Monday, August 07, 2017

The Prospects and Purpose of Manned Space Travel

The Huffington Post has published this bit by Dr. Sten Odenwald:


In it, he points out the practical difficulties that make interstellar travel as it is popularly imagined quite impossible.

Dr. Odenwald seems to have done the same math I did.

I shared Dr. Odenwald's article with a number of writers, and I've also been paying a bit of attention to other discussion threads responding to the article. A common response is that we will overcome these difficulties, just you wait. And that the prime motivation for this is either Economics (which apparently fuels all Human endeavor) or Survival (because we're going to screw this place up, and will have to move on).

The problem with the first proposition is that Physics is unimpressed by Economics. And in this area of physics we seem to be dealing with unobtainium.

In sci-fi, it's common to "invent" elements with properties that are needed for the story. Our ability to imagine them lends no plausibility to their eventual discovery. We have a rather complete picture of the Periodic Table, and the only room for new elements is at the extreme high energy end where elements are unstable and short-lived.

ALL proposed methods of FTL (including the Alcubierre drive) involve exotic forms of matter that either purely theoretical or unobtainable. This isn't something that's solvable by Economics.

Nor do I believe that it's necessary to look to economics as the motivation for all of human achievement. We achieve because we can. It's only after we've achieved that we look for sustainable ways to exploit that we have discovered. Capitalism did not fuel the discovery of the poles, nor the climbing of Everest, nor the Apollo moon landings. Furthermore, it was socialists, not capitalists, who launched the first orbiting satellite (Sputnik), the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first woman into space (Valentina Tereshkova).

Those that believe that Capitalism is the beginning and the end of Human endeavor point to things that are the result, but not the motivation, for achievement. For instance, Mylar, Teflon, and computing were all advanced by the space program. It does not follow that we went to the Moon because we wanted fresher Pop-Tarts, non-stick pans, and iPads. I'm vehemently capitalistic myself.  But what I'm trying to put across here is that there are some things that transcend politics or economics.

--==//oOo\\==--

The problem with the second proposal is that it is ludicrous. By that I mean it's laugh-out-loud ridiculous. There is not even a potential scenario in which even Mars could look more inviting than Earth. If push came to shove, post-apocalyptic Earthers could use the same kind of habitats that they'd need to use on Mars and save 100% of the travel. Should the Earth become a polluted cesspool, it would still be in the center of the "Goldilocks Zone" (the habitable zone around our star). It would still contain easily accessible water and oxygen. It would still have the absolute perfect gravity for human inhabitants. And we would still already be here.

And as someone rightly pointed out, until we can successfully maintain self-sustaining, self-contained habitable units on the most inhospitable parts of this planet, then we are not competent to inhabit other worlds. As of this date, we have been horrifically bad at accomplishing this necessary feat.

In point of fact, we would of necessity have to take much better care of any world or spacecraft we wish to inhabit than we will have of Earth if it ever gets to that point. Of course, the Earth is always being screwed up by somebody else, so the elitist underlying message is that off-world colonization is for the smart people who had to leave all the dummies behind to die. As spaceships go, Earth is a pretty good one, large enough to maintain itself relatively easily. The only actual proposals thus far that hold the slightest candle to Earth itself are huge Rama-style "flying terrariums" with robust self-contained ecosystems, miles in diameter. The larger such a thing is, the more you can rely on microfauna and algae, etc. to make it self-sustaining. Something like this is a legitimate engineering problem which would not be practical in the near future. Such a vessel would be a world unto itself, and doesn't lend itself to Space Opera dreams of fast interstellar travel. And within this solar system, it's simply unnecessary.

Artist's conception of the interior of "Rama"
from Wikimedia

It's my opinion that any plausible motivation for interplanetary travel must be because we can, not because we must.

--==//oOo\\==--

While I agree with the vast majority of what Dr. Odenwald's has written, his assessment of manned missions inside the solar system is somewhat bleaker than mine. Here's the part where my political head starts shaking...
"Meanwhile, if you want any kind of space exploration that matters within the next century or beyond, it will be robotic, virtual, and involve billions of people, not just a few very lucky travelers — so what’s wrong with that?"
Here Dr. Odenwald reveals a political outlook that I don't share. His solutions are impersonal, illusory, and seek equality of outcome. In promoting them, he blocks truly great achievements for the mediocre participation of the many. And let's not forget that any virtual presence that a robot could provide is equally obtainable from human explorers. And what's more, only humans can relate the feeling of exotic environments.

William G.T. Shedd might have replied, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

Replica of the Pinta in Charleston Harbor
photo by F. Everett Leigh

We put men and women on mountaintops, on the poles, in the depths, in orbit, and on other worlds not because they are the "few very lucky travelers"; but because it is a real, grounded achievement, and because they go as representatives of Humanity. As such, the achievement of one is the achievement of all. As Neil Armstrong famously said on the surface of the Moon, "One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind."

A human achievement demonstrates Humanity's ability to overcome. A robot does not. And that's what's wrong with that.



Sunday, July 30, 2017

Star Trek and God

Esquire reports on an upcoming Entertainment Weekly story in which we're informed of the following exchange on the set of Star Trek: Discovery:
The director halts the action and Lorca, played by British actor Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame, steps off the stage. The episode's writer, Kirsten Beyer, approaches to give a correction on his "for God's sakes" ad lib. 
"Wait, I can't say 'God'?" Isaacs asks, amused. "I thought I could say 'God' or 'damn' but not 'goddamn.'  
Beyer explains that Star Trek is creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of a science-driven 23rd-century future where religion basically no longer exists. 
"How about 'for f—'s sake'?" he shoots back. "Can I say that?" 
"You can say that before you can say 'God,' " she dryly replies.
The director Kirsten Beyer is factually full of shit. Let's look at some examples of Roddenberry's vision from when he was alive and writing it:
"We are gathered here today with you, Angela Martine, and you, Robert Tomlinson, in the sight of your fellows, in accordance with our laws and our many beliefs ..." -- Kirk, Balance of Terror
That could be beliefs about anything, right?
"If you're speaking of worships of sorts, we represent many beliefs." - McCoy, Bread and Circuses
Still kind of fuzzy...  but in the same episode...
"You've got it wrong, all of you. It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the Son of God." - Uhura, Bread and Circuses 
Oh, SNAP! Not only is it THE God we're talking about here, it's Christ. And not in a bad way, either. This isn't some alien God-impostor that is to be struck down. In fact, Uhura waxes eloquently about the fact that the Roman broadcasters tried to make fun of the religion and could not. This episode was written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, the two men who created "Roddenberry's vision".
"Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God." M-5 Computer, The Ultimate Computer
Aw jeez, they just keep comin', man! Star Trek finding a basis for morality in religion? Yet it did. And morality is what saved the day. Not phasers. Not photon torpedoes. Not Spock. Not science. Not force. BTW, this is a recurring theme in Star Trek. There are inumerable times when Spock's logic fails. An entire episode ("The Galileo Seven") was devoted to this. Spock offers the utility of logic and reason. But Kirk is in charge because he has Heart. So what does Kirk say of God..?
"Mankind has no need for gods. We find the One quite adequate." - Kirk, Who Mourns for Adonais?
Who is the "we" that Kirk is talking about here? He didn't say "they".
"What does God need with a starship?" - Kirk, Star Trek V
Many, many times, the Enterprise crew encounters alien "gods", from Adonais, to Trelaine, to Vaal, to Landru, etc. But you should note that at no point does the Enterprise crew (no bloody "A", no bloody "B"...) ever take issue with worship or the concept of God. They do take down numerous pretenders to the title. Playing God is a problem for the crew. But meeting God seems a perfectly reasonable possibility to them until they discover that it's one more pretender.

And what does Gene Roddenberry's vision for Star Trek say of those who would have religious beliefs that differed from their own? Well, Kirk said it early in "Balance of Terror", but if that were just too blatant and terrestrial, it was couched in metaphorical terms as a Vulcan philosophy:
IDIC - "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."
All of these examples are ten years or more AFTER the Discovery timeframe.

I'm cautious about the new series, because now more than ever, they're advertising to the world that they don't know jack shit about Star Trek.

--==//oOo\==--

To be sure, many people don't know jack shit about Star Trek, and many of them have been writing for the show. The dumbest, most head-scratching and abysmally obvious inconsistencies have resulted, such as the Federation doesn't use money. Except the many times when it does (from credits to gold-pressed latinum to replicator rations). Or that the Federation is vegan... except the numerous times when they're demonstrably not. But I've written about these things before. A friend of mine once asserted the veganism of the Federation until I pointed out the counterexamples. Then she got mad. At me. Because in today's imperfect world, facts are fucking inconvenient, and those that bear them are evil.

In the Sixties, Roddenberry created an episodic TV show, there to tell stories. Canon wasn't really a big deal, and fit in the show's "bible" (writer's guide). But the "utopia" of Star Trek as originally envisioned was a celebration of individuality and exceptionalism where you could believe what you want and do as you will as long as it didn't infringe on the rights of others. That is the very heart and soul of the Prime Directive.



UPDATE: Some folks miss the point here. The point is this... no matter how "advanced" Roddenberry thought people would be by TNG (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Star Trek: Discovery is set 10 years PRIOR to Kirk's era. The appropriate standards to employ, then, are those used for TOS (the original series) (more exactly, this side of TOS). And those are well documented. This is why all of my examples are from the original series. And by those standards, the director is objectively full of shit.

UPDATE 2: some people are missing the point on another important aspect. My intent here is not to show that the Star Trek universe is religious. My intent is to show that the Star Trek universe is tolerant, and by "tolerant" I mean that all viewpoints, including those of religion, are given respect. Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations -- IDIC. Those who believe that Star Trek is or should be purely secular certainly do not understand the spirit of Star Trek.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cricket Doodle!

[CLICK HERE] to play!

Today's Google Doodle is pretty great. It's in celebration of the ICC 2017 Women's Cricket World Cup. It's also a mini-game where you control crickets playing cricket!

The doodle inspired me to explain the rules of cricket to my son, who is now convinced that this is why we invented baseball.

I've seen many variations of the following explanation. This is my version:

The Rules of Cricket
(as related by an American)

There are eleven players on a team.
The twelfth player doesn't play, unless a player who plays doesn't play. Even then he doesn't really play. He can't bowl, bat, wicket-keep, or captain the team. Basically, the twelfth player is a fifth wheel.
There are two innings.
In each inning, one team is out and the other team is in.
The team that is out consists of a bowler, a wicket-keeper, and a bunch of blokes who look lost.
The team that is in plays two batsmen at a time: the striker, and the tosser who's waiting around to be the striker.
The bowler (who is out) tries to get the batsmen (who are in) out.
When the bowler bowls, he pitches the ball. That is, his hand goes over, not under.
Even though the bowler pitches, his pitch isn't a pitch. The ground is a pitch. So he pitches at the pitch.
That's too confusing even for a Brit, so screw it... he bowls.

When the bowler has bowled six balls, it's an over.
The game is not over when the over is over. When the over is over, the bowler's not the bowler. Another bowler bowls another over.
There is no limit to the number of overs before the game is over. Until it's over it's overs over and over.

There are many ways to get the batsman out.
He can be bowled out.
He can be run out.
He can be caught out.
He can be stumped out.
He can accidentally out himself. It happens... they're British.
He can be LBW. This means the bowler hit him with the ball. In baseball, you'd take a base. In cricket you get the hell out.
There are other ways to be out, but nobody cares.

The batsman holds a paddle, not a bat. But "paddleball" was taken.
The batsman tries to keep the bowler from breaking a wicked wicket, and bat the ball out.
If the ball goes full out, that's 6 runs, and nobody runs.
If the ball is in before it's out, that's 4 runs, no matter how much they run.
If the ball is in and stays in, then the players run if they want to.
If the players don't want to run, they stop running.

When a batsman is out, he goes out. Another player who's in comes in until they're out.
When 10 players are out, they're all out, even the one who's not out, and the one who's not playing.
When they're all out, they go out, except the one who's not playing unless he's playing.
When everyone has gone out, that's the ending of the innings, but not the last of the innings.
Then they do it again until all the players who went in go out.
When all the players who were in are out and the players who were out go in and come out again, then the game is over. No more overs.

*shrug*... Nobody says cricket is easy to comprehend... that's why it's called a "TEST"!

You have to watch quite a few games to learn the ins and outs. But it does seem to me that in the 1600s or thereabouts, some Englishman invented Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First" routine, and all of his mates shouted, "Oy! I'll play that!"


--==//oOo\\==--


Now that the joke's over, I've found this on YouTube. It's probably the clearest and most concise explanation of the rules I've seen.  (a more complete explanation is on Wikipedia)


In the video you'll see some clips where the teams are wearing team colors, and others where the teams are wearing all white. If they're wearing white, it's probably a "test match", which is what I describe above. But there are shorter matches involving a limited number of 'overs', and in these the players commonly wear colors.

--==//oOo\\==--

And finally, here's a reminder that all of Google's old doodles are available at https://www.google.com/doodles, including the playable Google Pacman!

[CLICK HERE] to play!





Monday, June 26, 2017

Star Trek: Save What From Heaven

I loves me some Star Trek... and lately (as in the last several years), I've been a bigger fan of the fan productions than the official CBS/Paramount productions. I'm also a fan of the IDW Star Trek comics.

But something new has just been completed, and it's incredibly good. For Star Trek's 50th anniversary, Mark R. Largent and Mark McCrary have just dusted off and finished a comic book that they originally started in 1991. I must say, it is aces.

The artwork: great. McCrary's pencils perfectly capture the character of the characters, if you get my drift.

The script: great. Not only is this a fitting final voyage for James T. Kirk, it closes the loop on the entire Star Trek original era. I don't want to say too much, but for Kirk, his 63-year Star Fleet career is one voyage. I couldn't have hoped for better, and it's a damned sight more satisfying than dying under a rock while Picard looks on. I don't care what the shirts at CBS/Paramount say... for me, this is canon. (If you happen to be from CBS or Paramount, I buy your stuff and see your movies anyway. These guys are keeping me interested, so please smile and tell them "well done!")

I've made a .cbr comic book file out of it, which I'm willing to surreptitiously share, but only to people who've gotten on Largent and McCrary's Facebook page and given them some love*.

Seriously, folks, check this out. (link to the album)





* To be honest, a CBR file isn't that hard to make yourself. Put all the pages in a directory and name them alphabetically. Then use RAR to compress the directory and rename the file extension .CBR. That's it. To make a CBZ file, use Zip instead of RAR and rename the extension to .CBZ. Then you can read it with your favorite comic book reader or many ebook readers.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Temporary Insanity

In my last post I wrote about love, and I described it as "the condition by which we care for others more than we care for ourselves." I stand behind that 100%. Unfortunately many people these days confuse love with what I (and many others) call "lurve"... as in "... but we're in lurrrrrve."

Lurve is merely romantic infatuation. It has very little to do with Love. Unlike love, lurve is all about you. Talk to someone one who is "in lurve"...
  • "She makes me feel so..."
  • "I feel..."
  • "My heart..."
Lurve is all about me, me, me. It's not love at all. And it's worse than that. People "in lurve" do not make clear decisions. Even Shakespeare knew it: read Romeo and Juliet. People "in lurve" are self-destructive, not because they are caring for someone else, but because of the way the self-destruction makes them feel. It is an insidious, twisted parody of love. It leaves people behaving in this sort of ridiculous fashion so aptly illustrated by Bruno Mars:


[excerpt] 
I'd catch a grenade for ya 
Throw my hand on a blade for ya 
I'd jump in front of a train for ya 
You know I'd do anything for ya 
I would go through all this pain
Take a bullet straight through my brain 
Yes, I would die for you, baby 
But you won't do the same

Note that none of this is to actually defend or care for someone, but purely because it's asked... or worse, simply thrown at the object of infatuation; whereas a clear-headed person knows that love is long-term, and that to care for someone else you must first be equipped and prepared to do so.

I offer that lurve is nothing less than bona-fide temporary insanity.

It is temporary in that it always wears off. And when it does, it often leaves the people so stricken with the realization that they don't even like the person that they would have "died for". Sometimes (as in the song) they know this even as they're still "in lurve". That lurve is temporary is why the present divorce rate in America is 50%.  Put another way, as many as 50% of American marriages have not ended in divorce yet.

Our ancestors knew that this infatuation we now casually call lurve was divorced from common sense. A person could not be trusted to look after his or her own best interests when under its influence. Until well into the 20th century it was still social norm for a man to ask a woman's parents for permission to marry. And it was the social norm for them to reject layabouts, louts, and otherwise unsuitable suitors. The parents were the gatekeepers who kept their daughter's interests in mind, even when their daughter's mind was temporarily incapacitated by luuuurve.

And it worked. Marriages lasted, and divorce was the exception, not the rule.

--==--

In some places, this is still the norm. Today I related a story to my wife. As an IT consultant, a very large percentage of the people I have worked with over the last twenty years have been from India. A few years ago, one of my co-workers (for convenience I'll call him by the pseudonym of "Sandeep") told me he was returning to India. I asked him if his work visa had expired.

"No," he replied. "I'm getting married!"

I told him I thought that was wonderful, and asked him what his fiancée was like. Sandeep responded that he didn't know... he had never met her. His parents had arranged the marriage.

--==--

At this point in the story, my wife looked aghast. "You mean to tell me he didn't even know what she looked like, or whether he would like her or not?" She told me that she couldn't imagine having to "submit" to a "forced" marriage. I asked her what she thought about that, and she said she didn't think much of it. I bet her that she would change her mind when I finished the story...

--==--

Sandeep was born in a culture that reveres their elders for their wisdom and life experience. He loves his parents very much, and he knows that no matter how old he gets, they will love him intensely. He trusts that they would always look after his best interests, and do their very best for him. He knew that in choosing a wife for him, his parents would make the best choice they possibly could, using all of their experience and hopes for his future and that of all of their grandchildren.

I saw Sandeep's face. I heard his voice. He did not reluctantly return in fear and trepidation at being "forced" into an arranged marriage. Rather, he looked forward with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of meeting for himself the perfect woman that his parents had chosen especially for him... the very same excitement and anticipation felt by expecting parents toward a baby who has not yet even been born.

Whether a newborn is thin, fat, ugly, or has all of his fingers and toes has nothing to do with a parent's love; it doesn't depend on anything so superficial. So it was with Sandeep and the perfect wife he had not yet seen.

--==--

My wife stared at me for a full thirty seconds, slack-jawed. I could tell she was thinking of our own children.

"I never thought of it that way. I understand it now. It's different. But it's beautiful."

Yeah. It is.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Love and Hate

Many people believe that the opposite of Love is Hate. I don't think it is. The true opposite of Love is nothing at all. If you have ever felt the empty, bland not-caringness of ceasing to love someone without hating them, you have some idea of the truth of this. Where there is both Love and Hate, when the Love is gone, then Hate is exposed, naked. For this reason, people believe them to be opposites.

Hate stems from the perception of being hurt or wronged. Hate, properly applied, has a positive purpose. Consider this passage from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra, in which Professor Ransom is wrestling with the Un-Man:
What was before him appeared no longer a creature of corrupted will. It was corruption itself to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person: but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation. It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for.
Why would an almighty God allow such a thing as hatred...? Because it has exquisite, necessary utility. Love is the condition by which we care for others more than we care for ourselves. Unalloyed Love leads us to allow evil without opposition. We become the unwitting tools of evil. We become enablers. Hate, properly applied, motivates us to combat evil. In the presence of Love, Hate gives us the strength to act where we might otherwise consider only our own survival. It keeps us from being cowards.

Hate becomes a problem in the absence of Love.

Without Love... putting others first... we make ourselves the center of everything. Every matter of ethics and morality becomes relative and subjective. We focus only on the offense that we take, without considering whether offense was given. Thus, we are offended by everything and we hate freely. And because admitting to our hatred would damage our self-image, we cannot bring ourselves to do that. Instead, we justify our selfishness using the language of emotions we do not truly feel. Not necessarily toward everyone... but certainly toward those who don't bolster our self-image... those who are not useful to us.

Look around. Look inside. Judge for yourself.


To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump Frenzy Continues

Judging from the Liberals on my Facebook page, they just can't get enough of Trump. It's a parade of all-Trump, all-the-time, and for the next 3-1/2 years personal lives are something to be neglected to the point of atrophy.

Ah, well. Today I saw a rather long list of possibilities for the demise of Trump's term in office. According to this armchair pundit, Trump has in the neighborhood of a 1-in-16 chance of finishing his first term. I say this because the other 15 options revolve around some ignominious removal from office by impeachment or resignation.

By the way, I'm 100% behind Richard Dreyfuss' non-partisan initiative to bring Civics education back into grade school curriculum.


If my left-leaning friends applied Civics to the issue, they'd remember that it is not illegal for the President of the United States, who happens to be the Chief Executive... top kahuna of the executive branch of government... to fire someone in his employ. That includes the FBI Director. Their dislike of the timing of it does not make it a high crime or misdemeanor. Their disagreement with his operational decisions do not constitute grounds for impeachment.

If my left-leaning friends applied Civics to the issue, they'd remember that it is not illegal for the President of the United States, who happens to be the countries chief diplomat, to talk to the leaders of other countries or maintain friendly relationships with them. Their fantasies of traitorous subterfuge does not make it illegal for world leaders to meet, talk, tell jokes, laugh, etc.. Even when those leaders have substantive differences of policy, they can still be cordial and civil. A joke shared between adversaries does not make the policy differences disappear.

Unfortunately, many (and by no means all) of my friends and acquaintances on the left have no comprehension of this, having lost the ability to disagree cordially themselves. They just can't do it. It has nothing to do with politics, really; if you're bad, everything about you must be bad. Whatever you sell is bad, whatever you like is bad, and your every purpose must be nefarious. All it takes is one opinion. Ask Laci Green. A die-hard feminist, all she said was that the other side had some valid points and that she'd continue to be open to conversations about opposing views, and she got lambasted for it by her leftist "friends". I've found that there is a large group of people on that side for whom "friendship" is a truly foreign concept. There are people who are useful to them, and there are enemies. And this is a lop-sided criticism, yes. I personally know many people on the left who are like that, specifically about interpersonal relationships. I personally know no one on the right who is. I disagree strongly on a number of the talking points of both sides, and that's my experience.

For the record, I strongly suspect Trump is acting the way he is because he has no intention of running for a second term. You're used to analyzing the actions of politicians, whereas this is not a politician. This is someone who thinks of himself as a great negotiator, and that's how you need to analyze his actions. Misdirection and manipulation. Put on a little circus over there so you can get some stuff done quietly over here. Over-ask so as to more readily "settle" for what you wanted in the first place. For instance, people forget all about whether there should be a Wall if they spend 100% of their time arguing over who's going to pay for it. See? It's a completely different conversation.

So at this point my thought is that Trump's going to finish his full term, and he'll do it without impeachment or resignation. Resignation will never even be on the table. And he will continue to operate in a way that completely baffles the left, even when he delivers many of the things they actually want. And the left will continue to oppose him on those items, even though they formerly wanted them. Go figure.