Yes, we need to get back to blogging here. But you know how it is, sometimes other priorities intervene.
Anyway, getting back to writing, we’re (still) finishing up the crime story Dispatch we’ve been working on for a while. We’ve spent the past two weekends restructuring a portion of it to address a draggy sequence that was proving impossible to edit into shape. It’s turning out nicely, with a much more consistently-paced escalation of events following the titular crime.
Meanwhile, Act I of the second Amber Jacobsen book, Ghosts of Tharsis, is complete but for some fact checking on orbital mechanics, Act II is written but for a few additional thematic elements and some additional action, and Act III is written but (frankly) the denouement is still a dog’s breakfast.
I spent most of July in Iceland, which half-expectedly turned into a “location scouting” trip for writing purposes. Drove Kaldidalur, Kjolur, and about half of Sprengisandur, each of which crosses a number of Mars-like landscapes. Also drove the segment of the Ring Road between Egilstadir and Jokulsargljufur that I bypassed in 2010, an area that looked like the Moon and Mordor had a landscape love-child. Once I finish processing the photos, I may do a photo essay on the especially Martian landscapes I encountered.
NAWA Technologies has announced that it will begin mass-producing carbon nanotube based ultracapacitors. Compared to lithium batteries, ultracapacitors are capable of near-instantaneous charging and discharging.
It was these characteristics that led us to select this technology, in our novel In The Shadow of Ares, to power various devices on a future Mars, ranging from mobile agents to the autonomous “diggers” (mining robots). More specifically, it was the near-instantaneous discharge of huge quantities of energy that made them particularly appealing.
Although the 2019 versions of ultracapacitors have shortcomings (low energy density and high leakage rates compared to lithium units), it is rewarding to see the technology we described a decade ago reach mass production.
So what say we buy one, bring it to full charge, and see what happens when we damage the charge regulator?
I swore off reading most news as one of my new year’s resolutions, so I’m a little behind on this item. Now I understand the sudden sense of urgency regarding proposals I’ve been busy with this past week.
“At the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said. “To be clear: the first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”
So much for the usual kumbayaa globalism. Heh.
Pence offered a warning that appeared to be directed at Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage. “We’re committed to Marshall [Space Flight Center],” he said. “But to be clear, we’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones who will.”
“If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be,” Pence added. “Urgency must be our watchword.”
From what I’m seeing, what’s behind the sense of urgency is the perception that HQ will not hesitate when faced with delays or overruns to change contractors or cancel troubled programs outright. (Excluding SLS, of course…)
Having worked on a program (on the receiving side) that was taken away from one contractor and given intact to another due to poor performance, I hope that specific type of contractor change doesn’t happen too often. Shifting a existing program to an entirely new team may (or may not) fix the management and design competency issues, but it takes a lot of time for the new team to get up to speed. More importantly, it’s difficult if not impossible to fix all of the engineering problems simply due to the inertia of completed engineering – the new team may not be allowed to start from scratch, or to implement significant changes and improvements, simply because of the time and budget required to do so.
Definition: a half-page of text inflated into an hour of monologue via repetition, digressions, and zero-content verbal filler, and commonly delivered in a halting, stammering, screeching, uptalking, mumbling, or droning voice unsuited to the task.
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.
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 finishedand out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourthstory 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Or should I say Happy Belated Birthday? Atlas Shrugged was published 60 years ago yesterday. Here John Stossel summarizes the history of this provocative novel and the controversy it whips up to this day.