Life Imitates Art #3,045,772

Someone is now marketing something we proposed in In the Shadow of Ares:  robotic solar panel cleaners.  I received information on these via an email brochure from Sentro Technologies USA (unfortunately information on theses robots is not available on their website).  These devices are certainly something my employer, a significant developer and owner of renewable technologies, would consider for our larger solar arrays.  Here are two images from the brochure:

 

 

 

 

The first runs on a rail, much like we envisioned when we had Amber engaged in her chores, cleaning dust off solar panels because the robot wasn’t functioning.  I find the second autonomous, mobile unit more interesting.  The engineering challenge would be to get it to move from array to array, especially where those arrays have tracking systems and vary in tilt and orientation relative to one another.

 

 

 

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

Luxurious Optimism

Houston-based startup Orion Span is taking reservations for 12-day on orbit stays at their planned “luxury” hotel, Aurora Station.  The $9.5 million cost includes astronaut training and launch, with the station scheduled for launch in 2021 and the first guests hosted in 2022.

2022 seems more than a bit optimistic to me given that neither Space X or Boeing expect to launch crewed missions until late 2018 at the earliest.

Still, I’d love to be proven wrong.  And for those of us that don’t have $9.5 million or even $80k lying around, it seems to me that a good way to stoke up interest and funding would be to raffle off a trip for two.

Kookery Comes a Knockin’

I’m quite used to encountering conspiracy kooks nearly everywhere on the Internet–and occasionally in public places–but never this close to home.  Apparently my neighborhood harbors not only a 9-11 Twoofer, but one willing to drop some change at the local printer and go door-to-door hanging these brochures.

Something a crazy person hung on my doorknob

And it’s not just your run of the mill “it was an inside job!” claim.  It’s heavy on Dr. Judy Wood, a “former assistant professor of mechanical engineering”.  She asks “where did the towers go?”, claiming that the debris piles were too small to account for the mass of the towers and that “directed free energy technology” must be behind the “missing” mass.  That’s one I hadn’t heard before, and even more evidence-free than most other ridiculous claims out there.

I’m not going to get into it a critique of her “theories” here, and I’m not going to provide a link as you can find it yourself if you are so inclined.  But as a civil engineer I see no need for non-existent weapon systems, thermite charges, or any other nonsense to explain how the towers collapsed.  My limited perusal of her website revealed nothing but unsupported speculation, evidence taken out of context, and any number of other logical fallacies including special pleading. Oops, I said I wasn’t going to get into a critique.  Old habits…

It’s interesting to note that on her website she claims “Sadly, this case had no support from the ‘Truth movement’…”, meaning, it appears, that her claims are too ridiculous for other Twoofers to accept.  I had a hard time believing that until I came across efforts by the frauds at “Architects and Engineers for 9-11 Truth”  to debunk her.  Splitter!

Anyway, while it makes for a compelling study in psychology, the question I find more interesting is: what would it take to pull off a hoax like this and actually fool the experts?  I’m quite certain that with millions of eyewitnesses, and the fact that it took place right here on Earth in one of our most densely populated cities, that it would be phenomenally difficult to fake (and by “fake” I mean to fool ACTUAL experts, not crackpots on YouTube).  Like the fact that it would be MORE difficult to have faked the Apollo landings, than to actually have gone to the Moon in 1969.

Asgardia, or How to Filter Out Undesirable Settlers

If I were setting up a space settlement, this is exactly how I would go about weeding out those unsuited to the undertaking: What Tops the Agenda for a New Space Colony? A Debate Over Taxes

It’s more than just taxes, and so much less. The project is tailor-made to draw in weirdos and whackjobs and busybodies and control freaks, who would at best (as is apparently happening) cause the whole undertaking to collapse in strife, and who were it to actually get off the ground would turn the place into a hell on orbit.

April Fool’s Day Redux

Back online after a couple months of proposal work, two rocket engine designs, and a promotion. Whew. And despite all that, I’ve been writing quite a bit, having now completed the roughing-in of the “true crime” Dispatch and nearly completed the same for the “Marineris expedition” Dispatch. Next weekend, Carl and I will finish the third act of Ghosts of Tharsis…or else.

And then, a break from outlining to do some actual Dispatch writing. Which will be fun.

In the meantime, enjoy last year’s April Fool’s Day story, Anatomy of a Disaster, fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake’s first (and perhaps not entirely canonical) Dispatch From Mars:

At 09:04 the position sensor data from Margaret Steadman’s Mobile Agent shows that she was rushing around her apartment, from one room to the next, presumably searching frantically for her missing pets. She appears to have deduced the answer, as at 09:05 she climbed onto a chair below one of the open vents through which the animals had escaped.

At the same moment, Rudolph Alexander had found the source of the mystery noise. What sounded like mewing and an occasional screech was just that, and it was coming from the air vent above the process display wallscreen in the Box.

“There was fur poking out. Whatever was in there was pushing, pulsing against the diffuser, making it bend and bulge. My first thought was the vent was blocked by something, a large cluster of lint or whatever, and that that noise was the air whistling through it. Then I saw the claws. And the eyes.”

There was no time to call for help. The diffuser broke free, and strange animals poured out into the Box like a waterfall—a screeching, angry, hissing waterfall of fur. “Fifty, a hundred, more and more of those things were between me and the door to the main corridor. I-I panicked, sure, I admit it. Wouldn’t you have? All I knew was I had to get away. And there was only one way I could go.”

With unknown and terrifying creatures flooding into the Box, Alexander took the only other way out: the hatch into the production area.

“All our training said that hatch was supposed to stay closed when a batch was running, but nothing trained me for anything like this. I tried to shut the hatch behind me, really I did! I must have crushed a half-dozen of those monsters doing it. But I couldn’t get it to latch—pressure hatches won’t close if there’s anything blocking the jamb. At least I remembered to hit the emergency shut-down button. What more was I supposed to do?”

While Alexander’s account of these events was initially seen as an attempt to evade blame by faking a psychological breakdown, evidence recovered from the scene later exonerated him.

“Nobody believed me at first. But then they found the video from the Box. And those bodies in her freezer. And, boy, then people understood!” he declares with wide-eyed triumph, leaping to his feet and stabbing a finger into the air. “Then, then everyone knew old Rudolph Alexander hadn’t lost his marbles after all!”

 

Nat Geo Goes to Mars

Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033.  You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.

Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.