Strangeness in the world (even stranger than politics!)

Let’s take a break and veer back to the non-political world. First: some Sci Fi or Brinian news. 

In one of my best and most professionally edited interviews, UC Riverside offers this excellent TV-style podcast, On the Science Fiction Barometer, covering everything from hope to cynicism to the purpose and effectiveness of science fiction. A really nice presentation. “If you want to test your ability as a writer, to keep the action and interest and intellect…and empathy all going at the same time, while building a world and dealing with ideas and issues —  I think you’re pretty much behooved to write science fiction. We science fiction authors, we poke at the universe. It’s our job to stimulate these frontal lobes where humans perform ‘thought experiments’ ….that the Bible may have referenced as the ‘lamps’ on our brow…” 

Science fiction authors time travel back to 1662 to pose for Rembrandt? In “Sci-Fi Masters” Hugo nominated Artist Alan F. Beck has re-imagined The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild with authors Greg Bear, Stephen Baxter, Mike Resnick, Neal Stephenson, Joe Haldeman, and David Brin. Honored to be in such company! Should we try for a re-enactment at the next World Con…. ?

== Space Stuff! == 

In the well it’s about time department. The “NanoTHOR” project aims to connect small satellites with upper rocket stages by using miles-long tethers, so that the rocket stages can spin the satellites around like Thor’s hammer. NASA awarded the idea $100,000 from its Innovative Advanced Concepts program to begin running computer simulations and figure out a hardware design. “Using a few tricks, we could get that system spinning so the rocket upper stage could swing the nanosatellite out of Earth’s orbit and on to the moon or an interplanetary trajectory,” said Robert Hoyt, CEO and chief scientist of Tethers Unlimited Inc.

This is a worthy venture for NIAC to support, and the company was founded by the late Robert Forward.  On the other hand, this method of using tethers has problems, needing a counterweight you can hurl back into the atmosphere while flinging your payload upward. And it is single impulse, use once. Also, at least the first experiment will simply duplicate the SEDS success of Tether Applications inc from 1984.

A better, and more general use of tethers is illustrated both in the first chapter of Existence and in my story “Tank Farm Dynamo.” Electrodynamic tethers can be continuous, self-correcting and manipulable over extended periods as the tether & cargo rise up through the extended realm of electrical connectivity we call the Van Allen belts.

Warp drive may be easier than we think, claim scientists at the Johnson Space Center.  Well. To say I am skeptical is to minimize…

 == Fascinating Miscellany == 

The New World: The New York Times offers a fascinating article about how “new countries” might rise or split off or consolidate in the next decade.  Some of them (e.g. Somaliland and Pashtunistan) you probably have heard of only in one other place before this.  

This little art piece attempts to portray 1000 years of war in 5 minutesIt is kind of nifty to watch, but not always for the reasons the makers intended. The thing is terribly inaccurate in the scaling of the battles and in its excessive focus (especially for the first 500 years) on Europe.  More careful research would have shown the fighting that raged across Eurasia during the millennium in question.  In fact, I’d have used rampant flickers of background color to depict the incessant tribal wars and raiding that were endemic in peaceful looking Americas and Africa.  Nor should the few recent (past 1945) wars have been amplified into Stalingrad-level horrors, when in fact even the Arab Israeli conflicts were like skirmish spats compared to WWII battles.  If all of these things were done, then this show would graphically teach an entirely different (though much more accurate) lesson than the makers probably intended.  The lesson proved in Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  The lesson that we are getting better!  That it’s not hopeless.  That it is possible fur humanity to improve.  Too slowly, perhaps!  But improve we certainly have. 

And now some guardedly (if controversially) positive messaging. Former Microsoft VP and Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold talks about how real entrepreneurs should not stop doing it (taking risks) when they get rich. They should instead use a part of their wealth to get bolder, riskier, with even more far-seeing tech-pioneering ventures! He gives one example, a joint endeavor to develop a new nuclear power system using today’s 700,000 ton mountain of depleted Uranium.   

Nathan is a controversial figure, having built one of the biggest Intellectual Property consolidation sites.  The pro and con arguments can get pretty extreme… but fascinating.  Still, in his call for the tech rich to keep entrepreneuring, he makes great points. We need to prevent oligarchy. But just SHORT of oligarchy is a sweet spot, where guys like Buffet and Gates and Myrhvold and Musk and Bezos choose NOT to concentrate on inherited aristocracy, but on having huge fun, taking risks that no government could dare to try.  (And some philanthropy as well, of course.  But I will accept bold innovations that solve big problems as coming under that realm.) 

Marc Prensky’s new book BRAIN GAIN: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom is for educators… and citizens interested in education… who want to learn more about how new technologies will transform schools and teaching in the future. Put off by early, failed promises, many people look with cynicism upon such promises.  They have given up on the promise too soon!  A wave of new opportunities is coming.  A wave that will transform how children and adults learn.   

Fascinating.  An anonymous set of donors has offered to pay for college (in Michigan) for any student in Kalamazoo high schools who graduates and gets ready to move on. Preliminary signs suggest optimism in the goal of not only inspiring kids to stay in school but revitalizing the community.  

A bizarre exercise in persistent performace theater… or “tweetater” (TM)… See Tweets from World War Two.  

Lots of mystery construction at the White House. My longstanding suggestion? Trench Potomac Avenue, so that the famous street can be re-opened to traffic, restoring some productivity to congested Washington.  A genuine economic boost would result, and dangerous vehicles or trucks would pass near the White House below ground level, effectively immunizing the area against any normal blast. Yes, the mysterious underground warren might have to be shifted a bit.  But hey, my idea could might offer a great excuse for more digging! 

This repudiation of stereotypes and bigoted expectations... by a young Sikh woman with facial hair — really put a fool in his place.  Very moving exchange on Reddit.  

A cool site about Home Made Tools collects and points to how-to tutorials on the web from folks making their own tools. They range from simple hammers to complex lathes. It could be a fine addition to the burgeoning Maker Movement.  Another compilation center is run by the inimitable Kevin Kelly.

And while we’re on the subject of home-crafts! Steve Martin in one of the strangest political ads ever. 

== And some final sci fic notes == 

An Etopia News video interview about Existence is now online. As well as YouTube videos of me reading Chapter One of Existence, and Aficionado: Chapter Two of Existence.

If you follow the news at all, you’ve probably seen Paul Krugman — Princeton professor, New York Times columnist, and Nobel Prize-winning economist — championing the idea that government spending can lift us out of the economic crisis. What you may not know is that Krugman is also a huge science fiction fan. (He reads my stuff, as well as Charlie Stross.) 

My friend (and collaborator in a coming novel) Jeff Carlson has 
just self-pubbed a novel called The Frozen Sky based his ridiculously successful short story of the same name.  Here’s a blog on “SF Signal” on the reasons why. “Something is alive inside Jupiter’s ice moon Europa. Robot probes find an ancient tunnel beneath the surface, its walls carved with strange hieroglyphics. Led by elite engineer Alexis Vonderach, a team of scientists descends into the dark… where they confront a savage race older than mankind.” Terrific stuff!  

A treat – a Q&A session with and among three top British sci fi authors on Google Hangout. Banks, Hamilton, Reynolds. Cool ideas from the hard SF guys of the UK. Way fun riffs by great writers and cool guys!

And finally… Warren Ellis is best known for scripting comics. Gruff and cynical, with a liking for the things that lurk in the dark unseemly corners of our culture: How to See the Future:

“Use the rear view mirror for its true purpose. If I were sitting next to you twenty-five years ago, and you heard a phone ring, and I took out a bar of glass and said, sorry, my phone just told me it’s got new video of a solar flare, you’d have me sectioned in a flash. Use the rear view mirror to imagine telling someone just twenty five years ago about GPS. This is the last generation in the Western world that will ever be lost. LifeStraws. Synthetic biology. Genetic sequencing. SARS was genetically sequenced within 48 hours of its identification. I’m not even touching the web, wifi, mobile broadband, cloud computing, electronic cigarettes…

Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.”



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