.” It’s a long piece, and worth reading.

I’ve written about Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity previously. Simply put, I find the idea interesting but unconvincing. Kurzweil and the others involved in this ‘Singularity University’ are smart people, and I like that they are pushing for research and the development of technology which will benefit all, but it strikes me as mostly as the technological equivalent of the ‘afterlife’ of most religions – more hope than reality. This quote from the article sums up my thoughts pretty well:

William S. Bainbridge, who has spent the last two decades evaluating grant proposals for the National Science Foundation, also sides with the skeptics.

“We are not seeing exponential results from the exponential gains in computing power,” he says. “I think we are at a time where progress will be increasingly difficult in many fields.

“We should not base ideas of the world on simplistic extrapolations of what has happened in the past,” he adds.

It’s called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

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Which isn’t to say that there cannot be revolutionary breakthroughs which could radically change our lives. I’ve also written about how hydrogen sulfide (H2S) seems to be connected to hibernation, and now comes a fairly breathtaking bit of news that is related:

Mystery Explained: How Frozen Humans Are Brought Back

Yeast and worms can survive hypothermia if they are first subjected to extreme oxygen deprivation, a new study finds.

The results could explain a long-held mystery as to how humans can be brought back to life after “freezing to death,” the scientists say.

The study uncovered a previously unknown ability of organisms to survive lethal cold by temporarily slowing the biological processes that maintain life.

But the really interesting bit was this:

Documented cases of humans successfully revived after spending hours or days without a pulse in extremely cold conditions first inspired Roth to study the relationship between human hypothermia and his own research in forced hibernation.

In the winter of 2001, the body temperature of Canadian toddler Erica Norby plunged to 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) as she lay for hours in below-freezing weather after wandering outside wearing only a diaper. Apparently dead, she recovered completely after being re-warmed and resuscitated.

The same curious fate befell Japanese mountain climber Mitsutaka Uchikoshi in 2006, who was discovered with a core body temperature of 71 degrees F (22 degrees C) after 23 days after falling asleep on a snowy mountain.

23 DAYS? Holy shit, I hadn’t been aware of that.

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And lastly, you probably heard about this:

KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. geologists have discovered vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan, possibly amounting to $1 trillion, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman said Monday.

Waheed Omar told reporters the findings were made by the U.S. Geological Survey under contract to the Afghan government.

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Americans discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium, according to the report. The Times quoted a Pentagon memo as saying Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and cell phones.

Sounds like a brilliant bit of good news? Think about it again. As someone on MetaFilter commented:

Oh man, I wish I could feel optimistic about this… but a homeless guy with no hope and no prospects, who finds a gold watch, still has no hope and no prospects, but now he’s in for a beating too.

Did you ever read The Prize? Same thing. The ore sources for some of these minerals are very rare, they are critical for many high-tech products, and there is going to be a scramble to make sure who winds up in control of them.

* * *

Random chance rules our lives.

Jim Downey



Coincidence.

Last night I watched a movie made before I was born.  By coincidence, the timing was perfectly in sync with the news yesterday.

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Over a year ago, I wrote this, about Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace (one of the speakers at the Heinlein Centennial):

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.”

And this, in a piece about Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets:

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Well, yesterday a Falcon 1 rocket from the Space X corporation made it to orbit.  From Phil Plait:

Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.

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As coincidence would have it, about the time the Space X rocket reached orbit I was watching Destination Moon, a movie I had added to my NetFlix queue after the Heinlein Centennial, and which just now had floated to the top.

What’s the big deal?  Well, Destination Moon was about the first successful private corporation launch, not to orbit, but as a manned mission to the Moon.

It’s not a great movie.  But it was fascinating to watch, an insight into those heady post-war years, into what people thought about space, and into the mind of Robert Heinlein, who was one of the writers and technical advisors on the film (with connections to two of his novels: Rocket Ship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon).  Interesting to see the trouble they went to in order to explain what things would be like in space (no gravity, vacuum, how rockets would work, et cetera) because this was a full 8 years prior to the launch of Sputnik.  We’ve grown up with spaceflight as a fact, with knowing how things move and function – but all of this was unknown to the average viewer when the movie was made and released.  They did a surprisingly good job.  And the images provided Chesley Bonestell are still breath taking, after all these years.

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It may yet be a while before any private corporation wins the Google Lunar X Prize, let alone sends a team of astronauts there and gets them back, as was done in Destination Moon.  But it’ll happen.  When it looks like it will, I may need to schedule another viewing of the movie, and not just trust to coincidence.

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



Going postal.

One of the panels I attended at the Heinlein Centennial included Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets. I got there a bit late, and he had a call which pulled him away early, but the few minutes he spoke about his company and the future of spaceflight as he sees it were fascinating.

As opposed to the large-scale space project, such as we’ve seen both in government (NASA) and with Peter Diamandis‘ vision (mentioned previously), Bahn has a very mundane, almost boring approach of incrementalism. He figures that it makes more sense to just keep expanding at the margins – to develop dependable, suborbital services which will bring about a demand for increased services, which will spur additional innovation in the necessary tech, which will in turn make more expansion possible, et cetera, in an upward spiral which will eventually get us off this rock in a stable and dependable way. His basic strategy is expressed in this article he wrote three years ago:

In the late 1970’s, Business Week magazine ran a cover story on the latest Cray supercomputer and how it was going to revolutionize American business. Deep inside that same magazine was a small story mentioning that Apple computer was now selling micro-computers. Business Week was correct that a computer was going to revolutionize American society, they were just wrong about which machine it was going to be. Fifty percent of the American public and 99 percent of the aerospace industry are convinced that a moon program will revitalize and grow a new space era. Meanwhile, 1 percent of the industry is working on the systems that will actually do that.

For the last 2 years a quiet change has been occurring. Small, privately funded teams have been flying prototype systems that have not received much notice. Armadillo Aerospace in Dallas, XCor and Scaled Composites in Mojave, Blue Origins in Seattle and TGV Rockets in Norman, Okla. have all begun pushing equipment off of the drawing boards and into the skies.

The key is cost effectiveness. Rather than have thousands of people servicing a custom-built, highly advanced vehicle with an extensive support system going for orbital capability, a small suborbital reusuable vehicle should be able to serve much the same market as a first step into space, with minimal support staff (TGV stands for “Two Guys and a Van”) for a tiny fraction of the cost. That market? Scientific, military, even conventional business needs. And the cool thing, Bahn said at the Centennial, is that if you are working with scientists, they will go out of their way to help you, since it is in their nature to want to get the best performance out of equipment by tinkering and adapting it.

This notion of providing a limited and possibly passing service is not a new idea. Bahn has in the past compared the current state of suborbital launch capability to where private aviation was in the 1920’s:

“One of the big business models was to fly up and take a picture of your house and sell it to you for $5,” he said. “That was a big deal.”

“There were many things that were done in the 1920’s that did not suvive the long term test. Wing walking is not what you would call a real market. Never-the-less, many markets matured and outgrew many of the experiments of the era.”

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

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.)