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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/10/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 50, Whole Number 1653
Table of Contents
Policy on Politics (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week in commenting on Dale's article I mentioned that we may decide to try to keep the MT VOID non-political. That was not intended as a complaint that Dale was being too political. I probably should have made that a separate item. Really what I should say is we reserve to right to reject material that in Evelyn's opinion and mine is overly polemical and likely to start a flame war. (Dale generally says little more political than that we should expand into the frontier of space. I doubt anyone would be shocked that what is basically a science fiction notice should advocate a positive policy on space technology.) But it was just a reminder that we still *edit* the MT VOID and reserve the right to prevent flame wars. [-mrl]
Problem of the Week: How'd He Do It?--Solution (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I gave this problem:
In the 27-second YouTube link below Orson Welles, who was a decent stage magician, produces a goose seemingly out of nothing. I don't expect this to be difficult, but the problem is to figure out how the trick of producing the goose works.
It is not difficult to see the goose is held to the back of the brass tray on the left by some sort of easy-to-release mechanism like a harness. The tray is placed on the pot, and the goose is released dropping into the pot where he is seen when the tray is removed.
It must be very hard on stage magicians to have their acts seen on video. You are not sure what you are seeing the first time because it is the first time and do not know what to expect. But when you can see the trick repeated two or three times, it is frequently easy to see how it is done.
People who got the answer (in order of receipt): Steve Milton, Don Ritter, Dave Anolick, Jerry Ryan, John Sloan, Andre Kuzniarek, David Goldfarb, and Kip Williams. [-mrl]
Best Hard Science Fiction Books (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The MIT Technology Review lists their choice for the ten best hard science fiction books of all time of all time at:
All the Numbers There Are (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is a famous quote to the effect that God invented the integers, the rest was the work of people. There are all kinds of different types of numbers. Most people don't know them apart, but mathematicians deal with them every day. There are natural numbers, there are integers; there are rational numbers, irrationals, complex numbers, imaginary numbers and real numbers. Why have people invented so many different kinds of numbers? The answer was that they were all needed one way or another. Whenever the issue came up, it seemed like the right thing to do. Are we at the end of inventing kinds of numbers? We probably are. Very ancient man invented the "natural" numbers, also known as counting numbers, and the whole complex plane of numbers came along with it sort of as a natural complement.
Ancient man could count small collections of things. He knew the difference between having two children and having three children. (Even some birds have that much counting ability.) And you could do a lot of things with these numbers. You could add them. Two plus three is five. If you need five of something and you have three, how many more do you need? Well, you need two. Thus subtraction was born.
But there was a problem with subtraction. Such subtractions you could do and some you could not. You could subtract three from five and you get two. You can subtract eight from eleven and you get three. You can subtract ten from eight and you get ... uh-oh. You don't get a "natural" number. But if you owe five sheep and you have only three, your net worth in sheep is less than any "natural" number. You need two more sheep just to not have any. Thus (or something like thus) the negative integers and zero were born. By the way, the quote is at fault because negative integers were sort of man's work. But once you have the positive integers it is a matter of time before you have all the integers.
Now you have all the integers. For a while that seemed like enough. The integers are good at counting sheep even for the man who is in debt. And you can add the same number multiple times. Five plus five is ten. Five plus five plus five is fifteen. Fifteen is three fives. So, I guess, multiplication was born. And soon there was dividing. Fifteen is how many fives? It is three fives. Fifteen divided by five is three.
But twelve is how many fives? This was a division that was impossible to do with integers. Twelve divided by five is too big for two fives and not big enough for three fives. You can take seven sacks of wheat and divide it evenly with your neighbor. We seem to have numbers between the integers sometimes when we divide integers by integers. Hence the rational numbers--the fractions-- were born.
For a while that seemed like all the numbers there were. In the meantime (and surprisingly early actually) the Pythagorean theorem was discovered. The diagonal of a three-by-four rectangle was a nice whole number. It was five. And they could figure out that the diagonal of a one-by-one square was the square root of two. It was the number that when you multiplied it by itself you got two. People were not sure what fraction that was, but there were fractions that came very close to it. Some day people would figure out what that fraction was, people thought. Somewhere, they thought, there was a fraction that gave you exactly two when you multiplied it by itself.
Then somebody came along and showed that there is no fraction that when multiplied by itself and simplified gave a product of two. It is (just barely) too long to present in this very short editorial, but on request I can publish the proof. It is just a few lines and very pretty.
So now people knew there were probably more numbers out there than just the rationals--that is the fractions. They could square a number and get two. But they could not square a number and get negative one. If you square a positive number you get a positive number. If you square a negative number you get a positive number. It seemed impossible to square a number and a get a negative number as a result. So it was suggested to create such a number and call it "i". But if you can find numbers you can square to get any non- negative number, there should be numbers you can square to get negative numbers. These are called complex numbers. This "i" was a number that had this strange property. Somebody called it an imaginary number, but that is not really true. It comes up in some very real applications.
So now numbers are not just points or a line, numbers form a plane and are the combination of a part that when you square it you get something non-negative and something that when you square it you get something non-positive.
So what comes next? What can you not do right now with some complex numbers? Well you cannot divide by zero. You might want to define some numbers you get when you divide nine by zero. But they would just have to be some very big numbers. In fact they would have to be bigger than any integer, since any integer times zero is going to have to be zero. You cannot solve the equation 0X=3.
What else can't you do? Well it turns out things like 0X=3 is the only kind of polynomial equation (with real coefficients) that you cannot currently solve. And inventing new numbers would not give you anything new that is useful. The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra says that any polynomial with complex coefficients has at least one solution in the complex plane. That is sort of a covenant that you are never going to need any other numbers.
So is that it? Well, not quite. Just because you are never going to need more numbers does not mean that you cannot invent some. It is kind of sad to think that we can never discover new kinds of numbers, just because you do not need them. People liked the way that you could generalize from the one-dimensional space of real numbers to the two-dimensional space of complex numbers. Why not go to new numbers in four-dimensional space? Instead of having a space made up of just real numbers of the form A + Bi, why not have numbers that are the sum of the form A + Bi + Cj + Dk? These numbers are called "quaternions." And somebody else came along and asked why stop there and invented eight-dimensional "octonions." You do not really need them but they are interesting to work with.
Which all goes to say that mathematicians just don't know when they are pushing a good thing too far. [-mrl]
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The fifth "X-Men" film is an origin story for the X-Men. It is a secret history of super-mutants becoming a powerful force from 1944 and the Holocaust to 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. That crisis, we learn, was actually orchestrated by opposing forces of mutants. The story maintains a nice 1960s sci-fi feel, very nicely envisioned with impressive SPFX, until the climactic 1962 battle which jumps (or teleports past) the shark. Still, it is the best of the "X-Men" films and even one of the best Marvel Comics films. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
A few weeks back I reviewed THOR. I had not read the comic book, so one of my deductions about Thor's strength was apparently not true of the character in the comic book. I suppose it might be said that I had not done my homework, before seeing the film. But it is my belief that a film should stand on its own. No reading should be necessary before seeing the film. Some films, like Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS, do a marvelous job of being self- explanatory, even with a lot of story being adapted. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, however is an origin story. Those at least usually stand on the their own. If anything the uninitiated may have something of an advantage, not knowing where the story is going. Those who know the story may have to content themselves just seeing well-known plot pieces fall into place. On the other hand, it is hard for the non-fan to keep straight all the mutants in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
The story involves Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (later known as Magneto) creating a team of people who through mutation have superpowers. Now, beneficial mutations in nature are very rare and ones that provide special exemptions from the laws of physics are even rarer, but in this film mutants with super-powers seem about as rare as seeds in a watermelon. The organizers collect too many mutants for this non-reader of the comic to keep straight. Included is one woman who flies on dragonfly wings and who looks entirely too chunky to be held aloft on those wings. There also is one who looks like a devil complete with spiked tail. Nature was apparently in a funny mood when it altered their genes.
From the start Lehnsherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (played as an adult by James McAvoy) are opposite types. Xavier grew up in the 1940s with a mansion above him and the lap of luxury beneath him. Lehnsherr was interned in a Polish concentration camp in 1944 when he started manifesting telekinetic powers over all things metal. His abilities are observed by one Dr. Schmidt (later changing his name to Sebastian Shaw, both played by Kevin Bacon). Schmidt forces Lehnsherr to use his powers, murdering Lehnsherr's mother in the process. In 1962 Xavier and Lehnsherr are teamed up against Shaw. The two recruit a team of super-mutants to be a potent force for good and to combat anti- mutant hatred.
The story of one mutant force against another has a nostalgic feel of 1960s science fiction by authors like Frank M. Robinson or George O. Smith. The dialog damages that feel by using phrases not popular in 1962 like "Don't ask; don't tell" and "How's that working out for you?" Still, it was easy to suspend disbelief and go with the story up until it becomes overly complex and baroque with too many superheroes. Let me say a word about the multiplicity of superheroes. The script simply is not strong enough to handle that many. The point of a team of super-mutants is that they have a synergy. Each one can do some things *of use* that the others cannot. We see very little of that in the writing. The guy who can send annoying loud noises that break things does not use that power as a weapon. Instead it is discovered that annoying sonic waves allow him to fly. Is it is a novelty to have a superhero who can fly? I simply do not remember The Beast doing anything but sitting around looking like a cross between a Teddy bear and Lawrence Talbot. In the end it does not really matter what different powers the mutants have. (I am told that most of the team of mutants were not in the X-Men at the time the story takes place. Apparently only The Beast is authentic to that time.)
This is a lot of film at 131 minutes, so there is a lot in it, but too much does not make sense. Sebastian Shaw wants to start a nuclear war (a lot like a James Bond villain might). That has the viewer rooting for the right side, since the viewer does want not a nuclear war to have occurred in 1962. Of course, none of us remembers a nuclear war taking place at that time, so it is obvious he is going to lose. But there should be some dramatic tension as to whether the forces of evil will win in the film. And it is never explained what Sebastian Shaw has to gain from starting a nuclear war. We never find out why he thinks he will survive it (beyond a piece of rhetoric). At best his life is going to be unpleasant afterward. So we never know what is going on in his mind. Of course he wants nobody to know what he is thinking so he wears (and looks ridiculous in) a telepathy-proof helmet with a big "M" on it. The "M" apparently stands for "Shaw". I will not say who inherits the helmet at the end of the film but somehow it is someone who can make a better use of a helmet with an "M".
One of the many film allusions is the representation of the War Room from which the American military plans its strategy for the missile crisis. It is not public knowledge what the real War Room looks like, so instead the film recreates the War Room from DR. STRANGELOVE.
Like all the "X-Men" films the real themes are really racism, non- conformity, and self-acceptance. There is really less here than meets the eye, but the film is fun and succeeds on several levels, if not the highest ones. I rate X-MEN: FIRST CLASS a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1270798/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/x_men_first_class/
International Space Development Conference 2011 (Huntsville, May 18-May 22) (report by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
I've gone to the last three International Space Development Conferences (ISDCs) and I have yet to issue a report, despite good intentions. So here I go again on yet another attempt! This year I was accompanied by my son Sam, who was "dragged along" on the theory that he might learn something, and by my wife, who was there on business. However, I'll focus on what I did by myself (actually what Sam and I did since we hung out together for pretty much the entire conference).
On Wednesday we skipped the Space Investment Summit so that Sam and I could take a tour of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. This tour was well organized but a lot shorter and less interesting than the JPL tour we took last summer. It really only went to two places--the Payload Control Center and a bus tour of some large test stands. The Payload Center was interesting--we all think of Johnson Spaceflight Center as being where mission control and CapCom are, but PayCom sits at Marshall. There is a room (and a backup room) of people who manage the space station and space shuttle payloads 24x7. PayCom has a VoIP line so that a scientist on the ground can talk to an astronaut about a payload if needed. All the data from the space station/space shuttle is delivered to the Payload center and then distributed to both a European and a Japanese center, and also to 150 different scientific teams.
Next, the bus drove around a series of large test stands, mostly from the Saturn program, mainly looking like props from the Dharma project on LOST. It was both glorious as you could see that this was a hopping place when Wernher Von Braun was in charge, but a bit sad as it sits in its rusty splendor. Unfortunately, it is fairly obvious that big test stands are only needed for big rockets, and that a cheaper, reusable rocket will simply not require these kinds of facilities, since if it did, by definition it would not be cheaper. With the cancellation of Ares V/Constellation by Obama, Marshall Space Flight Center is ground zero for folks unhappy with the new order of commercial space flight, low-cost rockets, and California space billionaires.
After lunch, we took another bus to the US Space and Rocket Center, which is co-located with Space Camp. This museum is well worth the trip. They have a Saturn I and a Saturn IB vertical in a rocket garden, and a Saturn V suspended horizontally in a large building so you can walk under it--way cool!!! They also have the Apollo 16 Command Module, a Blackbird, a whole lot of rockets in a big rocket garden, and a very nice display of artifacts and information on the moon landing, including real moon rocks. They also have a set of models for the Ares/Constellation program, now, of course, cancelled, but no doubt they are waiting to see if funding is restored before making any changes. Normally I skip the tours offered at ISDC, but I was glad I went this time--it provides valuable perspective on today's debates.
On Thursday it was time to hit the panels. For those of you who have never been to an ISDC, it is a lot like an SF con with only the science track. There is a slight overlap--this ISDC had a couple of author events, including a book signing, and you sometimes see an SF author or two, but the rock stars here are astronauts and rocket entrepreneurs. Actually, there are several "science" tracks, including  US and International Policy and Law,  Space Solar Power,  Business of Space,  Launch System Forum,  Launch Vehicle, Spacecraft & In-Space Propulsion,  Education, Outreach, and History,  Space Settlement, and  Military Space. There is a show floor that is focused on company/group tables and a student space colony contest and not on book sales, but which in many ways resembles a more dignified version of the traditional huckster room.
One big difference from a SF Con is that the major speakers appear at sit-down pay-extra lunches and dinners. I like this because I don't have to worry about going out and finding food, and it tends to be a great networking opportunity. One big difference from an SF Con is that lots of people are wearing suits, and the dressed- down ones are business casual. Like at an SF Con, most panels are in small rooms, some very uncomfortable, but the more important speakers get bigger halls, and the plenary hall is reserved for the most important speakers of all. However, just like at SF cons, the organizers' judgment is sometimes wildly off, resulting in the largest hall populated by twenty people but with a hundred people trying to sit in fifty chairs in a tiny, over-heated room with terrible acoustics.
I went to a lot of ISDCs "back in the day," so the differences time has brought are salient. In the old days this was an activist conference with some scientists and engineers. Now it feels like a business conference with many scientists and some activists and quite a few students. The quality of the speakers is higher--you see senior NASA and military folks speaking, leading scientists, and high-level business leaders that never would have come in the old days. Another difference is that although we used to dream about putting the "I" in International, it was in fact an American conference. Mainly as a result of the organization of a space settlements contest for high school students, hundreds of international students, mainly from India and Romania, descend each year on the ISDC. Sam and I walked by a group of at least 100-- maybe 150--getting their picture taken. The photographer was asking them to say "Space Settlements" instead of "Cheese"--something I never anticipated I would ever see. The winning teams get to make short presentation here and there, and you can also see the students' projects at booths on the show floor. Their work, although not always to professional standards, is often of very high quality and of considerable interest.
Another surprising situation is that--in a fashion I never really dreamed was possible--"the inmates have taken over the asylum." Lori Garver, "in the day" the Executive Director of the National Space Society (NSS) [NSS started the ISDCs and sponsors them annually], is now #2 at NASA. George Whitesides, another former NSS Executive Director, is now CEO of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's space tourism company. Scott Pace, a long-time NSS member, has now taken John Logsdon's chair as Director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. Aleta Jackson, a long-time L5 activist "in the day" is a founder and manager at XCOR, one of the leading "New Space" companies building rockets for sub-orbital tourism.
So this is all wonderful--the millennium has dawned--literally--and we're on the rocket to orbit--right? Sadly, there is war in heaven: in effect NASA, the New Space Companies (SpaceX, XCOR, etc.), and a part of the thought leadership, including Buzz Aldrin, and last but not least the Obama administration, have implemented a policy L5/NSS has long sought--fixed price commercial delivery to cargo and people to the space station. A side effect of this is the cancellation of Constellation, Bush's "Apollo on steroids" return to the moon project. Sides have been chosen, with folks like Scott Pace and Neil Armstrong supporting Constellation, along with the old-line aerospace contractors like Lockheed, ATK, etc., and the Senators/Representatives from Utah, Texas, and Florida who find jobs in their district to be threatened. The "New Space" companies hail from other states--California, Washington, and Colorado--all states that--shocking, shocking--voted for Obama.
Although I don't fully trust Obama in matters of space policy, the canard that he has "ended the space program" and that "no American rockets will ever go to space again" is a bizarre distortion that makes sense only if you think the space program consists of building Shuttle SRBs in Utah and launching every rocket using them. If I had to choose--and maybe with the deficit we do have to choose--I'd pick Commercial Orbital Transportation Services [COTS] and the space station over everything else NASA does because in the end Constellation was just another stunt, and we need a sustainable space program based on lower costs to orbit. Government programs have been proved over the last 25 years to not work well at cutting costs, so it is time to try something new and let the chips fall where they may. So I applaud President Obama, NASA Administrator Bolden, and Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver for their courage in taking this daring course, which has aroused so much opposition, much of it misinformed and/or cynical.
There is one silver lining here--for the first time the argument is not between those who want a space program and those who don't--but between two different visions of our future in space. Space--in the form of GPS navigation satellites, TV satellites, satellite phones, weather satellites, and so on, has become so woven into our lives that it is impossible to imagine life without these technologies. It is time to take the next step--the really hard step--of giving up our childhood memories of daring American astronauts walking on the moon--and embracing a free enterprise future in space--grungy, commercial, tawdry--but vibrant, human, and above all--quintessentially American. It is this future, and only this future, that will take us to space to stay, and spread us out among the stars.
For a growing number of young engineers and scientists taking jobs at New Space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace, XCOR Aerospace, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin, the future is now--they are working in small teams building innovative rockets that promise to really open the high frontier. For the first time space companies are being run by Silicon Valley rules and Silicon Valley managers rather than long time government employees and cost-plus military contractors--it may not work out, but it seems a lot better than twenty-five more years of the same old, same old.
Another bright spot at the convention is the Google Lunar X Prize which provides $30M [yes, you read that right--thirty Million!] to the first team that can land a privately built rover on the moon and return pictures. So far there are twenty-nine teams competing, and eight of them made presentations at the ISDC. The teams are both American and international, and some are mixed. Some are based at universities and others are corporate in their origins. The brilliant side-effect of this project has been to make space real to a whole generation of college students who are working on and in some cases leading these teams. The teams are raising money, reaching out to the public to make their pitch, recruiting help, and building their lunar landers--in effect each team has become a small version of the NSS, or a super NSS chapter on some level-- doing the work of NSS even if not always in the name of the NSS. Regardless of who wins, the pro-space movement will get a large and permanent boost from this program, and we should all thank Google for their support and vision.
That turned out to be a lot longer general statement than I planned! So, back to the panels on Thursday! We started out with the 11 AM "Launch System Forum" featuring all the major leaders of the NASA SLS [Space Launch System] program from MSFC and NASA HQ. I had high hopes for this panel, but it proved a complete waste of time. I watched three guys dissemble for an hour--striving to the best of their ability to avoid saying ANYTHING concrete about the SLS. I pity their position--torn between the NASA leadership and Congressional pressure to save Constellation at any price--but it is hard to imagine that they will build anything useful or innovative or on time or on budget.
The noon luncheon featured the father and son team of Owen Garriott [Skylab astronaut] and Richard Garriott [space tourist] speaking about their experiences as astronauts--always interesting on their own, and especially touching to see the world's first father/son astronaut pair in action.
At 1 PM we switch-hit between Stephen Covey on "Technologies for Asteroid Capture into Earth Orbit," and Paul Jaffe [Naval Research Laboratory] on "Naval Research Laboratory Sandwich Panel R&D Status Update." Jaffe is about one year into a program to demonstrate a single panel of a solar power satellite with cells on one side, microwave transmitters on the other, and DC to AC rectifiers in the middle. This relatively recent idea removes the need for any high power elements in orbit and offers the hope of substantial cost savings. Also, cheap mirrors can be used to concentrate more light on the cells, raising output per square inch of surface. Making all this work well becomes a heat dissipation problem, making economic feasibility unclear, but the project is certainly a very interesting one. The military interest comes from a desire to provide electricity to remote military outposts without the need for convoys of fuel trucks.
At 3 PM we checked out "Precision Time Protocol Trilateration for Planetary Navigation," which at first seems quite obscure, but is pretty important. The speaker described how some Apollo astronauts got within thirty meters or so of a crater they were looking for, but couldn't see it and gave up, demonstrating the need for more accurate lunar navigation. The system described would allow, via the installation of a small number of beacons on the moon, very precise navigation over large areas of lunar or planetary surface. This talk was of great interest since Sam has a project in his computer science class using multilateration for navigation, and the speaker compared the two systems and discussed their pros/cons. We ran on so much longer talking about trilateration that the next thing we did was the 6 PM dinner, with Rick Tumlinson giving a rousing overview of his company, Orbital Outfitters, which makes space suits for orbital tourists.
Friday morning we started bright and early with a career fair, but this proved to be of small size and very limited interest to a high school student. I note that the only booth that seemed really busy was the SpaceX table--not a surprise. At 10:30 AM we listened to Jesco von Puttakmer from NASA HQ review a history of plans to explore Mars, going all the way back to Von Braun's original ideas from the 1950s. The talk was fascinating, full of tidbits from the days when Puttakmer worked on Von Braun's team in Huntsville, and also with good insights from the Russian side of things, where Puttakmer has spent time recently as part of his job supporting the space station.
Puttakmer's talk ran right into the 12 noon lunch talk by Paul Spudis, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Spudis was great, but rather than regurgitating his talk, you can check it out yourself at http://www.spudislunarresources.com/Papers/Spudis_ISDC_2011.pdf.
At 2 PM we started with "Global Space Surveillance" on the military track, but it was not that interesting so we moved on to "ISS and Mars: A Discussion of How ISS can be used to Advance Beyond LEO Travel," which proved mildly interesting but not earth-shattering (no pun intended). We started "Planetary Defense" at 3:30 PM, a panel led by Peter Worden, the Director of NASA Ames, but with a number of other speakers who appeared to be ex-military. The series of talks introduced very well the issues related to possible future asteroid/comet impacts on the Earth and options for mitigating their effects or preventing the impacts.
Soon it was time for the Friday evening "Gala" dinner--buses took us to the US Space and Rocket Center for a dinner underneath the hanging Saturn V--way way cool! The featured speaker was Robert Bigelow, a hotel magnate who has licensed from NASA the technology for inflatable space stations, and has flown two test stations on Russian rockets. I don't have the URL for the slides but you can see what they are doing at http://bigelowaerospace.com. Bigelow was an impressive, self-assured speaker clearly committed to an ambitious project.
Our final day at the conference [Saturday] started with a double- dose of Lunar X prize talks. These were in a kind of town meeting format, with the speakers sitting on the stage making short speeches and then answering questions. This was one of the more interesting parts of the conference, although as each team is a competitor, technical details were in short supply. One team, the "Part-time Scientists" had brought their test rover and Sam had fun driving it in the hallway.
The Saturday lunch featured Adam Harris of SpaceX, who received the Space Pioneer Award on behalf of SpaceX. Adam played a few videos and spent most of his time answering questions from the audience. Adam was very smooth but the talk did not contain much new information, possibly because at this point SpaceX is getting a lot of publicity.
Right after lunch we saw George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, make his presentation. George, who is a former director of NSS, showed a few nice videos, including one showing the "feathering" test of Space Ship Two, and proceeded to spend most of the time answering audience questions. Again, at this point most people are pretty aware of what Virgin Galactic is doing.
At 3 PM we listened to Aurora Aerospace. This is a company that provides "astronaut training" to adventure tourists. This includes flying a T-38 jet and experiencing zero-gee using parabolic arcs. They have formed an alliance with an underwater hotel company, and are offering combined packages at a discount. The next step in their plans is to buy an XCOR Lynx rocketplane on the shared ownership model, and use it in their business. They are seeking investors for this purpose. You can check them out at http://www.aurora-aerospace.com/.
We started 4 PM with "Life Support Systems and Structural Design for Space Colony," which appeared to be a presentation by a graduate student at the State University of New York, and was only marginally better than the high school space settlement presentations. This was followed by "Low Earth Orbit Evolution as an Economic Zone," which proved to be of limited interest, so we switched over to "Sweating the Small Stuff: The Risks Posed by Meteors and Meteoroids to Ground Dwellers and Space Craft," given by Bill Cooke of NASA MSFC. Cooke gave an excellent presentation on a network of inexpensive [$800] ground stations that he has set up which allow for a nightly report on the orbits of all visible objects striking the Earth's atmosphere. The most impressive part of this talk was how much can be accomplished with a small team, a little money, and modern computer/electronic technology. The videos of spiders and birds interfering with the cameras were also humorous.
Our ISDC participation concluded with the Saturday night awards banquet, with keynote speaker Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR, presenting a proposal for basing space policy on the construction of fuel depots in LEO, lunar orbit and Phobos. You can check out what he had to say by watching the video at the XCOR web site-- http://www.xcor.com/video/isdc.html. The fuel depot approach can be debated, but overall I found his step by step approach refreshing, humorous, and worthy of careful consideration.
As they say, "that's all folks." I found this ISDC a bit less overfull with revelations, partially because I am starting to catch up on what is going on after my many years of "space hibernation" while doing startups. It is also possible that some combination of the location and the battle over Constellation resulted in a dearth of interesting speakers. Last year's ISDC was joint with the AIAA solar power meeting on Thursday and Friday, so it would not be reasonable to expect the same quality of speakers this year as last. Still, all in all, a big success. This is a very exciting time to be following the space enterprise, and it is unfortunate that the national press has not really conveyed the import of new developments to the general public. [-dls]
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larson (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Normally I avoid bestsellers, but THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has become so popular that it loomed into my field of view. From a quick look at some reviews, the character of Elisabeth Salander seemed interesting, and made the story seem vaguely genre. So, in a fit of weakness, I broke down and bought a paperback version of the THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, henceforth just to be referred to as TATTOO. Shockingly, I also read it, but largely to my regret. To my further regret, I then wrote the review below, and was on the edge about sending to the MT VOID, but the recent appearance of reviews of TATTOO in both "The New York Review of Books" [liberal] and "The Claremont Review" [conservative], both rather favorable, led me to reconsider, as I had a rather different take on things.
Larson is certainly a decent mystery writer, and here has created a solid "locked room" murder mystery, with an isolated island serving as the locked room, resulting in a rather long list of suspects. The basic story arc is [once you get about 50 pages into the story] well paced and interesting, although not a total surprise when the big secret is unveiled. I found the first 50 pages or so very slow and un-involving, and only got to page 51 by great effort. There are lots of other mystery writers at least as good or better than Larson, but for the most part the story is readable.
The story takes place mainly in Sweden, and has a good bit of local color. This works fine as a backdrop, but it turns into something really rather revolting as the story goes along, more anon.
The appeal of this series must lie in the main characters, Elisabeth Salander, and Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish reporter. Elisabeth Salander is a young autistic/psychopathic woman who had made a career for herself working for a security firm. She is a crackerjack hacker, and part of a very thinly described underground of hackers. Her hacking skills border on the magical, and it is apparent that Larson knows virtually nothing about computers. There is an attempt at detailing her methods, but it's really just the "magic" of our age. The general critical response to Salander suggests that the critics find her fresh, original, believable, and interesting. Clearly, the critics never have read any comics!
Salander is the latest incarnation of the superhero without super-powers, following in the line of detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Repairman Jack, and Rorschach. She also follows in the line of superheroes who have gone dark, including Wolverine (from the X-men) and Rorschach (from Watchmen). She is not large, but fights with the utterly unrestrained ruthlessness and fury only a psychopath can achieve. She is a genius of Holmsian proportions, with amazing task focus. She is without remorse and has a rather limited emotional range. Her twisted background of rape and revenge reminds me of Rorschach's back-story, as does her small size and fierce determination. In this extensive pantheon Salander is by far not the most memorable, but she is certainly interesting when on-stage. However, I found her back-story rather thin, with no attempt made to explain how she came to be a super-hacker. In the end, she is more insubstantial and unbelievable than most of the comic book characters I have just mentioned.
Although Salander is not the creative masterpiece some critics paint, she is not the major negative of this book. Mikael Blomkvist, the reporter, a fairly obvious idealization of Larson, is where my concerns start. The "heroic" Blomkvist works for a far-left magazine mainly exposing business corruption. He has recently been convicted of libel, with a jail sentence in the offing. Blomkvist is a ladies' man of Bondian proportions, and seems to drift from bed to bed, including Salander's, with an ease that no doubt Larson wished for in his own life. This seems quite unsupported and unbelievable in the book, but is made plausible in the film version by having Daniel Craig play Blomkvist! I found Blomkvist annoying and such an obvious version of the author that it soured the book quite a bit, but this is not the real issue with TATTOO.
There are two real problems with TATTOO--one is that it is the worst kind of pornography, and the other is that it is a bigoted tract of a terrible sort. TATTOO drifts along on several levels--superficially Blomkvist is a staunch advocate of Swedish feminism, although as things move along he makes enough snarky comments to suggest some skepticism about real hard-core academic feminism. The main level is a kind "feel-good" porn, where the reader is dragged though a long list of snuff murders of women and a really detailed description of Salander's rape, supposedly based on an actual case in Sweden. The reader is constantly told how bad all this is while observing in detail all the bad stuff. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth and the feeling that Larson is a major league hypocrite.
But the worst is yet to come. I like to apply the following test--replace the villains with a black man, a Jew, etc. and ask yourself--would this book be considered racist or anti-Semitic? For TATTOO the answer has to be yes. In TATTOO the villains are all Swedish businessmen. They range from the merely greedy and dishonest, to the domineering and remote, to misogynist serial killer sadists. It is telling that that original title of the book in Swedish was MEN WHO HATE WOMEN. The best businessman--who hires Blomkvist to find the murderer--is far from a nice guy, and the other businessmen are somewhere between very bad and satanic. The main serial killer is a cartoon of evil, bad to the bone for no particular reason. Just to be clear, this is not a case of a single rotten egg, but a systematic portrayal of business and its operations as evil or at least very bad. One can speculate that this represents a Swedish socialist view of capitalism, or at least Larson's view of capitalism. I found this aspect of TATTOO to be repugnant and extremely off-putting.
In summary, I don't recommend this book, and I won't be reading the rest of the series. It concerns me that TATTOO has found such a wide audience, and I speculate that this is in part related to resentment of bankers who are perceived to be responsible for the latest economic troubles. TATTOO also serves a role in allowing "upstanding" citizens to enjoy misogynist porn while wrapped in a cloak of Swedish feminism.
Disclaimer: I have not seen any film version of TATTOO, and this review is based only on the book as it appeared in English in the United States. [-dls]
QUEEN OF THE SUN: WHAT ARE THE BEES TELLING US? (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A documentary with style and substance looks at the crisis of spreading Colony Collapse Disorder. Taggart Siegel beautifully films as well as directs this study of the relationship of honeybees and humans and looks at the disastrous implications of this crisis, which could endanger the world population of bees and its 150,000,000-year-old symbiosis with pollinating plants. That would be a disaster for our population as well as theirs. Siegel's film is an education on bees and their relation with humans, shown with beautiful photographic color as well as creative animation. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Some documentaries have a specific set of facts and a point of view to present to the audience and the presentation is very straightforward with little more art than Fox News uses to present the news. Taggart Siegel's film QUEEN OF THE SUN is more than a matter-of-fact statement of the case that the world's population of bees is in danger from the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. It is a rich artistic statement, a beautiful study in amber, telling of the mystical relationship between humans and bees. It makes its case in any way it can, using arguments from art, from science, and from mysticism.
Rock paintings 15,000 years old show our ancestors honey-gathering. Humans have kept beehives since ancient history. Ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome immortalized their fascination with bees, carving their images in stone, going back to ancient history. Yet beekeeping today is suffering a mysterious disaster never seen in the history of this activity. Beekeepers will visit a hive that was hours before thriving and find that all the worker bees have deserted the hive and simply disappeared. As the problem has been spreading over the United States and Europe there is a serious fear that we may lose all our bees. That is no exaggeration. In the US alone five million bee colonies have just mysteriously gone missing. That would be a planet-wide disaster.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of the honeybee to the human way of life. The majority of fruits and vegetables we eat come from plant species that could not pollinate without the honeybee. The plant species would simply go extinct and we would be left with little more to eat than grains and potatoes. Our diets would become pallid and what food we could get would be expensive.
Siegel's film is a joy to watch as he shows us how bees are used (and frequently abused) by humans. Much of what he tells us has a mystical basis and it is illustrated with arresting images of bees at work. There are frequent animated illustrations, each with a different style of animation. We see that once each year a large proportion of the kept bees are loaded on big tractor-trailer trucks and carried to California to pollinate the almond groves. If 20% of the almond country land was devoted to just a few crops of the plants that sustain the bee, bees would not have to be shipped in. Today almond pollination is a major source of income for some industrialized beekeepers, but it badly stresses the bees.
Including testimony of beekeepers, ecologists, and farmers, as well as artists, the film makes a plea for conservation of the bees and for use of traditional bee keeping methods that have worked for thousands of years. It also is asks for more reasonable laws for beekeepers. While the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder are not known, Siegel argues for protection of bees from indiscriminate use of pesticides and from monoculture factory-farming--the growing of one single crop over a wide area. Other dangers discussed are genetic engineering of crops and artificial insemination of queens in the engineered hives.
Siegel has given us an exquisite textured film. I rate QUEEN OF THE SUN a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. It opens in New York on June 10, and in Los Angeles once week later.
I think the Siegel's case is weakened by its inclusion of people dressed in bee and flower costumes. The key image of the film is a never-explained image of a woman dancing covered with bees. The more empiricist viewer will be unimpressed by its use of the predictions of mystic and esotericist Rudolf Steiner. Steiner drew many bizarre and confirmable conclusions in the fields of spiritualism and metaphysics, most of which are unknowable or certainly not verifiable. His forecasts of bee population problems have no more credibility than the predictions of Nostradamus or Charles Fort. Steiner's suggestion of bee collapse is probably no more than a curious coincidence, and Siegel's use of Steiner makes questionable his case.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1645852/
What others are saying: http://tinyurl.com/queen-of-the-sun
3D Movies (letters of comment by Daniel Kimmel, Kip Williams, and Paul Dormer):
In response to Mark's comments on 3D movies in the 06/03/11 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes:
I agree with Mark on 3D films and am hoping he is right and that the tide is turning, but we'll have to wait and see. Hollywood-- and theater owners--like the higher ticket prices and so they continue to push it but, if PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES is any indication, moviegoers may be voting with their feet. (I've heard anecdotal evidence regarding other films as well.)
If you have not already seen this, you should check out Roger Ebert's blog where he quotes Walter Murch on why the 3D fad will ultimately fail. He provides the scientific underpinnings to the argument as to why this isn't working:
You have to distinguish between people who wanted a 3D experience and people who want movies to be in 3D. If they wanted a 3D experience they have probably had it by now and will not be buying many 3D tickets from this point forward. Every 3D movie competes with every other 3D movie for them. By now there is not a whole lot of reason to buy yet another 3D ticket. If on the other hand you want movies to be in 3D you want as many films as possible to be in 3D like some people want films to be in color you will keep buying 3D. I bet what has happened is a lot of people wanted the 3D experience, had it, and don't want to keep paying for it with each ticket. [-mrl]
Kip Williams writes:
I was a huge 3D fan for years, and would go to some effort to see 3D revivals, and wished I could see more. Now they're all over, and I skip most of them. We went to KUNG-FU PANDA 2 at a "flat" showing, and liked it fine. I'd see it in 3D if the opportunity arose. I get a sort of kick out of seeing old 3D stuff on TV-- flat, of course. The Three Stooges (the 3D Stooges!) made some shorts that way, and you can always spot them by seeing Shemp approach the camera with two fingers ready to poke you, the viewer, in the eyes. [-kw]
Paul Dormer adds:
Seem to recall going to a number of 3D films in the seventies, but they were often horror or porn, and I don't like horror.
But I did go to the cinema for the first time in about a year last month and that film was in 3D. But I went because it was a documentary about the German choreographer Pina Bausch, not because it was in 3D. [-pd]
See also Ebert's newest entry:
Coffee (letters of comment by Kip Williams, Jette Goldie, and David Harmon):
In response to Mark's comments on Kopi Luwak in the 06/03/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
They found the things in the wild to begin with. God knows what was on the mind of the first person to brew the beans. "Coffee! Coffee! Gotta have coffeecoffeecoffee! Wait... what's that...?" [-kw]
Jette Goldie adds:
According to one story I heard the plantation owners had forbidden the locals and workers to use any of the coffee beans they picked, but the beans that the critters stole and ... excreted ... were considered "fair game". But yeah, that's pretty desperate! [-jg]
I'd go so far as to call it execrable. [-kw]
And David Harmon adds:
That meets David Friedman's criteria for a story good enough to survive regardless of veracity, and therefore less credible. [-dh]
Sholem Aleichem and Dr. Demento (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's review of SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARK in the 06/03/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Sholem Aleichem: A well-chosen nom. He gets free advertising from old Max Fleischer cartoons!
Mark responds, "I know of only one Fleischer cartoon that has the greeting 'Sholom Aleichem.' I am not sure if that is what you are referring to." [-mrl]
And in response to comments on tuna brands and "Wet Dream" in the same issue, Kip writes:
God, I hate "Wet Dream". For me, it marked the beginning of the end for my ability to unreservedly enjoy Dr. Demento. I used to listen with pleasure to the crazy old stuff he'd bring in, but then people started recording junk in the hopes he'd play it--I blame Weird Al, for making it look easy, when in fact it took craftsmanship most of them lacked--and eventually the old novelty records got squeezed out by disc jockeys who figured they could be funny by replacing all the nouns in some song with the names of fish. (That's how I put it at the time, compressing several horrid genres into one complaint. Adotta probably wasn't a disk jockey, and it wasn't a song.) It just wasn't funny, especially the third time they played it, when the little voice said, "You know this isn't the last time. Or even the fifth to last." [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE CHESS MACHINE by Robert Löhr (ISBN 978-1-59420-126-4) is a novel about Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing "Mechanical Turk". In 2003, I reviewed Tom Standage's THE TURK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE FAMOUS EIGHTEENTH CENTURY CHESS-PLAYING MACHINE. That was a non-fiction account of the Turk; Löhr as written a novel based on the same event. (Löhr does indicate in the author's notes the major liberties he has taken with the story.) It's okay enough, I suppose, but nothing special, and Standage's book is a better introduction to the subject.
Having just watched a documentary on Sholem Aleichem, and a Russian silent film, JEWISH LUCK, which was based on one of his Menahem- Mendl stories, I decided I should read THE ADVENTURES OF MENAHEM- MENDL by Sholom Aleichem (translated by Tamara Kahana) (no ISBN). Menahem-Mendl is the ultimate schlemiel--everything he puts his hand to turns to lead. He tries to speculate in currency, and loses everything. He dabbles in stocks, and loses everything. And so on. All of these are very topical--he writes long explanations of buying stocks on margin to his wife, to whom it makes no sense, and frankly, it is not clear it makes sense to us either. And his description of speculation on houses sounds distressingly familiar: "You probably imagine that in Yehupetz you buy a place to live in, the way you do in Kasrilevka. Well, you're mistaken. When you buy a house here in Yehupetz, you immediately carry it over to a bank and get money for it; then you mortgage it and again get some money; then you rent the apartments and get some more money. In short, you buy a house without spending a single penny, and you become a houseowner painlessly." Or as Qoheleth says, "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A man is not honest simply because he never had a chance to steal. --Yiddish Proverb
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