Saturday, February 27, 2010

Down the Freedom of Choice Rabbit Hole

(Picture from here.)

I've been thinking about the bible panel from the Friday night Boskone (see here) a bit. The more I think on it, the more important it seems to me a response I didn't make. This was the thought in response to the idea that moral authority had to derive from a a higher power.

The more I think about it the more I think that this is the fundamental problem I have with religion. And, I think, it is a problem that religion has with itself. My understanding of Islam and the more eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) are much more limited.

Here's the rub.

Christianity (and to different extent Judaism) is all about free will-- the freedom to make a moral decision. The freedom to make the right choice and, by extension, the wrong choice. Determining the nature of the rightness or wrongness of the choice is inherent in the freedom to make the right choice-- if there is no inherent analysis of the nature of the choice, there is no freedom to make the moral decision.

There's no inherent moral decision in whether or not the choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream. There is only personal preference that is independent of morality.

Investing divine authority in the choice ("rightness" being defined as following a particular moral code as handed down by God) weights the choice. If one believes in the reality of the divine authority, there is no freedom of choice; there is only evasion from responsibility. If God himself hands down kosher laws, then not following them is evading the contract-- no different than evading the contract with a car dealer or a mortgage house. Divine authority can elevate the contract to sacred status-- in point of fact, the contractual relationship between God and man in the Torah considerably raises man's status from supplicant to junior colleague-- but the very presence of divine authority reduces the significance of the moral choice.

To be sure, finding the right choice isn't easy. The Talmud is a record of the discussions of very, very smart men trying to figure out the essential right choice as implied, but not explicitly stated, in the Torah. The fact that the Talmud is many times larger than the Torah is no accident. Living the right way is not for the faint of heart.

But because of the avowed divine nature of the material, the first moral decision must be to accept or deny that divine origin. Accepting pushes the moral decisions into the complex dance of how to fit in and find the right path within the framework of divine will as expressed in a poorly understood manuscript. Is slavery an ethical institution? It's in the bible. Should adultery and homosexuality be punished by death? What is metaphorical example and what is deliberate edict?

My experience with Christianity takes it to a different level. If the New Testament is revelation of divine will, how is it to be reconciled with the previous version of the divine contract? If you thought Talmudic convolutions were complex, now we're in the position of reconciling the metaphorical examples and the deliberate edicts of two completely different personalities. The Old Testament was largely concerned with governing your behavior. The New Testament is more concerned with governing your mind. There is a huge amount of literature that is chiefly concerned with taking "prophecies" in the Old Testament and showing how they were fulfilled in the New Testament.

(My own inclination is to say that if it's not considered a prophecy by the authors-- and in a lot of these references I would argue the purpose of the quote is clear in the context-- it's not a prophecy at all. And, furthermore, if the author in the text says clearly what he's referring to, it's bad revisionist history to change it. But that's just me.)

Even so, once the divine authority of the text is accepted-- in even in the broken metaphorical way some modern scholars have managed-- it reframes the nature of the moral decision from what is the right thing to do into what have I been told is the right thing to do.

Denying divine authority pushes moral decision out into a new and unknown desert.

Out here in the scrub lands we have to decide what is the right thing to do without any other guidance than human beings. Is it enough to follow the herd? What is the personal cost of trying something new? What do I have to lose? My family? My children? The divine contract becomes the social contract, renegotiated every generation. Perhaps this is what Jefferson meant when he said "Every generation needs a new revolution." (See here.) It's the nature of revolution to look at things anew and not accept unchallenged what has been stated before-- divine or otherwise.

Moral decisions take on a new dimension if the only person deciding the nature of morality is the person acting on it.

"I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!"
-- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol

Friday, February 26, 2010

Wall of Idiots

(Picture from here.)

Usually, I let the Wall of Idiots speak for themselves. But it's been a while, I'm bored and there are a lot of them.

First, let's not forget state lawmakers as they attack evolution and climate change. As always, Texas school board also has its spirit deep in the heart of denial. To put another nail in the coffin of those in denial, here is an analysis of Darwin's Dilemma, the latest anti-evolution screed.

Judge Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, decided that it was okay to put a Muslim man on probation after he broke another man's jaw because he was religiously devout.

Tea baggers supporting Scott Brown are a bit disappointed that since he campaigned as an independent thinker he might, actually be independent.

The Arizona legislature has decided Obama needs to produce his birth certificate. The fact that he has does not sway them. None of them appear to have volunteered their own.

Kudos to Northwestern University for inviting Blagovitch to a panel on ethics in government.

More kudos to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) for voting for the passage of the same jobs bill he had not voted to end cloture on.

The American electorate gets their own little award for voting in people to solve the problem by magic.

Deregulated airlines also get their own since they sure can't get an award for quality.

Finally, here's a fact check on the pre-hype of the health care summit: Here. Here.

The health care debate is so steeped a battle of sound bites that it's hard to discuss without exploding.

However, people rarely actually talk about what insurance actually is. They talk about government take over, death panels, and a lot of other lies.

Insurance is a hedge against catastrophe. It works on a pool. Everybody puts in a bit of money when they are in a position to against the time when they can't. Life insurance works this way. Automobile insurance works this way. Social security works this way to some degree. And, believe it or not, health insurance works this way, too. If you have a hundred people, the chances are that some of them are going to get sick. Everybody pays in and the money goes to the sick ones.

So, if you always stay healthy, you don't need insurance, right? That would be correct if you had any idea of your chances. The fact of the matter is that such things are random-- and therefore cannot be individually predicted. You can smoke and drink and live to 100 but the chances are against it. You can avoid smoking and drinking and die next week. Insurance is a hedge against randomness. Health insurance is a hedge against the random elements of being sick.

The next thing is that the larger the pool, the greater the probability of a majority of healthy people. This means that the premiums, shared against the entire pool, will be less. If you have a lot of sick people in your pool, which happens if the pool gets drained of healthy people, the premiums go up. Solution? Get as big a pool as possible and keep people in it.

That's called national health insurance and it works fine everywhere in the world where it is used.

Somewhere along the line this basic understanding of what insurance actually is has been dropped from the debate.
Links of Interest
50 weird animals
New space engines
Storage of carbon using hydrogen
Simulations of a black hole
People of Wal Mart
Fail blog
V: Paper wars

Floor planner software
Liberty Tool Company
Snow Nash
Child dome tent

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Boskone 47, Sunday Afternoon

Sunday 2pm Werewolves (and Other Shapeshifters): Finally Getting the Respect They Deserve? Steven Popkes, Moderator
Leah Cypess
Adam Golaski

We got into Ovid and metaphorical shape shifting almost instantly. The notes became moot.


1) Werewolves are shapechangers by any other name. The difference, surprisingly articulated in Harry Potter, shapechangers are voluntary and werewolves are not. Might the pain of transformation reflect the lack of choice?

2) However, this has always seemed to me to be an arbitray distinction. Teen Wolf was somewhat voluntary. My own story, Stegosaurus Boy, was semi-voluntary. Sort of like teen erections. Usually, they happen on demand but not always.

3) Vampires have gone through an evolution. Starting from the original stock, Bramus stokesaurus, they radiated in their niche (Belus lugosi, Christophus hammeri) until finally they reached commodity status. (Twilightus rediculosi)

Vampires are rehabiltated sexy zombies. Zombies radiated successfully.

What's in store for werewolves? Will they face the same commoditization that vampires and zombies have seen? Twilight of the Werewolves? World War W?

4) Two veins (heh) of werewolves: inherited and infected. Infected follow the same issues as zombies and vampires. Inherited reflects degraded shamanism. (Leguine, the wizard who liked becoming a bear so much only the bear remained and he killed his own son.)

5) Werewolf as wendigo.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Boskone 47, Saturday Afternoon

Important News Bulletin.
We interrupt this blog to give you an important news bulletin. Steven Popkes goes live on the Book View Cafe today. Here is BVC. Here's his bookshelf.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

Saturday 4pm Graphic Novels, Film Audio, Web Comics, +!? - Different Ways to Tell the Story

Bruce Coville, Moderator
Steven Popkes
Everett Soares
Rene Walling
Jane Yolen

I was the least qualified person on this panel and didn't have a lot to contribute. But I got to sit next to Jane. That was enough.


1) Visual medium vs. read medium vs. aural medium
(films/comics vs. prose vs. podcast)

2) Linear medium vs. non-linear medium.
(prose stories vs. hypertext vs. firesign theater)

3) Medium of narrative discovery vs. Medium of reader experience.
(The story is told to the reader vs. the reader discovers the story through his choices. story vs. gaming)

4) Some things just work better visually: comic book material works best visually, in comics and film. Doesn't work so well in print. Some comics, imho, don't work as film.

5) Theater of Images, The Theater and Its Double, Antonin Artaud. Does primal material work best visually vs. intellectual material work best in prose?
Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman
Logicomix, Apostolos Doxiadis
Masterpiece Comics,
Berlin, Jason Lutes
Maus, Art Spiegelman

5) Plot conservatism of material versus cost of production. Cheap production means radical thought. Which is why we should be looking to cheap print production (or internet produced reading materials) for radical departures. Why haven't we seen it in prose? We HAVE seen it in webcomics.

6) Scott McCloud's books.

7) Rule 34.1: If it exists, there is a webcomic containing it:

Steampunk: Girl Genius
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Something Positive
Zombies: Dead Winter, Raising Hell
What happened to the Midwich Cuckoos: Freakangels
What happened when Vesuvius blew up: SPQR Blues
Witches vs. 1984: Heart Shaped Skull
Absurd, self involved characters: Nerf This, among others
Absurd Advice to the lovelorn vampire: Ask Dr. Eldritch
Absurd nastiness: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Absurd science fiction: Life on Forbez
Absurd mathematics and physics: XKCD
Absurd mathematics, physics and art: Dresden Codak
Absurd Japanese gaming: Megatokyo
Absurd Wartime medieval Japan: No Need for Bushido
Absurd pre-history: Dawn of Time
Absurd Highlander: Platinum Grit

8) webcomics section under interest. About 100. However, I have many more that I have glanced at but not investigated.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

BVC Intro

Here's my BVC intro. Cross posted here.

Check out the Book View Cafe. I'll be live on it tomorrow.

I'm a new addition at BVC as of tomorrow, 2/22/2010. I must introduce myself-- something I'm not very good at.

I always liked the beginning of Joe Haldeman's Mindbridge: "I was conceived sometime in the spring of 2024. We'll skip the next eighteen years or so."

I think a person's history is less interesting than what they do.

With that, I--

  1. Play as good a piano as can a person with great ambition and no talent.
  2. Build things of wood, usually for a purpose, such as furniture or insulation systems.
  3. Build things of metal, usually for no purpose, such as Stirling engines and mechanical toys.
  4. Garden and grow fruit-- I make terrible wine. By the gallon.
  5. Read, constantly.
  6. Think, always. Curiously often on evolution.
  7. Implement software to control machines. Sometimes rockets.
  8. Pilot small airplanes
  9. Help raise a young man.
  10. Write science fiction and fantasy.

The last concerns the Book View Cafe but the preceding entries inform it.

If I had two regrets they would be: I haven't traveled enough or learned enough physics.

That pretty much covers the essentials about me.

The stories have to stand on their own so I won't talk about them much. Sometimes they have interesting stories associated with them-- the Tom Kelly house of Tom Kelley's Ghost does exist. We live in it. But as far as I know he was not involved in an abortive robbery or knew Mayor Curley.

My web site is here. My non-BVC blog is here.

I'll be blogging here every other Sunday. Some about writing. Some about science. Some about mantis shrimp-- as clear an indication as could be that we've been invaded by aliens.

Should be fun.

Steven Popkes is a new writer at the Book View Cafe. Learn more about him at his bookshelf.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Boskone 47, Saturday Morning

SF/Mainstream Convergence?
James Patrick Kelly, Moderator
Kathryn Cramer
Steven Popkes
Vandana Singh
Melinda Snodgrass

What's interesting about this subject is not topic but the opinions held. This panel is all about boundaries, who's in favor of keeping them, who's in favor of abolishing them. Whether the boundaries are marketing ploys, whether they reflect a difference in audiences, etc.


1) Convergence can only be good: We get Michael Chabon/The Yiddish Policemen's Union, they get Robert Jordan/The Wheel of Time. We get Salman Rushdie/The Satanic Verses. They get Terry Brooks/The Sword of Shannara.

2) Convergence seems to run only with fantasy. SF novels, by and large, remain genre-fied.

3) Robert F Jones/Blood Sport, Salman Rushdie's first novel, John Gardner/Grendel

4) The big danger of a genre is commoditization. At that point we all engage in a race to the bottom.

5) Genre writing is often safe writing. But much of the fantasy that is coming out of mainstream is edgy and often of higher quality.

6) Genre fiction shows lack of nerve. Chabon, for example, imagines a world without a Holocaust and shows us that many of the things would still be the same. Alternate world stories try to tell us what will be different, neglecting or ignoring that which will be the same. Turtledove's reimagining of R. E. Lee, for example, turning into an apologia for Lee.

7) Tom Disch suggested that SF/Fantasy was really children's literature in disguise. The emphasis on individual revolution, Good and Evil, and clean resolutions.

8) The word "comfort" fiction was bandied about. An analogy to "chocolate" was used. I don't think fiction should be comfortable. Or, perhaps, I find discomfiting fiction comfortable. Fiction should change the reader in interesting and/or profound ways. When we engage in "comfortable" fiction we create the opportunity for commoditization. Then, it's back to the race to the bottom. The "bottom" being sf/fantasy being sold as a commodity for a unit price like beans, peas or pornography.

9) Science Fiction may be becoming less popular than Fantasy since it requires the reader to at least be science literate. Something we're losing these days. A far cry from when Theodore Sturgeon was included in the best short stories of the year for The Man Who Lost the Sea.

10) New term: Revisionist Aesthetics. When we change what we think is good because of marketing or other means of popular voting.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book View Cafe's Shadow Conspiracy in SFSignal Giveaway

As some of you know, I'm now a member of the Book View Cafe, an author's cooperative. is giving away two copies of the BVC e-book, The Shadow Conspiracy, a steampunk anthology from Book View Press. The Shadow Conspiracy is a collection of stories set on alternative earth, a place powered by steam and magic. This world of dreamers, experimenters and engineers, soulless humans and ensouled machines was born of most unlikely parents: four poets who gathered one cold summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816.

All-new and never-before-seen, these stories explore the unfolding consequences of that gathering — and how it changed everything we thought we knew about science and ourselves. Contributors include Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Sarah Zettel, Steven Harper, Pati Nagle, Jennifer Stevenson, Nancy Jane Moore, Brenda Clough, Judith Tarr, and Irene Radford. Editors are Phyllis Irene Radford and Laura Anne Gilman.

Available Formats include PDF, EPUB, Mobi, .prc, .lrf, and .lit.

For a chance to win a free copy, visit the SFSignal contest page:

Contest ends Wednesday, February 24, 11pm US Central Time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Boskone 47 Notes, Friday Night

(Picture from here.)

Friday 8pm Biblical Themes and Religion in Genre Fiction

Jeff Carver, Moderator
Walter Hunt
Dani Kollin
Steven Popkes
Margaret Ronald

A good panel. Jeff did a wonderful job of moderating. There were several remarks about how respectful of religion the panel was-- which meant my tongue was bleeding a couple of times. Of course, my cynical side might say that all of the trouble with the Danish cartoons might have had an influence.

I was surprised by how many self-professed practicing Christians there were in both the panel and the audience.

I didn't respond to one statement made by Dani Kollin. He pointed out that he accepted the point of view that humans needed a moral code brought down from a higher power. My immediate response was that this was exactly what humans did not need. That, in fact, this idea was the most harmful aspect of religion because it gave inappropriate credibility and power to one moral code over another. I felt that moral codes had to be achieved through negotiation-- how else to get those that burned out the Danish offices to back off since they were, in fact, fulfilling their moral code.

But I didn't want to derail the conversation.


1) Multiple bibles. We tend to treat the local bible (Hebrew/Christian bible) as *the* bible and others as mythology. E.g., Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man vs. Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light.

2) Vast difference between pov of Hebraic bible and New Testament. Colleague relationship vs. submission. Jesus on the cross vs. Moses pursuading God not to give up on the Hebrews.

3) Bible stories are still useful fodder: Job, Archibald MacLeish. Fable for Savior and Reptile. Norman Mailer's rewrite of the New Testament. James Morrow. Stephen Brust's To Reign in Hell. The Sparrow, Russel. Hyperion, Simmons. East of Eden, Steinbeck. Some of Neil Gaiman's work.

4) Cultural or local bible stories (as opposed to mythological bible stories) presume familiarity with the root material. A play about Job (MacLeish) presupposes the audience is familiar with the material and plays with, either in opposition or support, with the original material. Neil Gaiman. James Morrow. Lamb (Christopher Moore) does this also.

5) Mythological bible stories (i.e., Lord of Light) use the mythology either as explicit metaphor or as a voyage of discovery. (Tim Powers. John Crowley.)

6) Is "the bible", either culturalor mythological, a means to explore the mechanism of religion? (James Blish, Case of Conscience. Cordwainer Smith, Akhnaton, etc.) Is religion a good material for investigation? What does it say about humans that most humans on the planet have a religion of some sort?

7) Are the different bibles a means to investigate different religious approaches?

8) What stories in the (local) bible are good material?
Zacharias (Firesign movie equates Z to Siddhartha.)
Moses (Zora Neale Hurston, Man of the Mountain)
Esau (of Jacob and Esau)
Sin and Redemption

9) Issues with depictions of biblical pop morality and actual biblical morality-- actual morality can vary according to when that portion of the bible was written. Some of it is quite cruel.

10) Dawkins has stated (documented in TEDTalks) that his activism was triggered by 9/11 which, as he sees it, was a religious act. He's done with fundamentalism.

11) Erik the Generic Cleric-- I think I can attribute that one to Margaret Ronald.

12) Red Dwarf: There must be a machine heaven. Where do all the pocket calculators go?

Wall of Idiots

Links of Interest

Thursday, February 11, 2010

News on the Home Front

(Picture from here.)

I was at Boskone last weekend. I have my notes from the panels and will be putting them up.

But I'm talking today on an item of news. My material is going to be hosted over at the Book View Cafe starting next Monday (2/22). The first story will be Tom Kelley's Ghost which first appeared in F&SF some years ago.

I will also be blogging on the site every other Sunday starting this coming Sunday (2/21).

So. Drop on by. Put your feet up-- not there. Over on the ottoman.

Wall of Idiots

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How Science Works

(Picture from here. Original material here.)

The drawing at left is a good visualization of how science works. The original material (second link above) expands that idea and is interactive to show how the different pieces work.

But it brings up something that I think a lot of people don't understand about science. Science is really an extension of critical thinking which also uses a similar approach. Central to science is testing ideas in the real world. This is probably the most important piece of things.

A component of testing is reproducibility. It's not enough that the test works. You have to make it work again. A good example of how this operates is polywater. Polywater was a bit thing in the 1960s: a form of water with an increased boiling point and viscous properties. It's one of the sources for Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. Some attempts at reproducing polywater succeeded; some failed. Here lies one of the basic tenets of a scientific paper: the materials and methods section. Not only does a scientist publish the hypothesis, results and conclusion, he must also publish how he did it.

After a while, it was deduced that polywater was a result of contamination. Another round tightly controlled research was unable to reproduce polywater. Subsequent investigation showed the polywater was anything but pure water and the original researcher retracted his conclusion.

The system worked but it worked over about a decade.

The anti-vaccine is another and much more insidious example of popular culture looking at a tiny fraction of science that might connect to previous bias or fear and then holding on to it beyond the point where it is disproved. (See here.)

Critical thinking about the world is, I think, crucial to being a good citizen. That means understanding how critical thinking works and, because it is so important, how science works. Scientific consensus does change-- case in point the role of genes and inheritance. A generation ago, genes were considered the sole source of anything inheritable. Then, a whole lot of junk DNA was found in the genome sequencing project. Then, a lot of that "junk" turned out not to be junk at all. Then, it was discovered that DNA expression in offspring could be modified by a mother's behavior prior to conception.

The Popkes Maxim: If you're looking at something and it looks simple, you've probably not analyzed it sufficiently.

The DNA discoveries did not invalidate previous facts; they shed light and extended previous facts. One of the side effects of this research was to discover yet another way that evolution works. Yet, people who don't understand how this works took much of the research and decided it disproved evolution.

Even the language of the debate shows this lack of understanding. Think how many times the following sentence has been said in the evolution debate:

"Do you believe in evolution?"

As if science is a matter of opinion or faith. It is not. It's like saying, "Do you believe in lightning?" "Do you believe in the ocean?" "Do you believe in lobsters?"

You might say: "Do you believe epigenetic inheritance is significant in the evolution of large scale physiological structures?"

And that question might be answered:

"Yes: the epigenetic evidence can have a significant impact on selection pressure, exposing specific physiological systems to more direct selection pressure. We'll have to see how the data goes."


"No: the epigenetic evidence is interesting but not sufficient to have any more specific selection pressure on different physiological systems. We'll have to see how the data goes."

This is not a question of belief but informed opinion based on evidence and facts. People disagree on conclusions all the time.

It's the evidence that will set you free.
Wall of Idiots
Nevada politicians
MMR vaccine study repudiated. Finally.

Links of Interest
Evil fairies battle insects and here
Evil robots
Social robots
Robots and the uncanny valley
The future of humanoid robots
Origin of eucaryotes
Razzle dazzle camouflage
The Hobbit's small brain
Human evolution in the genome
Barefoot running
Development and the Bonobos
Energy teleportation
More on the NASA reboot
V: Jon Stewart on O'Reilly
V: Jon Stewart on Obama
V: Rex the Dog
V: Water rocket awesomeness
V: Seeing radio waves
Composite metal foam
Visual language for designers

The Carpenter's Tool Chest
Tenon cheating
The arc light. And here.
Thing a day
Musical instrument a day
Quick vacuum pump
Fleece hat
Survival bracelet

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Politics of Problem Domains

(Picture from here.)

I ranted yesterday on Obama's new budget. There are some additional links and analysis and the actual budget in the Links of Interest section below.

I want to continue that rant a bit. Not because I think it will change anything-- that ship is clearly sailed. There are many articles discussing how Constellation is going to be shut down. The budget is cunningly built to ease the pain-- a high speed rail to Tampa to make the loss of shuttle workers more palatable. As if Tampa needed high speed rail.

I'm beginning to see a larger issue here.

In technical organizations, my preferred environment for the last thirty years, there is often the technical solution to the management problem. We'll use software or other technical mechanisms to substitute for bad management.

I'm beginning to think that these days we have management solutions to what is in reality engineering problems. Going to the moon, climate change, transportation infrastructure, etc.-- these are not management or political problems. They are technical problems. They are engineering problems. It is the determination of which technical problem to address and the parameters to work within that should be decided politically. A political system has problems managing issues that extend beyond the election cycle-- this is why we have agencies and bureaucracies. It's their job to act as frequency dampeners to the complex wave form of politics.

Since we are no longer a technical society-- Hell, we have difficult thinking critically, much less thinking technically-- the whole mess is left to the political process.

Here's how you solve a technical problem: you get a small team together. You decide on the limitations of a budget, the parameters of the problem and the operating boundaries of the problem domain. A deadline for a solution is imposed. Then, you get out of the way.

This doesn't have to be done by government. However, it is important to remember that large corporations are often no more efficient or cost effective than any other large institution. Prime contractors are no less willing to spend money than anybody else-- that's why God invented fixed price contracts.
Wall of Idiots
Blonds at the Times, original article here
V: Dueling Coroners
Robin Hood, Zombie Killer

Links of Interest
NASA reboot, here, here, here, here, here, here actual budget here
Advanced Space Propulsion Concepts
Understanding deep ocean currents
24 Hours... of physics
More dinosaurs => birds
California City
V: You have been Scienced
V: The iPad
V: Dowdy Kitchen Man
Best Blog Entry Ever
V: Pneumatic robot walker
V: lathing zen
V: Les Trois Inventeurs
Power from work

Cheap analog pressure sensor
Roman shade
Spray on liquid glass
Infinity card

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Praise of Making

(Picture from here.)

I like making things. From Stirling engines to window inserts. I'm popping the tops off of beer bottles to turn the resulting narrow cylinders into drink tumblers. I make wine and beer. I'm learning how to make sake.

I turned a section of the garage into my shop-- a maker's project if ever there was one. I save old motors. I turn the bottom half of plastic drink bottles into planters. I tear apart old air conditioners and de-humidifiers-- I still have the steering column of a 1996 Geo Metro. I have trouble throwing away anything that once had value. (My wife would suggest that means anything at all.)

I get a deep thrill out of re-purposing junk.

I can justify it by saying it's interesting. It stretches my mind. It's the ultimate recycling. But that would be lying. I'd do it regardless. It's a satisfaction that lies deep in the core structures of my brain, the amygdala and the limbic system.

So this episode of What Steve is Doing consists almost solely of projects I've gotten from the web and videos of people doing such projects.

I have a ball with these things. Go have fun.

Make things.
Wall of Idiots
C. Everett Koop
John Edwards

Links of Interest
Bill Watterson
Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results
V: Trumpin documentary
V: Manufactured Landscapes
V: Human powered Ferris wheel
Fablab house
Electroluminescent papercraft
Cute vintage trailer
V: Sharpsicord
Flat pack bike & scooter
Mechanical Chemical Oscillators and here and here
Maymand Village
V: Festo iFab
V: More fab
V: Vanishing point
V: 1 bit stop motion and here

Allied Electronics
Taco pockets
Brushless DC permanent magnet motor
Turkish delight
Bamboo easel
Pick handle
USB Barbie
Juggling bags
Chocolate truffles
Light bulb shrimp aquarium
Egg yolk separator
V: Giant puppet octopus
V: Gear rings
V: Dancing automaton
Carrot muffins
Rotary harmonograph
Fancy paper airplanes and here
Vertical herb garden
$2000 homebuilt airplane
Unabox and here
V: Multichord
V: Scratch built R/C seaplane
V: Homemade submarine
Infrared photography
Wood engraving
The Fab Academy
Picking a padlock
Online Education
V: Wearable cello
50 dangerous things for kids
Metal jeweling jig
Modular printable boxes
CNC cabin

Say Goodbye to the Moon

(Picture from here.)

President Obama's budget is out today and, sad to say, he has gutted NASA's manned space program. (See here or here or check out the Wall of Idiots below.)

NASA and manned spaceflight has been a political football since before Obama was born. I expected better of him but I'm not surprised. After all, why shouldn't they fight over .5% of the national budget? (Total budget, 3.83 trillion. NASA budget 19 billion.) Clearly, when we put a man on the Moon and spent 5.5% (1966 here) we were clearly spending too much. At least 11 times too much, according to this budget.

My own opinion will not be a surprise to my two readers: if manned spaceflight is worth doing at all, it's worth doing right. The best first step would have been a medium to high earth orbit station with significant infrastructure to back it up. We didn't get that-- we got the International Space Station, a low earth orbit station who needs to be boosted it up regularly since it is being slowed down by atmospheric friction. (See here.) What we needed to learn from a space station was how to build and construct things in space. What we learned was how to put together a Lego station essentially assembled on earth.

Okay. Breathe. That ship has sailed.

Regarding the Moon: If we intend to do deep space manned missions, we need the Moon. To get to the Mars we need a heavy lift vehicle that will get a good sized payload completely out of Earth's gravity well-- Surprise! We need it for the Moon, too. To land humans on Mars-- or any other body with significant gravitation-- we need to know how to get there safely, how to live there safely until return, and how to return. All of this could be learned on the Moon with a 2.5 second light delay and a three day rescue mission.

But forget that for the moment. I said we need the Moon base. Hell, we need Luna City: a true colony on the Moon. Luna City would be closer in time than the American colonies were to London. So we can have all of the hard vacuum and experimentation we want (which we do not have with the ISS) along with real radiation shielding and gravity that might well be enough not to steal months and years of life from the inhabitants.

Forget even that. We need the Moon because it makes real exploration and utilization of the rest of the Solar System possible-- which, I submit, is impossible when transiting directly from Earth. The moon has about 17% of the gravity of earth. Launches from there are trivial compared to here. Toxic material? Not a problem. No environmental catastrophe on the Moon.

In addition, we can finally separate the cost of take off from the payload. The idea of an electromagnetically propelled launch system has been around since the forties. (See a patent here. Additional info here.) The idea is to transfer motion energy to a payload using ground based systems. Right now, a rocket has to carry its own fuel to lift the payload. This puts the launch system in the unenviable position of carrying the weight of the fuel to lift the payload and the parasitic weight of the fuel to lift the fuel. Does this seem smart? A better solution is to accelerate the payload and then leave the means of that acceleration behind. Only the mass of the payload is launched.

Why not do it here on earth? Several reasons: 1) is that pesky gravitational field again. It's a lot easier on the Moon. 2) There's vacuum on the Moon. Consequently, there's no loss due to friction. Not only do you need less energy to launch, launching is more efficient. 3) Energy is cheap. On earth you can get about 10 watts of solar radiation per square foot. On the Moon, it's about 130 watts/square foot.

What's needed on the moon? Smelting facilities. Factories. Heavy industry. I'm not talking about some six man habitat. We don't need ISS on the moon; we need Detroit.

This is an expensive undertaking but the very first step is to put a small manned base on the Moon.

Which Obama cut today.
Wall of Idiots
Rhode Island Supreme Court and toxic torts
Grounding NASA

Links of Interest
The lineage of theropods
Stratospheric water and climate change
Laser fusion test results
Making stars
News (and retrospective) of a film adaptation of John Carter of Mars. And here.