Communion Of Dreams

What a difference a week makes.

Just think — all the folks who are prepping to deal with some global emergency almost got a chance to see how well their theories work in practice. My friends who are into Steampunk and the SCA would have reigned supreme!

Earth survived near-miss from 2012 solar storm: NASA

Back in 2012, the Sun erupted with a powerful solar storm that just missed the Earth but was big enough to “knock modern civilization back to the 18th century,” NASA said.

The extreme space weather that tore through Earth’s orbit on July 23, 2012, was the most powerful in 150 years, according to a statement posted on the US space agency website Wednesday.

* * *

“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Daniel Baker, professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado.


Ah well. Better luck next time!




Whither SF?

I’ve mentioned Charlie Stross several times here. As I’ve said previously: smart guy, good writer. I disagree with his belief in mundane science fiction, because I think that it is too limited in imagination. Which leads almost inevitably to this formulation on his blog today (and yes, you should go read the whole thing):

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren’t airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we’re trying to escape, rather than a warm narcotic vision of a better place and time.

And so I conclude: we will not inspire anyone with grand visions of a viable future through the medium of escapism. If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.

But do you really want us to do that? I don’t think so. In fact, the traditional response of traditional-minded SF readers to the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision tends to be denial, disorientation, and distaste. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

Well, I dunno about Charlie, but I plan on writing a couple of prequels to Communion of Dreams, which I understand have touched something of a nerve in people precisely *because* it is hopeful in the face of a harsh reality.

Jim Downey

(PS: sometime today we should break through the level of 500 total sales/loans of CoD so far this month. Which is almost twice the previous month’s tally. Thanks for affirming my vision, folks!)

The TSA = “steampunk”.

Via BB, an item in Wired from an insider telling all of us what we already know: that Airport Security is nothing but an expensive farce, based on bad science:

TSA is trying to get away from its stigma of being the guys who grope and photograph you. It’s taking the porno out of the scanners by getting rid of the “nude” imaging displays. Its director, John Pistole, talks about becoming an “intelligence driven” agency that compiles behavioral profiles of potential terrorists and — someday — targeting its toughest screening on only those who fit the profile. Kids no longer have to take their shoes off before boarding a plane.

Just one problem, according to Brandt: The behavioral science is no panacea. “The scientific community is divided as to whether behavioral detection of terrorists is viable,” he writes. According to the Government Accountability Office, TSA put together a behavioral profiling program “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.” Even if the science was sound, the office found last year, TSA officers “lack a mechanism to input data on suspicious passengers into a database used by TSA analysts and also lack a means to obtain information from the Transportation System Operations Center on a timely basis.”

It’s like the government awarded military contracts during the Civil War for the development of æther craft in order to defeat the South – makes for a good story, perhaps, but has little or nothing to do with reality.

Jim Downey

Viva la difference!
December 10, 2009, 12:49 pm
Filed under: Art, movies, NPR, Science, Steampunk, tech

Most geeks already know about Charles Babbage‘s Difference Engine, but there was a nice piece on NPR this morning about it:

Charles Babbage, the man whom many consider to be the father of modern computing, never got to complete any of his life’s work. The Victorian gentleman was a brilliant mathematician, but he wasn’t very good at politics and fundraising, so he never got the financial backing to finish any of his elaborate machine designs. For decades, even his fans weren’t certain whether his computing machines would have worked.

But Doron Swade, a former curator at the Science Museum in London, has proven that Babbage wasn’t just an eccentric dreamer. Using nothing but materials that would have been available to Babbage in the 1840s, Swade and a group of engineers successfully built Babbage’s Difference Engine — and a version is now on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Having just watched “Longitude” about the construction and restoration of the first functional marine chronometers (and having seen reproduction of same at Greenwich), this seems, er, timely.

Jim Downey

Given your choices . . .
August 23, 2009, 7:58 pm
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, MetaFilter, Science, Steampunk, tech

. . . you could certainly do worse than a clockpunk mechanism such as the Antikythera calculator, if you were a time-traveler who was stranded in ancient Greece. Here’s a delightful new animation of how the calculator worked:

The inner workings of the Antikythera mechanism

An animation produced by Mogi Vicentini shows how the world’s oldest computer helped the Ancient Greeks simulate planetary motions and predict lunar eclipses.

Damned impressive. The level of complexity is remarkable, and once again is a reminder that the skill of those who came before us is all too often grossly unappreciated.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

. . . and I don’t think I’ll see this movie.
July 23, 2009, 6:20 pm
Filed under: Failure, Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, movies, Steampunk

Went to see the new Harry Potter movie last night (which I enjoyed), and of course had to sit through about six days worth of “Previews of Coming Attractions” (which I didn’t). In amongst the usual eminently forgettable fare they were threatening us with was one particular movie that sent a chill up my spine.

No, it wasn’t a horror flick, though it certainly looks to be pretty horrible. It was Sherlock Holmes.

Good lord, they’ve tried to turn him into an “action hero”.

Now, granted, Holmes was able to take care of himself in a fight. Sir Arthur specified this in the books & stories. He was capable with sword, walking stick, and his fists. And most of those play their part in his lore.

But this preview wanted to portray him as some steampunk version of Batman. All that was lacking was a mask and cape.

Methinks the writers (there are four of them – never an encouraging sign for a movie) heard that Robert Downey Jr was to be in the role and thought that they had to somehow connect the story to Iron Man. And no, according to the ImDB, the screenplay is not based on any of the actual works of Conan Doyle. This is what can happen when fictional characters pass into the realm of the “public domain”.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Jim Downey