Communion Of Dreams


‘Watch the skies, everywhere!”

That’s from the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, one of the first (and defining) science fiction movies which set the stage for much of what was to come even to the present day.

It was also very much a product of the early Cold War era, reflecting the fear* of the USSR and atomic weaponry. This is typical — science fiction usually is a reflection of (or commentary on) the technology and social conditions of the era when it was created.

So, what to make of two news items which showed up this week?

Here’s the first:

First State Legalizes Taser Drones for Cops

It is now legal for law enforcement in North Dakota to fly drones armed with everything from Tasers to tear gas thanks to a last-minute push by a pro-police lobbyist.

With all the concern over the militarization of police in the past year, no one noticed that the state became the first in the union to allow police to equip drones with “less than lethal” weapons. House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted that way, but then a lobbyist representing law enforcement—tight with a booming drone industry—got his hands on it.

And here’s the second:

Welcome to the World, Drone-Killing Laser Cannon

Hang on to your drone. Boeing’s developed a laser cannon specifically designed to turn unmanned aircraft into flaming wreckage.

The aerospace company’s new weapon system, which it publicly tested this week in a New Mexico industrial park, isn’t quite as cool as what you see in Star Wars—there’s no flying beams of light, no “pew! pew!” sound effects. But it is nonetheless a working laser cannon, and it will take your drone down.

* * *

Instead of a massive laser mounted on a dedicated truck, the compact system is small enough to fit in four suitcase-sized boxes and can be set up by a pair of soldiers or technicians in just a few minutes. At the moment, it’s aimed primarily at driving drones away from sensitive areas.

 

I’m already seeing posts by friends on social media complaining about drones being operated by annoying neighbors, with discussion about what possible solutions there might be to deal with them (both by legal recourse and um, more informal approaches). There have been a number of news items already about people who have shot down drones, and there’s even a company advertising a specific kind of shotgun ammunition for just that.

“Watch the skies!”, indeed.

 

Jim Downey

*As good an explanation as any.



A meditation on what isn’t there.

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

 

* * *

I first heard of Michael Heizer in a sculpture class in college, sometime in the late 1970s. Well, that I remember. It’s entirely possible that I had seen some coverage of his work in the press before then. But my professor got me thinking about how sculpture defined space both by physical presence and absence, and I know that it was then that I became aware of Heizer’s work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his basic concepts would manifest in my life in many ways, showing up in my interests in martial arts, book design, even writing.

* * *

In the movie, John Bowsher (then the Project Manager for Levitated Mass at LACMA) says this:

His ideas are incredibly simple, when you pare it all down to just its physical nature, it’s really quite simple, and you see it again and again in his work. To achieve that degree of simplicity is like, almost the hardest thing in the world to do.

 

* * *

Not being there when your opponent strikes.

Drawing the eye to the empty space.

Allowing the reader to fill in the suggested, but missing, description.

Each of these engages and enlightens in ways that no amount of force, or color, or detail ever could.

 

* * *

Chrissie Iles, Curator at the Whitney Museum, talking about Heizer’s Double Negative in the movie:

Micheal Heizer makes you aware of space and your relationship to space and how you move through space,the role of the sky, the role of the land, beyond what you’re looking at. You have to rethink the nature of who you are physically in relation to what you are walking around inside and observing from a distance and up close.

 

* * *

We’re not always aware of what we do while we’re doing it, or why. Sometimes, the trajectory of a life is determined by little things, subtle things. Even things which are mssing.

 

* * *

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

Shortly after I had conceived of the idea behind Paint the Moon, I knew that it wasn’t actually feasible. But the idea delighted me. And after some thought, I realized why: it was taking the principles of Michael Heizer’s art — of paring down art to the very simplest, physical elements of experience — and going one step further. Remove the physical object altogether, and replace it with pure experience, pure concept. Hence my description of the project as a “collective lyric fantasy”.

You can’t see the artifact of that project at a museum. There is no massive boulder to walk under, or a negative space in the desert to encounter.

But there is the Moon overhead, and the memory of a moment in time.

 

Jim Downey



Out there … and down here.

Via Laughing Squid, a nice little animated exploration of the Fermi Paradox:

(Does not contain spoilers for Communion of Dreams. ;) )

* * *

Been a busy week. Part of it was putting in my garden:

Garden

(That’s just the tomato plants — the super-hot peppers will go in next week.)

Part of it was a MASSIVE job converting a 16 x 16 storage space into the beginnings of a workshop:

Shop

(There’s still lots to do, but man, what a change from being hip-high in grungy boxes and scattered junk!)

And part of it was we have a new addition to the family:

Kitten

(He’s just 6 weeks old, entirely too cute, bold & adventurous, and tiny. For now. No name yet, though given his grey color I suggested perhaps we should go with Dukhat … )

* * *

I’m just now finishing up the first major revision to the working copy of St Cybi’s Well. I already have a couple of people lined up to take a look at it with fresh eyes, but if anyone else is interested also having a preview, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

Lastly: for Mother’s Day weekend, the Kindle edition of Her Final Year will be available for free. Check it out, download it, share it with others!

Jim Downey



“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.

 

It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.

 

Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …

 

Jim Downey



Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey



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




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