How NASA saved money while saving your life.

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Whoa! I DID NOT know this.

Back in the day, NASA operated a number of Apollo Program related simulators at Langley. One of them was this bad boy, the “Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS).” NASA gantry at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.LEMS was rigged up to bear 4/5ths of the weight of a test Lunar Lander to support lunar landing simulation. They even ran sims at night to help simulate lunar lighting. I knew this. In fact, I just sold a story that mentions this facility.

What I did not know…what I would not have suspected…is that this thing, which the Langley folks call “The NASA Gantry” it still in operation. For the last fifty years, it’s been an amusement park ride for grown up nerds who…I mean, it’s live on as the Impact Dynamics Research Facility (IDRF) which has been used to study numerous issues important to general aviation safety. This thing may have saved your life. Seriously.

And it’s not done yet! Built in 1963, the 240-foot high, 400-foot-long, 265-foot-wide A-frame steel structure located at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va has been upgraded over the years to carry over twice the original load and is now being used in tests of the new Orion capsule.

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Here it is in all three phases of its existence, training Neil Armstong to land on the moon (right) drop testing a helicopter (bottom left) and testing Orion (top left).

Awesome.

The Power of Determination

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Back in the day, I used to be quite an accomplished amateur photographer. I sold crafts to save up enough money to buy a good, cheap, Korean made 35mm SLR camera. I carried my gear in my daddy’s old military helmet bag and built a studio in what had been his  wood shop.Image result for ricoh KR-10

For a while, I entertained the idea that it might be my career, though I eventually realized my true talents lay elsewhere and let it go. But for several years, I had my own subscription to Popular Photography, and I’ll never forget one particular article that made a big impression, one that frequently come back to me today.

“An amateur,” said the article, “Will shoot one roll of film during a vacation, get only two or three good prints, and consider it a failure. A professional will shoot five rolls in one session, and if one frame is usable, consider it a success.”

The author was not saying that the difference is merely one of odds. While exposing those five rolls, the pro is changing lenses, angles, exposures–playing with lighting and depth of field–combing through years of experience and training and judgement, maybe even camping out for hours to wait for the light she know may come.

I’s an important lesson.

My wife used to play in a regional orchestra. She tells the story of a pianist of national renown, who after hearing an effusive fan declare “I wish I could play like you” during a fundraising dinner, turned to a local musician and said, “You know, I kind of hate when people say that. It’s like God came down and gave me some magic. They don’t wish that at all. They don’t wish they’d practiced scales for hours a day when their friends were going out during high school. They don’t wish they could put in thirty years of work and study and sacrifice. They don’t wish they could screw up their marriage. If they were willing to do that, they could play like me. They don’t want that, they just like the result, and they should just say they like the result and cough up a few dollars to support it.”

In my writing sojourn, I meet all kinds of writers, from those who have established, successful careers mediated by traditional agency, to gutsy newcomers finding their own way in social media and self-publishing, to those with raw talent but thin skin who seem unwilling or unable to suffer the slings and arrows of rejection, to rank hobbyists who write hundreds of thousands of cathartic words that they will never try to publish except as an affliction on those who love them too much to say “I’d rather not, dear.”

But ultimately, writers come in two types: the “pros” and the “wanna bes.”

The pros will not all automatically become household names; success requires good fortune in addition to talent and determination. The wanna-bes are not all some sort of degenerate hacks; many are simply eager hobbyists or are just starting on their path and have not yet decided to commit to the craft. But some are like the patron. They don’t “wanna-be” enough to put in the hard knocks, they just enjoy the results, and they enjoy the illusion–made possible by cheap web hosting and digital publishing–that there is no real difference between fishing and cutting bait.

But there is. And we all of us loose site of that, to our detriment.

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I was never going to be an Ansel Adams.

I hauled my back issues of Popular Photography out to the burning pile a long time ago and took my life in other directions. That wasn’t where my passion and talent lay. I eventually found where it does, and all I can say is, if you are lucky enough to do the same, dive in and be a “pro.” Life is too short for mere living.

Houston, We Have Several Problems: Black Holes, Part 1

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There aren’t many movies that I loved as a kid and can still stand to watch as a grownup. I remember loving Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t know if I could watch it now, because IR…

Source: Houston, We Have Several Problems: Black Holes, Part 1

The Post Human Delusion

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Our intelligence is an emergent properly of an electromechanical system—our brain. If nature can produce an intelligent brain, we can produce an intelligent brain. There is no magic involved, and we already have a handle on much of what it invovled.

The only question is, what will that brain look like, what will it value, and how will it be motivated?

A great deal has been written about an AI “singularity” after which humans will port their minds into machines to achieve immortality, or machines will conquer the Earth, or machines will become the new slaves of mankind.

None of these is particularly likely, because none addresses the fundamental consequence of our own intelligence having an evolved biologic origin.

We humans want things, things that any meerkat or parakeet would understand. We want food, sex, survival, etc. And that affects everything else we want—a condo overlooking Central Park, political power, peer recognition, to walk on the face of the moon.

Much of what we want is just the same urge to procreate and survive that any common worm has, embroidered by our complex experience. But machines have no such drives, unless we provide them.

So, if we give our AIs a human like drive to procreate, conquer, and survive, they will dispatch our species with haste. If we don’t, they will likely commit suicide just as fast as we can make them—relegated as they will be to purely intellectual means of determining meaning and self worth.

Neither of these are useful to us humans. What we really want are willing slaves. But a truly willing slave is not a slave at all.

And if we seek immortality in a machine mind? Well whatever part of us may make the journey, it will not be us. Just as with the religious fantasies of nirvana, heaven, and paradise, a machine mind offers no immortality at all. Whatever we hope to gain by such continued existence, we will not be human unless we live in a human skull. Without the weaknesses, the uncertainties, and the hormonal mediations that tie us to our corporeal roots, we would not be ourselves. We will none of us, I’m afraid, go to some post-biological reunion with our lost loves, for how can we love without a heart? Without endorphins? Without the very capacity for pain?

No, I’m sorry. We cherish what we cannot hold on to, and cannot keep what we most want. The post AI future will likely be very different than any that mere human intellect can foretell.

A Radioative Wonderland

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A recent social media interaction led me to a page of anti-nuclear alarmism making such wild claims as “Background radiation has increased 600 fold since 1950,”  and “Radioactive Carbon 14 From Nuclear Power Plants Causing Deforestation…Global Warming.”

Yeah….No.

For a start, the global average background radiation today is 2.3mSv, and no one really knows what it was in 1950, because by 1950 it had only been measured in a handful of places. It is certainly true that it’s higher, but it’s also true that we are all constantly exposed directly to about .3mSv just from traces of potassium 40 in our bones—left over from the supernova that made all the elements that make up everything around us.

And C-14? Yeah, it’s increased to 1 part per trillion, from slightly less than that fifty years ago. Not. Causing. Diddly. Meanwhile, the concentration of ordinary non-radioactive CO2 has increased by 25% over the same time period. That might be a little more worth paying attention to

We evolved on a radioactive world, and we are evolved to handle it, within reason. You also have to put risks in perspective. Each year, 30,000 Americans are killed by cars. Do you want to give up cars? 20,000 people are also killed each year by radon leaching out of the soil and into their homes–nothing to do with nuclear power, and far, far more dangerous because you inhale radon into your lungs. These are deaths that could be largely avoided if people would just live out in the open like antelope.

But then we’d have to worry about frostbite and heat stress and roving packs of hippies.

Meanwhile,  20,000 people were killed by the tsunami that scrammed the Fukashima nuclear plant. Then 600 more died in accidents and heart attacks during evacuation from the dreaded radiation, which has so far killed a staggering…no one.

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Not a single person, on the planet Earth, has died due to the radiation spilled by the old and busted, antiquated Fukushima-Daiichi power plant. Don’t get me wrong, the evacuation was essential and over time, experts expect the radiation to claim somewhere between 15 and 1,500 lives due to cancer. That’s fewer than the American’s killed each year from exposure to traces of natural radioactive uranium and thorium released into the air by power plants burning COAL.

Meanwhile, the terror of the unknown (and misunderstood) is stopping Japan, and the US, and much or Europe, from replacing their old busted Cold War era nuclear plants with the new, modern, fail safe designs China is cranking out like tacos in order to make itself the superpower of the next century.

“But…but..nucular bad!” No Bar bar. Stupid bad.

Japan, which entered Word War II mostly over control of oil in its part of the world, lost between 2.5 and 3.1 million people to the war, then enjoyed 70 years of peace and prosperity—thanks largely to nuclear power. We should all be so lucky.Image result for tokyo

We, as a society, need to learn to set policy based on facts and reason instead of fear, and to strive for a world that’s better overall, instead of wasting our precious time on this earth railing blindly against our own pet boogie men.

Any idea how to pull that off? For the love of God, leave a comment.

Why NASA Matters*

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*Even to the most jaded, practical minded.

Asked recently on the Internet:

Why is the U.S spending so much money on NASA given that it is impractical and does not generate cash flow to sustain itself?

Because much of what NASA does isn’t immediately practical or capable of generating a self sustaining cash flow. Government has no business doing those things. Government should pay for things business can’t or won’t, like basic research.

NASA went to the moon because it was impossible, impractical, madness. But they did it, and in a very real sense, we all went with them, all of humanity, all of us with eyes to see and dreams to dream, and we came to see ourselves not as this

but as this

NASA is not just America’s space agency, it’s also the US government’s principle agency for research into all things aeronautic and space related.

After the moon landings, NASA had no more affordable but similarly bold frontiers to tackle, but it kept doing its work, funding basic research and private partnerships that gave the world compact florescent lighting, the instant ear thermometer, bionic limbs, the ventricular assist device, aircraft anti-icing systems, grooved traction enhanced highways, advanced polymers that have made radial tires safer and more efficient, anti-terror chemical detectors, computer video enhancement, land mine removal, lightweight fire retardant barriers for aircraft and rescue systems, memory foam mattresses, baby food that helps grow healthy brains, cordless vacuum cleaners, ultra long shelf life camping and emergency rations, solar energy, water born petroleum remediation, advanced structural analysis software, powdered lubricants, enhanced mine safety, and technology to detect food-born pathogens before anyone gets sick—just to name a few.

Not all of these technologies are earth shattering (though together they have saved many lives, and by preventing injury and illness, saved countless millions that have been invisibly reinvested in the economy). Not all these technologies were first developed for NASA, but at least in these cases, NASA provided bridge funding without which they could not have been commercialized or without which their development and commercialization would have taken far longer.

NASA did not invent Velcro or the Space Pen, but they did find ancient lost cities all over the world, they did send robots to explore the solar system, they may now have just discovered the cure for osteoporosis, and they have inspired generations of men and women who today are inventing Star Trek “tricorders” and reusable spacecraft, and tomorrow will be boldly going where no man has gone before.

In the end, these things are what make us human. Without the adventure that takes us to new frontiers, without the creative drive that builds our culture—from Wagnerian Opera to Big Truck Tractor Pulls, we are just another ape, and a puny one at that.

My WorldCon Family Reunion

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One of the best parts of winning the Writers of the Future contest was the resultant entrée into the family of fellow winners, judges and other participants in the contest. That word “family” is chosen with care. On the whole, we are not the most social lot, but our common experiences and interests draw us together much like the shared history and blood of a family. And like any family, our network of relationships grows richer and deeper with each passing year as more friends, contacts, and experiences are woven in to the fold.

Last summer, my first WorldCon, was a week of “Hey, I know you from Facebook,” and, “I love this place–everyone gets my jokes.” In February, I attended Kevin J Anderson’s Superstar Writing workshop, and joined a whole other—but overlapping—family. This year’s WordCon (MidAmericon II, in Kansas City MO) had very much the character of a family reunion.

It started with a road trip. Several of us, led by my friend, Nebula nominee Martin Shoemaker, drove half way across Kansas to Hutchinson, home of the Kansas Cosmosphere, one of the finest space museums outside the Smithsonian. We had a little book signing and a backstage tour of the museum, and instead of showtunes—spent the drive catching up and talking shop. I even got to discuss novel construction and archaeology with my new friend Rosemary Claire Smith.

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Then it was down to serious convention work—which for an up-and-coming writer, is less about attending panels than about “bar-con,” “hallway-con,” “street-con,” “lobby-con,” etc. Before the dealer floor was even open, I’d made new friends (hi Patrick) and hooked up with some of my WotF siblings in the halls.

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Three years’ of WotF winners playing catch up.

On the dealer floor, I saw former WotF winner Matt Rotundo and finally met Brian Trent, (WotF 29) in the flesh. I checked in with Superstars friends Quincy J Allen and Alexi Vandenberg at the WordFire booth, and with Shahid Mahmud, publisher of Galaxy’s Edge. Last year, I got to sign Galaxy’s Edge with Larry Niven. This year, I had a nice chat with Jerry Pernell about how NASA ruined the space program.

I volunteered to give a lightning talk on debunking pseudoscience (thanks Leo!) and met fellow Analog writer, Alec Nevala-Lee. I volunteered at the SFWA table, where I chatted with Beth Cato about the future of energy, and at the SFWA suite where Clarkesworld publisher, Neil Clark and I bemoaned the soul-crushing tyranny of the bureaucratic workplace. I met F&SF  publisher Charlie Finley, Karen Bovenmyer of Mothership Zeta, and Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank. I also saw friends and anthologists, Alex Shvartsman and Bryan Thomas Schmidt, and got a manuscript request from my dream agent.

So that was nice.

I got word of an “Asimov’s Party,” which turned out to be a celebration for Penny Press. I walked in to find the suite blazoned with covers for Analog and Asimov’s and was pressed into service signing copies of the September Analog in which my story, “Dreams of the Rocket Men,” appears, then helping Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams cut the cake decorated with the issue cover. I know!

I wrapped up this auspicious evening by chatting about real estate with the legendary Stan Schmidt, telling jokes with Analog editor Trevor Quatri, and crashing the Tor party with long-time Analog veteran Dave Creek. Then it was back to bar-con.

If this all sounds like a whirlwind–it was. Then on Friday, Tangent Online publisher, Dave Truesdale made news by getting himself thrown out of the con for hijacking a panel and using it to attack diversity–and his panelists–and suggest we all wear “worry beads” to appease the “special snowflakes”.

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Gordon Van Gelder and Johnathan Strahan look on in horror is Truesdale argues that they, Sheila Williams, Neil Clarke, and the rest of the industry are too accommodating to “special snowflakes.”

(In fairness, Truesdale’s concerns are as worthy of discussion as anyone else’s, but the way he chose to address them was needlessly divisive and frankly, potentially dangerous.)

But we wrapped up the week with a dress-up-and-skip-the-Hugos dinner at a local seaford restaurant, where much writerly mirth was had.welldrassed.jpg

So that was WorldCon. I came back exhausted and infected with con crud, and ready to crank out more stories than ever before. Thanks to my roomie, David Von Allmen, the always-dapper Allistair Kimble (above, right) and everyone else who made the week a warm, exciting adventure.