Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sally Forth's Rainbow

"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."

Sally Forth (a rather sweet, if plain vanilla comic strip) cribbed the opening to Gravity's Rainbow (a snarling pit bull of a Nabokovian novel portraying Tyrone Slothrop's flayed-alive descent into the polymorphous perversity of a postmodern techno-hell) for its Sunday strip.

What's next? Linus and Snoopy on acid reprising the opening to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ...?

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold ...


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Robot does not eat corpses

Robot 'not a corpse eater'

Inventors of a US military robot that powers itself by devouring everything in its path are trying to quash publicity that it will feed on human or animal flesh.

The Guardian says that the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot ploughs through trees, grass and even, according to reports, dead bodies.

Headlines have labelled the machine a "corpse eater" and "creepy". The machine's inventors say that it does power its engine by digesting organic material.

"We completely understand the public's concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission," said Harry Schoell, the chief executive of Cyclone Power Technologies, one of the companies behind the machine. "We are focused on demonstrating that our engines can create usable, green power from plentiful, renewable plant matter."

Gee. I feel better now.

"Our robot does not eat corpses ... as such."

This is sorta like that SNL skit where the chain of funeral homes had a slogan: "We do not sleep with your dead."

If you have to deny it, it's hardly reassuring.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Into the memory hole

Kindle users who had purchased selected works by George Orwell, including “1984” and “Animal Farm,” were taken aback recently after receiving a notice saying that the selected works had been removed from their Kindle and their money returned.

OK. The Kindle being what Jonathan Zittrain calls a "tethered appliance," the folks at the top have a backdoor to come in and digitally scrub any intellectual property they feel doesn't belong there. It's sorta like having a bookshelf of self-burning books that could be emflamed by remote control.

In this case, 1984 and Animal Farm were turned to digital ash over an intellectual property dispute. Considering the books in question ...

Kinda ironic, ain't it?

PS: I like that sexy look Julia is shooting Winston on this vintage 1950s pulp fiction-style cover.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Blue Moon

The problem with space is earth.

I.e.: a space-faring infrastructure has to be created on earth, first, before space exploration becomes feasible.

Consider the analogy of Columbus. Yes, he explored the New World. But he did it on the back of existing exploration technology and infrastructure. He didn’t invent boats, sails and tackle; or maps compasses, stellar reckoning and other navigation technology; or the ability to store large quantities of food (however rancid). Once he discovered the New World (and those poor, unlucky folks on Hispaniola); a technology existed in Europe to quickly send follow up voyages to exploit the hell out of them.

This would not have been feasible if, say, Columbus had arrived in a disposable Santa Maria that shot across the Atlantic like a cannonball while burning up in stages, then landed him on a beach with another disposable cannon-craft that would shoot him back – if he was lucky and his European pals could fish him out of the ocean – alive.

Werner Von Braun – the original visionary behind NASA’s space program – thought long term. He was very clear on the need to create practical, space-faring infrastructure. He wanted to build a low-orbit space station. Then a high orbit station. Than a temporary moon base. Then a permanent base. He wanted to colonize the moon, Mars and beyond – in very clearly worked out, practical stages. First things first; one thing at a time.

The work horse of all this was going to be a space plane. Not the !@#$ ridiculous space shuttle strapped, idiotically, to two giant tanks of rocket fuel that have to fall off exactly right in every flight. A true rocket plane that could take off from the earth and land.

OK, his initial concept still had the rocket plane attached to a booster rocket as a payload. Still, it was a piloted rocket craft.

This is the only practical way to maintain any real commercial in space – first between the earth and a space station. Then between the earth and various moon bases. Then Mars. Then ...

The US military’s X-plane series was a step in this direction.

The space program of the 1960s was a massive detour.

Because of our “space race” with the Russians, we scrapped Von Braun’s feasible and well-thought out implantation of space-faring infrastructure. Instead, we got to the moon – quick and dirty – using giant disposable rockets with one-way capsules on top.
Once the American public thought we’d “won” the “space race,” the American public lost interest.

NASA lost funding.

With its budget slashed, it attempted to go back to Von Braun’s vision – but on the cheap – with the half-assed space shuttle program.

We need to get beyond that – and start working on a true rocket plane.

What we don’t need to do is go back to the idiotic idea of a disposable space capsule attached to a giant, disposable rocket that fires astronauts to the moon just because we can.

Hell, we might as well put a shitload of money in a space capsule and fire that at the moon. It would have the same practical effect.

We need to get to the moon, Mars and onward – but we need to do it intelligently.

We need to get there, and stay there and live there.

Eventually, we need to start terraforming other worlds.

Humanity needs more earths than this one.

Space really is the final frontier. We need to go back, not because it’s cool, but because this blue marble we live on is damned fragile. An asteroid could blow it up. A comet could blow it up. Hell, we could blow it up – or kill the planetary ecosystem. Even if we don’t, the sun will eventually go cold in space. Humanity has put all its genetic eggs in one basket.

The sooner we find new baskets, the better.

For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me

OK, feeling sentimental. I'll admit it.

Here's Jethro Tull's song about Michael Collins, the astronaut who got left behind on the moon landing. Poor sumbitch was stuck up there orbiting that dead rock while Neil and Buzz hogged all the publicity ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lunar links

Tom Wolfe has an interesting perspective:

For some !@#$ reason I can't seem to turn this into a link.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

R.I.P. Julius Shulman

Julius Shulman died today. I don't have any clever words to throw into this white space like so many yarrow stalks. Simply put, he was a brilliant photographer. He loved architecture. I did too, once. I had once planned to give my life to her. Like an old girlfriend, she still haunts my dreams. Shulman, like nobody else, captured the seduction of architecture. Below is the photo everyone remembers. Hell, I'm not trying to be clever here. It's the obvious choice. But it's the photo that burned into everyone's brain. And here it is ...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Powers of Ten

The classic from Charles and Ray Eames.

Friday, July 3, 2009

St. Obama

I like Obama. I voted for Obama. I wanted change. Change I got.

But ... I hate to say it.

I think he's getting ready to jump the shark, folks.

Bush combined religiosity with a smarmy cowboy swagger. The nation goes to war, and he tells us it's time to NOT sacrifice. "Buy bigger SUVs and Hummers, born more gas, buy more shit. The time has come to affirm America's deepest value: acting like selfish pigs."

Well, OK. Like a fratboy on a cocaine binge in his daddy's convertible, Bush drove us into a dangerous neighborhood and wrecked the car. Now, St. Obama has to deal with the wreck. A righteous alternative to hog-wild cowboy Bush.

But he's too damn righteous.

There's a fine line where it starts to seem prissy and hectoring. Brush your teeth, floss, eat your oatmeal. St. Obama is getting very, very close to that line. What happens when you cross it? You start to look like Jimmy Carter.

Fortunately, there are warning signs of Carter syndrome:

Enlarged front teeth.
The use of the word "malaise."
Peanut butter breath.

These signs are not necessarily fatal.

The day Obama swims in terror from a killer rabbit, you know it's over.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Quote of the week

Every now and then, somebody says something that's so lucid, so obvious-yet-hidden-in-plain sight, that your mental landscape changes when you hear it. Orson Scott Card is one of those people. (He's the author of Ender's Game, and other brilliant SF novels, in case you've been locked in a Supermax prison watching reality TV since the mid-1980s.)

In Serenity Found (Jane Espenson's latest anthology of essays on the late, great SF TV series Firefly and the big damn movie that followed), Card defines the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. And defines it brilliantly.

To paraphrase: Readers come to science fiction for radically new experiences. They want their expectations blown to hell. Readers come to fantasy for the same experience, over and over again. They want their expectations confirmed.

Brilliant. But let's let Card tell it in his own words.

Be forewarned, in his eyes, Star Wars and Star Trek are fantasy in SF clothing.

The money quote ...

"People reading Star Wars and Star Trek novels are getting the opposite of the experience readers of the genre always looked for. The science fiction genre, in print, had always been about having new experiences.

There were series and sequels, of course, but the best writers prided themselves on having each entrant in a series be quite different from the others. And, unlike the mystery genre, the sci-fi genre allowed writers of successful series to do completely unrelated books -- and the readers would follow along.

[He offers examples.]

Whereas with media tie-in novels, readers are disappointed if they don't get exactly the same experience they had before. The story is cosmetically different, but it takes readers to the same place; that's why they buy it.

It is an exercise in familiarity.

So not only was film and television sci-fi mired in an old-fashioned kind of story, it had become so financially and culturally successful that it was driving real science fiction into a corner, both in print and in film."

Amen, brother. Wish I'd said it first.

I remember the days when New Wave and Golden Age and hard SF titles bumped shoulders like so many angry, talkative smart drunks in a bar. All those titles, clamoring for attention in the back of the bookstore, right next to the pornography section. Heinlein and Ellison and Clarke and Silverberg and Zelazny and Lem and Niven and Dick and all the rest, all fighting to be heard, fighting to top the others, to be the book you buy, the book that blows your mind.

Then, like a cloud no bigger than a man's fist, the Lord of the Rings series appeared. Then the Lord of the Rings imitators. Dragons and elves, elves and dragons. Then Conan and friends. The inevitable Frank Frazetta rip-off cover of some humongously muscled, bare-chested freak holding a sword to the threatening sky while a blonde in breast plates coiled around his ankles. Then Star Trek spinoffs. Star Wars spinoffs. One after another, like the demonic brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, they multiplied. They crowded out Dr. Bloodmoney, The Big Time, Childhood's End and all the stuff that made you think. They ate up the shelf space.

And the clerk looked up at you. Eyes untroubled by the thought process.

"Asimov. Uh. I think we've got him in the self-help section?"