David M. Kelly

Character-based SF and more…

A recent article announced that the U.S. Government is going to provide $25 million per year (up to $125 million) plus millions in other funding to fund research in to a cure for Citrus Greening. A disease currently threatening the citrus industry, especially in Florida where almost all of the orange groves are infected to some extent.

The infection is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a form of lice, that feed on the trees and infect them with bacteria, turning the fruit sour and ultimately killing the trees. As a result the citrus industry is facing it’s lowest crop yields in twenty-nine years.

According to the article the citrus industry in Florida alone is worth $9 billion and employs 75,000 people.

So shouldn’t the citrus industry itself be funding this research? They’re the ones who will ultimately benefit after all and $25 million represents a meager quarter of a percent of the industry’s value.

What this amounts to is simply your hard-earned tax dollars being handed over to private companies who don’t want to pay their own way and it happens everywhere, all the time; this is only one example. Here in Ontario, the Canadian and provincial governments hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of subsidies, free services and tax breaks to mining and other resource industries every year and we all know what happened when the banks got themselves into trouble through their own greed…

No wonder the rich are getting richer.

I read an interesting piece recently about how not teaching handwriting appears to lead to a lack of creativity and overall learning ability. The idea put forward is that the brain develops more pattern recognition ability and cognitive skills by learning to write the “old-fashioned” way. Tests carried out show that the brain’s learning centers are not activated to the same level in children that learn “writing” through tracing of letters or just by computer typing. Even more significantly the studies also show that these effects seem to cascade over time with children who aren’t taught handwriting skills performing at lower levels in later life.

In these days of Google-Almighty and the general vogue for making everything “easy,” we seem to have completely lost sight of the idea of “no pain, no gain.” The mantra now is “if it isn’t easy, it’s not worth it” and often ideas are introduced without even the most cursory thought for what effect the strategies might have. If everything is “easy” what incentive is there to stretch the mind?

I happily use computers and work with them on a daily basis – in fact it’s major a part of my day job. I love good technology – defined as something that works well for its intended purpose (and equally loathe it when it doesn’t work or is simply a gimmick), I have a “smartphone” (which isn’t very smart despite the nomenclature), I’m currently installing an Android car computer in my ‘vette, write software on the side because I enjoy it and am generally in touch with the “technology flow” of the world.

But before all of that, my education was very “traditional” – focusing on basic skills. The “three Rs” (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic) were central parts of the school curriculum. We learned multiplication tables by heart (actually I didn’t, but that’s another story) and practiced writing both in “printed” and “cursive” forms (we just called it “joined-up” writing). I didn’t see a computer (outside magazines or TV) until I went to college at age 17 and if someone had said “internet” it would probably have been thought of as a fishing term.

So although I’m happy to embrace technology when it suits me. I can also happily live without it and see the both its good and bad sides. This background also allows me to look at some of my own “quirks” in the light of the handwriting and creativity link discussed in the article.

For example, I posted a while back about how I now do what I call a “paper edit” on all my writing. I found that the quality of my editing improved dramatically as a result of this – the process was much more thoughtful and considered and I picked up on problems that I simply didn’t see when trying to edit on screen. Looking around it seems I’m not the only one who finds working on paper very different to working on screen.

I carry a paper notebook everywhere and have no problem making notes, writing scenes and dialog and anything else if an idea comes to me out of the blue. Again there’s a level of creativity there that seems absent when composing with keyboard and screen. The keyboard and screen seem to block creativity, introducing a too-rigid, too-logical discipline that forces the brain into stricter confines much less conducive to free-flowing thought.

I’m also an inveterate “doodler” – as anyone who has looked at my notebooks will attest – a lot of these are meaningless geometric scrawls, but not infrequently they capture an idea or snapshot of imagination that works its way into my writing. If I tried to draw these on the computer I know I would fail miserably – the whole process would be too involved and too “procedural” to support that form of expression.

It seems that when I’m working at the computer part of my brain is focused on just operating the machinery, leaving less to concentrate on what I am trying to achieve. This only seems to happen when I’m doing creative work though. When I’m programming, for example, I don’t feel there is that kind of barrier.

This idea also recalls a conversation with a friend over a few beers recently. I was telling him about some of the struggles I’d had with the car computer installation I’d spent literally hours “googling” for the answer and found a lack of good clear information on the subject. Yet before the internet became commonplace those problems would have been solved by me thinking and working out the answer.

I mentioned to my friend that I realized just how dependent we’d become on the “instant-answer-google-machine” and how debilitating it felt, as if I was no longer capable of thinking and problem-solving for myself. That was a scary thought for sure, but even more worrying is the idea that there are now whole generations who’ve never lacked that “support” and don’t even realize they’ve essentially been trained not to think.

It seems to me that we need to seriously think about the effects of technology and its applications. We need to ensure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater for all our children’s sakes and heavily limit their use and ultimate reliance on technology especially at a young age.

Beyond that we need to consider what things we might lose when making new technologies available. For tens of thousands of years human culture has been built on our intelligence and ability to apply creativity to the problems around us, wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if those “smarts” took that away again?

After another successful launch and docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule late last week the company appear to have established itself as a major player in the ground-to-LEO (Low Earth Orbit) sector of the space industry. The latest mission is the third flawless flight made by the California-based company to the International Space Station (ISS) using the combination of it’s Falcon 9 Launcher and the Dragon capsule.

Contrast this with the massive problem facing the U.S. since the loss of the Space Shuttle after its retirement in 2011. Simply put the U.S. has had no manned space launch capability since then and relies 100% on the Russian Roscosmos agency’s Soyuz capsule to transport crew to and from the ISS.

This situation can never have been comfortable. Now with the latest developments in Ukraine and all the political tension and posturing, the decision to not only abandon the shuttle before a replacement was available but also to cut NASA’s budget significantly (and repeatedly) is now coming back to haunt the political “leaders” responsible.

And the dependency doesn’t end there. Other U.S. government agencies and national security payloads equally rely on the same Russian launch capabilities and facilities, many of which are located inside the disputed territories.

There are currently three companies contracted by NASA to develop manned launch capabilities: Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. Of these SpaceX seems to be closest to having a true manned-launch capability for the ISS. Though the specific budget to develop these partnerships has also been cut, amplifying the lack of vision.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Elon Musk was in conversation in a dimly lit room with NASA and government representatives discussing how quickly SpaceX could fast-track the manned versions of Dragon!

The Mars One project has announced that it’s planning to set-up “simulated” outposts here on Earth. During the announcement co-founder Bas Lansdorp said, “We are very eager to get started constructing actual hardware for our mission that is important for training future Mars One crews and preparing them for their life on Mars. We are going from theory to practice.”

While this sounds very exciting and forward thinking I’m afraid the skeptic inside me is shouting and waving big red flags. The usefulness of such a plan will be extremely limited; the relevance of any earth-based “simulation” will miss some major aspects of life on Mars.

How about gravity for a start? At 3.7 m/s sq. the gravity on Mars is just over a third of what we experience here on Earth. As we don’t have any kind of anti-gravity capabilities, nothing can change that. So all the “crew” operations and training will take place at gravity levels bearing no resemblance to those on Mars. One of several serious problems for humans in low gravities is muscle loss, so simulations at 1g will tell Mars One nothing about such dangers.

Then there’s radiation. On Earth, our thick atmospheric blanket and the planet’s magnetic field shields us from the vast majority of radiation hitting us from space. Mars has a very thin atmosphere and no magnetic shield so surface radiation there will be much higher. Recent analysis suggests that it would increase cancer rates by five percent, much higher than the three percent NASA considers safe levels on the International Space Station. Radiation can also have an effect on materials and electronics, which the Mars One project could not simulate, again severely limiting useful information gathering.

Martian dust also poses a big problem for any would-be colonists. Dust on Earth has been weathered and worn by atmospheric interaction, rain and other natural weathering processes which grind away sharp surfaces. Devoid of atmosphere or weathering, Martian dust (known as regolith) is sharp and harsh, which could cause damage to the lungs if breathed in. Not only that but chemical reactions can produce poisonous hydrogen peroxide, which also attacks the lungs. The moon has a similar regolith-covered surface and Apollo astronauts found the dust to be a major annoyance. The Mars One plans again will not provide any insight on this issue.

The final blow to this venture is the admission by Mars One that the simulations won’t even attempt to implement the life support systems needed to survive on Mars. If ever there was an admission of the pointlessness of this exercise then this has to be it. Mars One is going to set up a few cardboard cut-out Mars habitats and pretend that they’re doing something of value.

All I see is Mars – One big publicity stunt and I have to wonder how much the founders are making out of all of this.

This weeks “Cosmos“, featured an interesting segment on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. On the show they explained how the moon is the only other celestial body known to have rain and oceans, although these aren’t water based; instead they consist of ethane, methane and other hydrocarbons.

In a related story a few days ago we see that scientists have detected what may be evidence of ripples on the hydrocarbon oceans on Titan, the first time that a liquid surface has been directly detected on another celestial body – a remarkable discovery.

Recently U.S. scientists also announced they have created a way to convert natural gas into useable fuels that could, for example, replace traditional gas and diesel.

The connection? Simple; natural gas is comprised mostly of ethane and methane.

If natural gas can be converted to fuel more cost effectively, it will be and the end result will be that we simply pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and poison the planet even quicker. And you can also bet that if the oil companies could find a way of exploiting the oceans on Titan (unlikely as that is), they’d be shipping those hydrocarbons to Earth to do even more damage.

We can’t tackle climate change by consuming more, no matter how efficiently. We need to moderate our demands and reduce the impact we have on a global scale. Anything else is just a very slow form of suicide.

Cosmos also discussed the five different cataclysmic extinction events that have impacted Earth since life began. From what we know, the normal rate of extinction is around 10 to 25 species per year. Current rates are estimated at 100 to 1000 and possibly as high as 1000 to 10,000 extinctions per year – rates higher than the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and thirty percent of all life on the planet.

With our abject failure to control our emissions and deal with this problem, now known for forty years, I think we already know the name of the next extinction. Could we prevent this? Possibly, through a lot of global cooperation and hard work. Will we? Given the selfish bickering, posturing, political games and vested interests of big business evident it’s difficult to see a positive outcome.

When researching self-publishing and self-promotion it quickly becomes obvious that there’s a wealth of information out there. Although maybe “information” is the wrong term. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that there are a lot of words.

I’ve found that the sheer amount and diversity of opinions is overwhelming to the point of confusion. Not only that but the “signal to noise ratio” is very high; little of what’s written seems to offer any real hard facts.

From what I can see, there’s no “secret” or clearly-defined approach to self-publishing – no magical spell that guarantees success, or failure. All I can do is make decisions and try to move forward. There – it’s easy!

Except we can become paralyzed by choices, especially when there are multiple decisions to make, and this often results in confusion (this is certainly true for me!). I don’t think that Miller’s Law is considered valid any longer, but recent studies do show that the more choices there are to consider, the worse our performance becomes. This is why advertisers routinely bombard us with as many “information points” as they can – to get and keep us confused so we can’t make rational decisions (if we acted rationally we’d likely not buy what they’re selling.)

The original meaning of “decide” seems to have been lost. Like many words it comes to us from Latin (decidere) and is composed of two parts. The first part de means “off” and the second comes from caedere – to cut. So that’s the trick to decision making: when you make your choice you need to forget about the things you’ve rejected and not waste further time on them. A mental cutting-off of alternatives and options that simplifies your choices to the point where you can handle what’s left.

This brings me back to self-publishing. Recently I’ve been debating whether to use a service like BookBaby to handle distribution of my ebook short-story collection or whether to do it myself. The various services available offer broadly similar packages but they are presented in such different ways that it’s difficult to understand which (if any) is best or suitable. I’ve decided to simplify things and not use these, but make the choice to do the work myself. Yes, it’s more work, but I think at this stage I need the control and also need to learn the process for myself. Later, I’ll be better equipped to determine which services will be useful (this is not a criticism of BookBaby’s offerings.)

Of course not every decision will be right and it also doesn’t mean that you can’t revisit a decision. Just keep moving forward and if you do choose to revisit one – make sure that you there’s a strong reason to do so.

I just signed the petition “Jeff Bezos: Protect Amazon.com Users and Indie Publishing Authors from Bullying and Harassment by Removing Anonymity and Requiring Identity Verification for Reviewing and Forum Participation.”

I’m trying to help Todd Barselow, who started the petition, by getting five more people to join me. Will you sign it too?

Here’s the link: http://www.change.org/en-CA/petitions/jeff-bezos-protect-amazon-com-users-and-indie-publishing-authors-from-bullying-and-harassment-by-removing-anonymity-and-requiring-identity-verification-for-reviewing-and-forum-participation

It’s an issue that I think really matters. You can also read more about it by clicking here.

Thank you!

I read in New Scientist recently that Dennis Tito, founder of the Inspiration Mars project, believes that their aim – to send a man and wife team to Mars and back – is no longer viable without NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

Originally, Tito intended to make use of commercial space launch vehicles, but now doesn’t believe that to be feasible. Inspiration Mars will now work with NASA to develop and help fund the SLS instead. This is a clear departure from the organization’s earlier philosophy of completing the mission with no help from government sources.

There’s no doubt that developing a heavy launch rocket system is expensive. Estimates for the SLS are around $10 billion, not including an extra $6 billion for the Orion crew vehicle. This doesn’t compare well with commercial development estimates and is a significant drain on NASA, requiring cut backs in other programs to fund the SLS.

Mars Society founder, Robert Zubrin, has suggested that a suitable heavy-lift vehicle could be built for half that cost through private contracting. Meanwhile the much more capable SpaceX Falcon Heavy will provide higher performance and cheaper delivery of greater payloads, which raises the question as to why Tito isn’t signing up to invest in the SpaceX project? It also raises other questions, such as why is NASA investing so much in the SLS and also not collaborating more closely with SpaceX?

Certainly NASA has awarded contracts to SpaceX to assist in the development of the company’s systems, but these are relatively small and it would make more sense to co-sign the whole deal. At these estimated costs NASA could pay the whole bill and shell out just half of what it’s planning to spend, leaving a huge $5 billion to fund other programs. That’s before taking into account any possible investment by Inspiration Mars.

Of course the reason for this apparent insanity is simple; politics and rivalry. I’m sure that Dennis Tito doesn’t want to go “begging” to rival SpaceX for a ride to Mars. As for NASA, they have been committed to building the SLS by congressional edict – regardless of how little sense it makes.

Thinking more imaginatively; a Space Elevator would cost an estimated $5-20 billion and reduce launch costs even more massively. Not only that but it would be a much more environmentally responsible launch system that could support a wide variety of projects.

Let’s also put some context to these numbers. Once local mining company, Vale, is re-opening an old mine at the cost of $1bn. US banks made a record $154 billion in 2013, and over $40 billion in the final quarter alone, while in Canada they made $29 billion. All of this is dwarfed by US military spending which was over $680 billion in 2013 alone!

Think about this: for less than four percent (4%) of one year of US military spending, you could use a “belt and braces” approach and build the Falcon Heavy AND a space elevator. Imagine too how possible this kind of investment would be if we shunned the combined madness of 19th and 20th century jingoism and collaborated globally on space access by working with Europe, Africa, India, Japan and China?

Isn’t it time we left nationalism behind and stop trying to export it beyond the atmosphere?

 

Recent analysis of space dust has shown that Amino acids and DNA components are common. These two compounds are essentially the building blocks for life and this discovery raises the prospect that life may be far more widespread than once thought.

Previously I talked about water being widely available and with that the chance of the right conditions for life being equally available. Now we see Continue reading

NASA scientists have announced they have definitively detected water vapor on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. This is the first time that water has been detected on anything in the belt and is a significant, but not perhaps too unexpected, discovery.

I remember seeing the episode of the new Battlestar Galactica where they lost their water supply Continue reading

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