Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Science Fiction, news, views, blues... and amuses...

Here's a Sci Fi roundup to offer a breather from Earthly troubles.

For starters...  We’re watching the excellent Amazon Prime show COUNTERPART. Two parallel worlds divided in 1982. They remained similar til one of them lost half a billion people to a flu that they blamed on the other world. Some creepily prescient scenes re masks and distancing and paranoia. Truly excellent actors and scripting.

And yes, pandemics have been common in science fiction. From PLAGUE YEAR about a nanomachine apocalypse (by the late Jeff Carlson: very worthwhile) all the way back to Mary Shelley's THE LAST MAN. My own "The Giving Plague" was guardedly optimistic about infectious diseases coming to terms with their hosts. In HEART OF THE COMET the physician on an expedition to Halley had the job of regularly releasing "challenge diseases" to keep crew healthy.

Here's a kewl little piece on 5 Great Books That Show The Range Of Science Fiction. Well, that’s four bright up-and-comers and one old fart. 

And the brilliant young sci fi writer S.B. Divya (author of RunTime) and I interviewed each other for the magazine of our alma mater, Caltech, in this fine older piece.

The mighty Annalee Newitz offers us an interesting article about how some recent science fiction has featured riffs about the “dismal science”… economics. It’s entertaining, though it focuses mostly on recent fixations. Even the excellent and more-serious-than-average series THE EXPANSE is economically silly. (Like there’s grinding poverty when they've accessed that much automation and unlimited asteroidal resources? How many babies would human women have to make, in just two centuries, in order Malthus-away that kind of wealth-generating capacity? The same illogical notion propels Bladerunner 2049. And yes, excellent flicks, despite my nitpicks.)

Oh, sure, the fundamental need in a story is to have dire problems for the protagonists to face and either overcome or dramatically fail. (I explain how that need drives most writers and directors into narrow and often repetitive paths.

== A fine new magazine ==

New from the Berggruen Institute and the World Post comes Noema Magazine. It will cover the overlapping realms of philosophy, geopolitics, economics and technology. From artificial intelligence and the climate crisis to the future of democracy and capitalism, we seek a deeper understanding of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

In ancient Greek, the word noēma means “thinking” or the “object of thought.” "In this era of social transformations, many of which are accelerated by COVID-19, there is a dire need for new ideas and paradigms to frame the world we are moving into."

Meanwhile... Wil McCarthy – one of the most innovative SF writers of the 1990s, whose super-tech speculations were so plausible they led to patents - is back with two incredible novels. First, THE COLLAPSIUM takes off from Wil’s epic Queendom of Sol society, where programmable matter and miniature black holes drive the ultimate Utopia - with the ultimate dark side. “If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then any sufficiently advanced society should come to resemble a fairy tale.”

Follow this with ANTEDILUVIAN:  Before disaster erased the coastlines of the Antediluvian age, men and women struggled and innovated in a world of savage contrasts. It was a time when archetypes and myths were written upon the fabric of humanity, that are still preserved in our oldest stories.  In a brilliant and dangerous brain-hacking experiment, Harv Leonel and Tara Mukherjee are about to discover entire lifetimes of human memory coded in our genes, and reveal ancient legends that are very real - and very deadly. Follow all that next year with RICH MAN'S SKY: “When billionaires control the space program, where does that leave the rest of us?”

== A wonderful universe, despite nits to pick ==

This NPR article offers some sci fi media notes, starting with “Troop Zero,” which - while a bit clichéd - was charming with unexpected SETI/scifi angles. But moving on to the Big Leagues… what could be more exciting and hopeful a sign, than Michael Chabon being put in charge of the new  CBS All-Access Star Trek series “Picard”?  A total pro and visionary, who never let success go to his head and who never disowned science fiction.

Plumbing deeper into the series, here’s an interesting rumination on “Picard,” carrying Patrick Stewart’s iconic captain into a future when the Romulan Empire has been shattered by the supernova that divided two universes, the “ortho” Trek cosmos and that of JJ Abrams (as usual, vivid but illogical). I don’t have CBS-AA and can wait a bit. But I think the prospects for this show sound very good. And I do care about that, a lot! Star Trek is the most logically consistent and well-maintained of all science fiction cosmologies and the one that keeps urging us to be better than we are. That contrasts sharply vs. the epically dumb and generally immoral competitor I denounce in Star Wars on Trial.

Alas there is one deeply flawed aspect of the Trek universe - a truly nerdy but vexing complaint - and that is the distribution of intelligent species. If the Klingon and Romulan and Cardassian empires were all large enough to be a threat to the Federation then they were of comparable - if somewhat lesser - size. Then should they not have contained comparable numbers of star systems with intelligent races? And in the Shatnerverse wasn’t it alluded to that none of those empires were kind to those “natives”? Consider the depiction of a Federation filled with noisy, rollicking and sometimes bickering free peoples. What about the peoples who were suppressed by neighboring empires before the Klingons had their Chernobyl and the Romulans their supernova?

This has been a major blind spot in the Trek universe.  That we would see a sense of mission to the Federation’s righteous struggles against the three empires. (This is hinted at in the laudable fan-flick “Prelude to Axanar.”)

We saw this a bit in the Federation liberating Bajor in DS9 and in the Gamma Quadrant War.  It should have been a major plot element of the Klingon Chernobyl plot line and even bigger in the Romulan Supernova calamity, in Picard.

== And finally... ==

A fascinating – almost sci-fi-ish – tale about some nerdy young women in WWII who played war games that revealed U-boat tactics and helped to win the Battle of the Atlantic.  

SETI Law expert Michael Michaud’s Michael Michaud’s first novel, Eastern Wind, describes the discovery of an unexpected shipwreck off Catalina Island that changes Chinese and North American history. His second science-related novel, entitled Monsters, suggests the potentially threatening implications of genetic manipulation, and how the concentration of great wealth in a small elite could lead to irresponsible use of that technology.

Jean-Marc Ligny reports that “The French Army (and other sober agencies) is recruiting SF writers.” 

Need cheering up? Sample some chapters of my new sci fi comedy novel “The Ancient Ones.”  Enjoy free sample chapters! Stay capable of smiling... and... 

Keep looking upward...


David Brin said...

I welcome comments on appearance and usefulness as we have switched to "the New Blogger."

Jon S. said...

The "New Blogger" seems to look and act pretty much like the "Old Blogger" from my POV. Maybe I'll see a difference after the next time I clear the cache.

I'm told that Chabon and his people consulted closely with the producers of Star Trek Online while developing "Picard". In that timeline, the collapse of the Romulan Star Empire (well, the incomplete collapse - there's still a group calling itself the RSE, but it only controls a few systems and seems to consist almost entirely of Tal'Shiar operatives) revealed that there had been quite a few sapients in its wake, but the government had suppressed them so violently that they were largely relegated to a few small slave states (with the exception of the Remans, who were a substantial minority and who are one of the two largest populations in the new Romulan Republic). As for the Klingon Empire, they started appreciating the concept of diversity shortly after being forced to seize Gornar, hubworld of the Gorn Hegemony, after learning that the government of the Hegemony had been largely supplanted by infiltrators from the Undine (Species 8472) in 2399, the same year season one of "Picard" takes place.* Since Gornar became a Klingon client state, they began admitting Gorn to the Klingon Defense Forces, along with Orions and other unspecified species (made by players, using the Alien option in the Character Creator).

There will, of course, be variations between the Picard and STO timelines, which will be accounted for in-game by either retcons or, should they become too severe, simply declaring STO a new timeline (as their belief is that the only "canon" information comes from the TV episodes and movies, and the game is explicitly built onto that rather than replacing it).

*Which would help explain why, when the Klingons called for Federation aid in taking Gornar, the Council refused - Starfleet was still rebuilding after the Romulan rescue missions and the disaster at Mars. It was mentioned that several member worlds opposed the rescues, and stopped supplying technology to Starfleet altogether after Mars.

David Brin said...

Well, I haven't seen any new comments. I hope nothing is amiss with this "new Blogger."

Tony Fisk said...

re: depicting subject species: it's not surprising if anyone missed this in the badly confused storyline but, weren't the downtrodden Remans at the bottom of the Romulan Senate assassination and manipulation of Picard's clone in "Nemesis"?

Now, when someone gets around to pitching Poul Anderson's 'future history' stories... "People of the Wind"* is all about where loyalties lie.

duncan cairncross said...


If you look up - wages and productivity

You will see that wages USED to track productivity
This did NOT mean that the workers got all of the gains - simply that they got a more or less constant share of the gains

Until the 70's
Since then ALL of the gains have gone to the owners and executives
Engineers such as myself have continued to share some of the gains - but still we have a lower share of the gains than we used to get

And the shop floor has got bugger all

NOW I know that at the same time the COST of a lot of things has gone down in real terms and that today's workers are in a lot of ways better off than their parents

BUT they are simply not as MUCH better off as they should be

Simply because the 0.1% has vampired that wealth
They contributed close to zero - but stole most of the gains

Cari Burstein said...

Well I don't normally comment for the sake of commenting, but in order to help with the testing- it looks pretty much the same to me. Must be a behind the scenes change. Do you have new moderation options?

Alfred Differ said...

I don't see any differences, but I didn't notice any when I shifted my blog either.

Acacia H. said...

The article on Picard is half a year old, just about. The show was pretty interesting, all things considered, and did touch upon how Picard views Starfleet and the Federation as at odds with what it truly was. The ending could have used some work as well, in my opinion. Still, I hope a second season of Picard eventually comes about as it had some interesting concepts.


Larry Hart said...

I don't notice anything "new". What's supposed to be different?

Dwight Williams said...

For discussions of galactic "real estate" in the Trek context, it seems that both Discovery and Picard - and likely, Lower Decks, Strange New Worlds, Section 31 and two other projects yet to be named as well - are using Star Trek: Star Charts and Star Trek: Stellar Cartography as map sources to work from. If you have those volumes, you might have more to say about the believability of the Romulan scenario in Picard's first season.

Dwight Williams said...

Sidebar: As for the "new Blogger"...not sure I've seen any of it yet.

Tacitus said...

By way of test and comment, I'll say that conversion to the new Blogger has a few kludgy features...keep an eye on font size when composing. It also appears to do a better job at screening out spamsters of various degrees of malevolence.


scidata said...

SpaceX is hiring people to design & build floating BFR (Starship) launch sites. Why? One intriguing application is commonplace city-to-city travel. The ability to launch from and possibly land at downtown harbor-fronts would really cut travel time. For example, LA to Toronto downtown in 24 minutes. That would be a real money maker.

Quite Likely said...

Counterpart is great - it's actually a Starz show originally which I guess you are now watching on Amazon Prime. It was tragically underappreciated when it was on the air - especially when Starz basically gave up on it after the first season despite being contractually obligated to produce a second. Definitely something I've been thinking a lot about since the covid pandemic started - especially given the conclusion.

jim said...

Rocket launches are really noisy, you will need to put any floating launch sites at least 20 miles out to sea in order to get noise levels acceptable.

Also due to pandemic concerns I am not sure how a big of market there will be for rocket passenger ships.
Then there is always the environmental impact of rocket passenger ships.

There is a viable rocket business in launching information technology into orbit and supporting governmental space projects (both military and scientific) but that is about it.

No manufacturing process is worth the cost of space.
No mining in space makes sense.
Solar power satellites don’t make economic sense although not as bad as space mining or space manufacturing.
Space tourism might work with large government subsidies for the 1%ERS who want to vacation in space, but I am not sure that would be popular with the people.

Space X will likely be able to monopolize the IT satellites and Governmental missions with relatively few reusable rockets. If you keep the fleet down to 10-20 rockets you could probably satisfy both of those markets with an environmental footprint that is not too horrible.

Robert said...

That Eastern Wind novel looks interesting. Do you have any idea where I could buy an epub version? All I can find is Kindle, and while I can convert mobi to epub I have no idea how to actually download a mobi file from Amazon (and thanks to the pandemic my usual tech support chap is unavailable).

john fremont said...

Just commenting to test the New Blogger operation

David Brin said...

Comments seem to be working.

David Brin said...

Sure enough. The "improved" blogger may turn out to have improvements. But so far it has added a click many times per day where I have to refresh and click to see if there are comments awaiting moderation. What is it with companies that don't test with live users?

TheMadLibrarian said...

Scidata -- I remember in Heinlein's Friday that a ballistic rocket could get you between continents in about half an hour, and it wasn't ridiculously expensive, either.

Mitchell Wyle said...

New Blogger appears to have better typography, whitespace, & layout.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

What is it with companies that don't test with live users?

They're manufacturing voting machines.

(Kidding on the square)

Keith Halperin said...

@scidata: Re: City to City Travel (by Rocketship!):
I have beeen reading about this sort of thing for over 50 years-
except for some limited purposes (emergencies, certain limited military actions) I can't think of why we would need something like this.
Also, what's the point of 24 minute transcontinetal trip if you have to show up 1.5-2.0 hours ahead of time?
You's also have possible problems (especially with downtown harbor-fronts) from noise pollution and danger (accidents/terrorism).

This type of thing reminds me a lot of a 1953 Poul Anderson story ("Un Man") taking place in 2004 where a couple of guys were going down to the spaceport to await the arrival of the latest rocketship from Mars. (Similarly, I think it was in his 1971 "The Star Fox" where he mentions [in I'd guess 22nd Century] robots and people unloading a cargo submarine in my town of San Francisco...)

IMHO, effort would be much better spent in setting up a reliable infrastructure for reliable UHD, Dolby 5.1, real-time communication for "remos" (remote employees) while making sure "onsies" (onsite employees) have easy and short commutes, especially minimizing ones involving single-occupancy vehicles.

Anonymous said...

@Everyone: re: Star Trek:
I LOVE Star Trek, have since I was a kid. At the same time, DON'T try to make it logical or coherent- that way lies madness. (of course if you do , there's always,, True happiness lies in adapting the words of the legendary Frankie Lane:
"Keep movin', movin', movin'
Though they're disapprovin'
Keep them Trekkies movin'
Don't try to understand 'em
Just rope, and throw, and brand 'em
Soon we'll be living high and wide."

matthew said...

If anyone missed seeing "Watchmen" on HBO, the network is streaming it for free this weekend. Excellent... and thematic to our day. Highly recommended.

Acacia H. said...

Well, Keith, that question can be asked other ways as well. I mean, what's the point of a four-hour continental flight if you have to show up two hours ahead of time? And given that a flight across to the other side of the globe takes quite a few hours but a rocket can do it in half an hour or so... yeah, I can honestly see the appeal. You're taking 2.5 hours to travel thousands of miles. It's not like we're going to get planetary transporters like in Star Trek: Picard anytime soon (or ever).


Zepp Jamieson said...

Slightly smaller typeface, but still readable. On the other hand, Trump is still president, so I have to give it a failing grade.

Tim H. said...

The change I've noticed is it seems to reload faster than old blogger, so, not complaining.

Alfred Differ said...


That is SUCH a tiny time slice when it comes to these things. Look at some of Piketty's charts in his big book and then hold your hands on both sides to frame a span of a few decades. Move the frame and one can unintentionally change the entire message being told in a chart.

There is good evidence that productivity exploded at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Sorta the whole point of the revolution, I think, yet wages didn't explode too. Wealth stolen? Some say yes, but I argue that is zero-sum thinking. There was also the small issue that labor didn't bring expensive human capital to those early textile jobs… and couldn't… until industry began to standardize some devices and processes. At that point, labor trained at one factory had skills that could be used at another. At that point, the next employer could benefit by choosing one laborer over another, thus the profits they made form productivity gains could reasonably be spent on labor and provide a competitive edge.

Just because productivity goes up doesn't mean labor is going to get the growth in profit. They must be an owner as well… or be able to demand a better price for their service. It wasn't just Reagan and Thatcher's clade that changed things around 1980. We also saw the recovery from WWII essentially come to and end. Our place in the global market shifted as a result. My labor wasn't just competing with other US citizens anymore.

And the shop floor has got bugger all

Yah. And you (and many others) want to blame someone. Vampires. I get it, but I think it too simplistic.

Try a simple exercise.

Suppose the cosmic 'hint' book fell into your lap.
[The cosmic answer book isn't available to mere mortals.]
In the chapters regarding economics, they cover this particular topic and leave a hint for the students. The hint is personalized for each reader. In this case it says "You are wrong about the vampires." It doesn't offer more than that, so the question you face evolves. "What else could be the reason besides the idea I thought was right?"

Well? What other explanatory theory matches the evidence? It doesn't have to be 'right', but it has to match evidence. Kinda like geocentric astronomy is pretty decent at predicting planetary positions in the sky, but fundamentally wrong about how the motion occurs.

The Hint Book pushes us away from a theory that works but is fundamentally wrong. [We only really know the first part while our belief systems create underlying errors.]

Alfred Differ said...

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I got through schooling without knowing much of anything of Tulsa's history. I knew of riots from back then, but not much more. As a result, when I first watched that Watchmen sequel, I couldn't quite decide how much of that they were making up. I knew from the original graphic novel that it was founded on an alt-history with recognizable politicians and all that. I had to consider that they were doing the same with Tulsa's history.

Not so much.

Since then I've taken some time to learn. I also watched the rest of the sequel series. Well worth it.

duncan cairncross said...

I agree with Acacia
Waiting at an airport is MUCH MUCH nicer than on an aircraft - and the wait time is additive anyway

Here to the UK - 30 hours of purgatory - or a half hour hop

Robert said...

In terms of new interface, I'm now seeing embedded ads. Didn't see any before.

Tim H. said...

I found this interesting, if not exactly "Sci-Fi":
In these days of the new, improved SARS there's an additional cost to racism, despised underclasses are especially vulnerable to disease, which will escape into more privileged neighborhoods where the infectious agents will recognize no difference. The desire of some successful people to have the contrast of poverty, so their success clearly stands out has always imposed a price on society, most often in lost potential, sometimes in blood. The bigot tax is becoming unbearably high.

Andy said...

New Blogger is sprinkled with a lot more ads everywhere.

Catfish 'n Cod said...

New Blogger so far: reloads faster, some fonts slightly worse, annoying ads more frequent. Verdict: meh.

Kittenfish: still adorable.

Semiballistic transport: Trying to envision non-military applications being approved. You're literally launching ICBMs with cargo and passengers. Heinlein's Friday pointed out one issue: you only get one chance to land. In his story, you had to have clearance to land before you took off, and the landing site had to be kept clear for the entire trip. And Heinlein didn't have the experience of 9/11. So that's a big nope. And exactly what cargo is so utterly vital that it needs transport in 45 minutes rather than the 6-12 hours supersonic air transport would take?

No, those launch sites aren't for point-to-point. They're long-range planning for large-scale orbital transport. Slightly insane in its ambition -- but that's Musk for ya. A regular D. D. Harriman; build it and they will come.

jim: "The cost of space"... right now. The primary goal of Third Age spaceflight operations is to get the cost to orbit low enough that these statements are no longer true. A Space Shuttle could get you to orbit for $25k/lb; a disposable for $10k/lb. Reusable first stages and efficiency improvements have now got the price down to $1k/lb: a one-log drop in 20 years. NASA's stated goal is to achieve another one-log reduction over the next twenty years, to $100/lb.

Many things that were pipe dreams at $10k/lb are practical at $100/lb. What happens when, instead of national lab modules, a group of universities can afford to launch a LEO lab? At $100/lb, manufacturing of modules becomes a larger cost factor than launch costs.

Space mining and space manufacturing make more sense at first for extending space operations than for returning products to Earth's surface; the cost of materials drops manyfold more if you only have to launch mining equipment that returns 100x its initial mass to LEO, GEO, or L1. Tourism will help provide volume for leverage here, but the real win comes when you have bulk production of elements rare or difficult to obtain on Earth. What applications of known materials have been written off as impractical due to unavailable resources or cost-prohibitive mining?

David Brin said...

We though we had made the ads go away. They are back an obnoxious! Can anyone see a way to get back to the old system?

David Brin said...

Hilariously disgusting, the adds are about potties!

DP said...

As for subjects of the Klingons and Cardassians, there was a Mirror Universe episode for ST:DS9 that showed conquered Humans living like slaves under their rule.

But then it was the evil universe where Spock had worn a goatee, so maybe these Klingons and Cardassians are worse than the ones in "our" universe.

P.S. Question for this and every other SF novel/show that has subjugated peoples- why would such an advanced interstellar civilization need slaves or helots or serfs?

Alfred Differ said...

When I read

Rocket launches are really noisy, you will need to put any floating launch sites at least 20 miles out to sea in order to get noise levels acceptable.

I thought I was going to get a chance to agree with Jim on something. That much is true, though putting them out to sea isn't the only option.

Even his understanding about the viability of business cases for launching IT is decent. At present, the market doesn't support much more than IT up there. Then he goes and says this…

No manufacturing process is worth the cost of space.
No mining in space makes sense.

Lots of people engage in prophecy, but fail to notice when they transition from statements about the present to statements about the future. They make those predictions as if they were current truths. It's the linear extrapolation error most of the time and the failure of vision error for the rest of it. Mostly.

For example…

1. Currently, no manufacturing process is worth the cost of space. That says little about the future except don't do it the way we currently do it. No problem with that, though. Humans innovate. Either we won't do it, or we will do it different.

2. Currently, no mining of space resources makes sense. A lot of that has to do with the fact that manufacturing processes aren't profitable up there yet. Chicken and Egg thing. Again, no problem.

3. His understanding of space solar power demonstrates his lack of understanding regarding electric utilities and their business model. SSP makes even less sense (currently) than space mining and manufacturing. The ONLY path forward for that technology before we build a significant economic presence up there is if the US goes to war with Russia. Land wars in Asia are the ultimate stupidity for us, but when we go there we spend stupidly too. Early growth of SSP requires DoD demand to support a land war where we worry about the oil supply chain to the battle front.

Oops. I'm making a prediction myself, right? SSP won't make sense except… Okay. I should back off of that. I'm probably right about it, but the known truth is that SSP has a worse problem with profitability than mining and manufacturing up there. I know because my friends have run the numbers. It's ugly.

Alfred Differ said...

Predicting SpaceX is a fun game for Musk fans and Musk haters. It's related to the Tesla prediction game and is more about what people think of Musk than about his businesses. There are some objective facts to ponder, though.

1. When Shuttle was retired, launch business could be lumped into two market groupings. In the US, you either launched for government (mostly DoD) or you launched for commercial ventures that weren't necessarily US companies. About two thirds of the market was for government. Launch service companies in the US made a conscious choice back then to surrender the commercial market to foreign providers while merging into essentially one large provider. Right around Shuttle retirement, market share for commercial launch provided by US companies was precisely 0%. Nada. We surrendered. At present, that market share is around 70%. Guess who has it? Yah. Space X mostly.

Falcon 9 flights are priced around $62M per flight and their cadence is around two dozen per year right now. Many of them are for flying their own constellation into orbit, so their newest spinoff is paying SpaceX. That's shuffling investor's money around and doesn't count the same way as other revenue. Still. Two dozen flights a year on rockets where they are often re-using the first stage and fairing. It's not costing them $62M per flight as a result. And they are getting tons of engineering data. They aren't doing that so they can maintain a limited fleet. It makes no economic sense to do what Space X is doing with Falcon 9's unless they plan to own a lot more than the commercial launch market… which they already (essentially) do.

2. SpaceX is working on a much bigger rocket that uses a methane-lox technology. Others have tried that type of engine. It tends to explode a lot. Mostly it drains R&D budgets. They aren't stopping, though. In fact, they've doubled down a few times. The rocket they talk about building isn't vaporware. They are working round-the-clock shifts trying to get it to work. They are hiring an army to do it. They are burning through investor's money like there was no tomorrow. This is all KNOWN fact. What can be debated is why and whether or not they'll succeed.

If you consider what they say about the next rocket, their approach looks exactly like their dev effort for Falcon except they have a lot more money to spend from investors. The first three Falcon launches blew up and nearly bankrupted SpaceX. Why in the world would investors support that approach again, let alone an accelerated version of it? Because it worked and now SpaceX has the ONLY (mostly) reusable rocket that can get stuff to Mars. Investors don't ignore success. [Care to guess what they think SpaceX is worth as a company right now?]

3. Business reports have begun to talk about SpaceX as more than a launch provider. Some of them have noticed StarLink. Some of them have noticed that Dragon can fly people other than NASA astronauts. Some of them have noticed that SpaceX enables a number of other business models, so investor dollars flowing in might not really be about launch services. Like with the early Amazon, there is more to the business model than books. One I read wondered aloud if the race to be the first trillionaire was already over, but we were looking in the wrong direction. He argued it wouldn't be Bezos, but that Bezos' involvement is his own space company demonstrated that Bezos SAW what was happening when we didn't.

Alfred Differ said...

SpaceX contd...

Stealing back most of the commercial launch service has led to erosion of the 'monopoly' provider's share of the DoD launch volume in the US. The re-useable Falcons have caused a dramatic price shift causing other launch providers to retire expensive rockets designed decades ago… and start from scratch. A growing launch cadence for the Falcons has brought into existence a mountain of engineering data, but more importantly a few technology existence proofs investors can understand. When those technologies are the keystones to other space ventures, some investors can see EXACTLY where this goes. Once the money starts pouring in, the less visionary investors are left wondering what they don't understand. They see the ship leaving and some run to catch it anyway. Who knows where it is going? They don't, but it's obviously going somewhere.

Keith Halperin said...

@ Acacia,et al: I agree waiting in an airport IS more comfortable than waiting in a plane, but it doesn't have to be so. I remember in the '80s and '90s when plane trips were cheaper and more comfortable than they are today (since airline consolidation), with more seat room and FOOD even in the cheap seats...
Also, if the NASA (and presumably private company) cost reductions timeline is correct, a transcontinental hop is likely to cost somebody USD 2020 >$6-10k in 20 yrs. (and that's just the cost of the transportation itself). That's a lot of money! We've done pretty well for the past 60 years or so at Mach 0.8-0.9, the Concorde SST model didn't work, real-time comm gets better and cheaper, so again I ask "What's the hurry?"

@ Various: re Space resources, aka "Maguffinite":,
I concede the possibility that there may be some sort of space-based resources available from NEO and/or Luna which are scarce here on Terra and could help us as transition (hopefully smoothly and with minimal excess deaths) over ~300 years or so to a population of ~2G living sustainably at current Western European standards of living based largely on renewable energy sources, BUT I DON'T KNOW WHAT THOSE WOULD BE. (I DO know that if we have a peaking Terran population of ~10G, we'll need ~40Twe to support them at a HDI of 0.9. Maybe that'll require powersats.)

P.S. I was the "anonymous" talking about Star Trek

David Brin said...

Thanks Alfred. Very cogent. I might add delight at seeing Boeing-Lockheed forced to abandon Russian engines for the Bezos re-usable - landable.

Elon's approach is always "Let my currently successful company bail out the one that needs a bridging loan, in order to survive... then next year go the other way." Tesla and SpaceX have each rescued each other and Starlink could do the same.

There is a path to the US going to the moon that would NOT be treason, If Bezos and Elon etc. create commercial landing vehicles and habitats that are privately owned, they might retain technologies that Trump would rather give away when (if a 2nd term) he gloriously and grandly 'internationalizes" the currently show-chauvinistic US race back to plant dusty footprints. If Blue Origin and Spacex etc can provide cheap/ideal travel to the lunar surface, only the Chinese would refuse and their thunder - at achieving their 'bar moonzvah" will be crushed. A lunar tourism industry would begin with National Astronauts from 200 nations but soon suck a little artistocrat class billions, as well.

And NASA + Japan +ESA could move on to where they are needed, farther out.

David Brin said...

jim would have more credibility if his stance on every issue got factual support and weren’t predictable based on one desperate need… to believe there’s no success path for humanity, not even a narrow trail to save 90% from collapse, death and then survivors dwelling in post apocalyptic poverty. His fear is exactly the same as Jonah's. (Read the book of Jonah, one of the most beautiful in scripture... and it utterly refutes the evil Book of Revelation.)

DD: “why would such an advanced interstellar civilization need slaves or helots or serfs?”

Cultural and genetic wiring to believe there are only zero-sum games. (Or in some cases - like jim - only negative sum.”

“Currently, no manufacturing process is worth the cost of space.”

Depends if inherent qualities of space can affect extreme value products. They used to think that about forming organic crystals in zero gee, allowing x-ray diffraction analysis of protein structure. But that method has been bypassed by others that can be done cheaply on an earthly lab. There are others, but they can mostly be explored with small scales in space… orbital labs maybe only 10x or 30x the size of the ISS. And hence that’s a true statement… so far.

But robotics could change all that. Including some endeavors we’re pursuing at NIAC, which might harvest large amounts of first water from asteroids, then metals. Also water from lunar poles, though you know I am less enthusiastic there. If these work, then costs of living and moving and building things in space might plummet.

David Brin said...

We dived in and found out how (we hope) to cull out the obnoxious ads. It will cost us maybe $100 in lost revenue. I hope you guys prove worth it! I mean besides the massive amounts of lost productivity time!

Ahcuah said...

Yesterday, CBS News reporter Paula Reid (kinda, sorta, maybe) tried one of the tactics advocated by Dr. Brin. It was after the end of some sort of roundtable, and she had to shout it out over the administration official who was trying to close up shop. Reid yelled out: "Why do you keep hiring people you believe are wackos and liars?" You can see it at this Twit: A sour-looking Trump ignored a shouted question from a reporter.

Kudos for the idea; not so much for the execution.

Kayleigh McEnany's response to a similar question from NBC's Peter Alexander was that Trump was trying to have a "team of rivals" like Lincoln did. Pfft. But maybe now a bunch more reporters will pick up the mantle.

matthew said...

To be honest, I'm OK with the ads if they give you a little cash. My eyes skip right over them and they're a tiny bit of a tip jar to you. Just to be Contrarian.

Darrell E said...

I don't think there is much reason at this point to doubt that SpaceX's Raptor engine will be reasonably successful. Not 0 reason, but not much.

Methane is not nearly as problematic as hydrogen, yet the SSME was a pretty successful engine. I think the main reason that no one made the effort to fully develop a methalox engine is a combination of small market, kerosene engines are relatively easy and cheap and though on the low end on Isp thrust to weight is high end which is good for launch, and if Isp is what you need then hydrogen is king. Except for the tank.

The primary reason SpaceX decided on methalox from early on is because methane is much easier to produce and store on Mars than hydrogen, and Musk's goal has always been Mars colonization. But it turns out to be a pretty good choice for several other reasons too. Most all of which come down to the various ways in which hydrogen is a pain in the ass to deal with. Makes the pumps and preburners much more complex and therefore more prone to problems over time. Hydrogen embrittlement adds additional headaches. Neither of those issues is good for an engine that you want to last for a hundred missions with minimal maintenance. Also entails a larger engine in general which is not good for T/W. Then there's the tankage downsides too. Hydrogen tanks have to be significantly larger volume for comparable performance and they have to have more significant insulation because it needs to be kept at darn near absolute 0. LH is also much more difficult to store for long periods of time, such as long duration missions.

Keith Halperin said...

@ Dr. Brin, @Everybody: RE: Return to Luna- When?
We have some very knowledgeable and wise people here, who know what they're talking about.
What are your best estimates of when people will again return to Luna?
Alternatively, do you think a crewed NEO mission will take place first, and if so: when?

Brad Guy said...

Wil McCarthy's The Collapsium isn't new. It was first published in 2000. There is a new release however. Antediluvian is newish, not quite a year old.

duncan cairncross said...


Let's say the "vampires" did not steal the wealth

Then we have the situation where the wealth from the labour - and from the good ideas of that labour has disappeared - some other mechanism has removed it

But when we look it has NOT "disappeared" - it's still there - in the accounts of the "innocent" vampires

How would that look in a court of law?

I did not steal the money M'lud - it just miraculously moved from their pocket into my pocket

As far as the USA losing its massive WW2 "edge" over the rest of the world is concerned

That would have resulted in the USA continuing to move ahead but now at the same speed as the rest
So back in the 70's when the US working man was best off in all the world - that would have continued - especially as the USA is incredibly rich in natural resources - but the USA would have stopped "pulling ahead"

Instead the western world has pulled ahead of the USA - by a LONG way - even in one of the trailing countries (UK) the working man is much much better off than the working man in the USA

The "Thieving Vampires" is a hypothesis that fits all of the data

How did they pull off the theft?

Two ways

You mention "Capital in the 21st Century" - the way that those with more get more - I was amazed to learn that the "return rate" on capital was STILL rising when in the hundreds of millions of dollars
The 90+% tax on income was the way that was kept under control - THAT was abolished

Union power helped to prevent the Vampires from stealing the lot - until the Unions were broken

One of the reasons I like the UBI is that it helps to balance the bargaining power of the employer and employee

What would Adam Smith say about our "Vampires"? - he called them "Rentiers" -

David Brin said...

US trying for manic footprints on the moon by 2024 will not survive the election. But --

-- Elon & Bezos both want to prepare landers. The former would be a starship that goes and lands itself with maybe 30 paying passengers. Bezos hopes to sell seats to those desperate to get down from ta Gateway station or else a transfer vehicle. If either of them make huge advances, well, 2027. Will all stars aligned? 2025.

Out of pride the Chinese won't be customers of either, though they'll grab any tech that's not guarded by dobermans. My instinct suggests they'll aim for 2025, especially when NASA backs off the nutso 2024 NATIONAL footprint deadline and gets serious about doing things that only we (+Japan + ESA) can do. It will be stunningly risky, like Apollo. If they see Musk or Bezos getting ready to land Indians and Japanese before them, they will pull out all the stops.

David Brin said...

Some will depend on whether the Lunar Gateway can leapfrong to bigly capabilities. Watch for robotics, refueling and inflatable (Bigelow) structures.

scidata said...

This group is way ahead of me on most things SF, space, and SETI. I do have a sort of out of left field perspective though. An example is the 'syntonicity' solution to the Fermi Paradox. Syntonicity is a word usually used in esoteric music theory, which I know very little about. However, Seymour Papert used the concept of 'ego syntonicity' to describe the process of human learning in general, and later for computational thinking in particular. I'll leave out the Forth evangelism. In a nutshell, syntonicity is understanding through identification, as in putting oneself in another's shoes. Kids use imitation, from trees and elephants to teapots and airplanes. Adults use metaphor and analogy. It leads to a technology based not on leveraging machinery, but on empathy.

What if advanced civilizations don't build ever bigger, more powerful, more energetic machines? What if they improve and advance by becoming more syntonic? They would quickly pass through the noisy, inefficient phase that emits copious amounts of EM radiation (intentional and/or waste) and instead become ever more 'natural'. The more advanced they become, the more like the natural background they would appear from a distance. We're sort of seeing that right now in real time with AI. It has rapidly evolved from clunky robots to human-level gameplay, to uncanny valley, and is on the way to being indistinguishable from natural intelligence. And the most successful technologies (computers, medicine, CRISPR, etc) are those that best mimic nature. Please note that this is not hippie talk. Zen is the art of non-thinking. I like to think that's the opposite of what most do in this discussion group. There's a cavernous gap between admiring a rainbow and unweaving one.

In Asimov's "Second Foundation", colossally advanced technology was entirely defeated by an almost invisible, tiny group of 'mentalics'. The first speaker hid in plain sight as a humble farmer. Who's to say that some planet, or star, or even galaxy cannot be a living entity? The apparent lack of any attempt to conquer and forceably harness its environment is perhaps not evidence of absence of intelligence after all. There is no Fermi Paradox because only crude brutes would ever think to look for other crude brutes in their skies. Of course I'm not the first to think of this. I'm sure Dr. Brin already has a number for this solution.

Alfred Differ said...

jim would have more credibility if his stance (snip) weren’t predictable based on one desperate need… to believe there’s no success path for humanity

Yah. I thought seriously about not responding to it at all. I stared at it and then realized it made decent fodder for something for my blog too. Probably two things.

Starlink will probably fund quite a bit of work. They'll have to be careful about going public to do that, but it's doable. Tesla proves it. I want in as an investor, but I'm not in that clade.

If Two Scoops weren't using his Moon project as a way to distract us from Kids-In-Cages and other atrocities, I'd be inclined to let him have it. I'd be inclined to smile and let the old dinosaurs think they'll live a little longer. What's a few billion dollars more to Americans, hmm? The mammals are already on the field and raiding eggs. We are almost there because CATS and FATS change everything. We won't have to care much about Flags and Footprints missions if other (economic) activities outnumber the ego displays.

Unfortunately, Two Scoops IS using the project to distract. MAGA! We should be able to walk on the Moon! Like we used to! Pfft. Makes me want to throw up. Also makes me want to short the companies involved.

But yah. Let them buy tickets. Remind our congress-critters that funding dinosaurs is going to look real stupid real soon. Show them the cheering crowd webcasts for rockets LANDING on pillars of fire with not a single NASA logo on them. Just dirty workhorses.


For the record, I don't mind those ads. Revenue is revenue. Whether they fit with the experience you want us consuming at your site is another matter. I have no feel for whether people click through your book links and buy anything. If we do, the potty ads distract. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

Darrell E,

Way back when I thought there was a logical process for opening the space frontier, I imagined it was my job to contribute to understanding that vision. A few quick conclusions are possible.

1. Water and CO2 is pretty common in much of the inner solar system where we can reasonably get away with using PV's for generating electricity. Water isn't everywhere, but it IS well distributed. That pretty much settles the debate regarding what kind of rocket engine to build and perfect. LH2 IS a PITA and we use it on Earth only because we can throw stuff away. Out there, we won't be doing that. Thus Methalox for any short-duration, impulse-like orbit changes.

2. No fuel/oxider combo enables cheap orbit changes involving large parameter changes. High inclinations, high eccentricies, and multiple orbit patching that can't wait for planetary alignments all require way more delta-momentum than we are going to arrange on chemical rockets. That pretty much settles the debate about the need for ion and sail tech. It won't be one or the other. It has to be both, but only one can be developed early… as in now.

Ion thrusters are already developing a huge pile of engineering data too. Not many know this, but they can if they read the specs on the Starlink birds. Ion thrusters. Yah. Someone deserves credit for thinking ahead over there.

3. Everything out past the asteroids is a different environment. We simply MUST develop nuclear propulsion ideas. Nuclear-thermal designs are a bare minimum. There is no reasonable debate over this because sunlight out there is too dim. Those icy moons out there are so damn cold they are tougher than steel. This where Earth plays an absolutely necessary role. CO2 and H2O are common out there… and concentrated. Not so much for Uranium.

However, I no longer see it as my job to imagine how it all will work. Chances are my imagination will prove limited. History is full of predictions of the future that looked like variations on the present. That isn't how things have actually worked over the last few centuries, so I don't see why I should continue down that erroneous path.

What my new job looks like is much simpler. All I have to do is imagine how things might work in the next few years… in a way that enables profits, jobs, and paths for private investments. That means focusing on near-horizon business problems and less on Vision. What problem does Company X have… right now? Is there a space angle for solving it? Maybe? Doesn't have to be a company. Could be a community.

For example, how do we get 8 billion people on the internet? (The problem) Hmm. Thousands of integrated satellites in LEO would do it, right? Keep them low so the person on the ground doesn't need an antenna larger than a pizza box. Wait a sec. Don't forget the Internet of Things. There are way more than 8 billion things to connect. Hmm. Same solution works, but we might need tens of thousands of satellites instead of thousands. Bandwidth. Hmm.

One CAN think about long range needs at the same time, but they have to be fundable using shorter range projects with paying customers. Avoid reliance on politicians as much as possible. The investors are actually more reasonable… and predictable.

Alfred Differ said...


You are barely trying. In one breath you offer to think about the possibility, but your attempt can be summed up as follows.

1. Consider the possibility that no one stole it.
2. We already know the wealth disappeared.
3. It didn't show up anywhere else.
4. Oh look, it's in the bank accounts of the vampires.

Sorry. That's barely counts as trying, so let me offer an example. You don't have to believe a narrative that falls out of it, but you should be able to construct your own examples and wield a half dozen branching, testable narratives.

1. Consider the possibility that no one stole it.

2. Consider the possibility that
a. we mis-measured it in the first place
b. it sank into a form we can't measure properly
c. none of this works the way we think it does

3. a. This leads to us needing decent descriptions of what we measure because we DO know that the value of wealth can change with context. $100 today isn't the same as $100 dollars tomorrow. We write options and futures contracts for exactly this kind of possibility.
b. Piketty ruled out Human Capital as a form of wealth because it 'couldn't be traded'. What about that? What about other forms… especially forms that generate rents and royalties.
c. Seriously. Why should productivity gain result in improved profits? Examine the economist's assumptions here. Could they be wrong about some of this? Turns out they DON'T agree with each other. Often.

4. Ah, but there ARE vampires. Pretty obvious.
a. What isn't clear is how much they've stolen.
b. What we CAN get them on is vices. No need for economics theories for that. Observe how they treat people. Would they sell their grandmothers for a nicer house or a gold-plated toilet? Ha! To the Guillotine!

I'm inviting you to think deeper about this because I think you have a talent for it. The quality of your argument can be improved. I might never win you over to my dark side, but we CAN sharpen our knives and practice combat with each other. 8)

David Brin said...

scidata of course that's one path of reasoning about advanced species. One rub though. Newcomers like us would be interesting, no matter how exalter the Old Ones are. We may happen frequently but no where near as common as say ant colonies in your yard. Even if one super-duper alien race finds such phenomena boring, would ALL of them? WE have humans who get interested in ant and study them, or who try to talk to crows.

scidata said...

Dr. Brin: even if one super-duper alien race finds such phenomena boring, would ALL of them?

The syntonic FP solution is not the Kardashev scale - it's really the opposite. In this scenario, we are the cosmos-questing vikings and the aliens are the ants. It's a tricky razor's edge trying to portray thoughtful and erudite Asimovians as crude brutes, and one that goes against the grain for me, so I won't be defending it extensively.

DP said...

There are no Old Ones.

GRBs would have snuffed out any million year old civilizations before they had a chance to start. Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) in the early galaxy snuffed out life repeatedly before it could get a foothold. Pervasive GRBs would have snuffed out any advanced life forms before they evolved intelligence let alone developed the technology. So don't expect to find any Ancient Old Ones or the Engineers from "Prometheus". Gamma ray bursts kept life from developing for most of the history of the universe.

James Annis of Fermilab in Illinois proposed that GRBs could cause mass extinction events on any habitable planet within a distance of 10,000 light-years from the source. To put that into perspective, the Milky Way is 100,000 light-year across and about 1,000 light-years thick. Thus, a single GRB would extinguish life across a sizeable portion of the galaxy.

According to new work conducted by astronomers Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez, the odds that a planet could be hit by a GRB depends on its place in space and time. The closer that a planet is to the galactic core, where the density of stars is much greater, the odds increase. Their models show that a planet near to the core has a 95% chance of being hit by a catastrophic GRB at least once every billion years. Pulling back a bit, about half of the solar systems in the Milky Way are close enough such that there's an 80% chance of a GRB per billion years.

But here's where it gets interesting: The frequency of GRBs were greater in the past owing to lower levels of metallicity in the galaxy. Metal-rich galaxies (i.e. those with significant accumulations of elements other than hydrogen and helium) feature less gamma-ray bursts. Thus, as our galaxy becomes richer in metals, the frequency of GRBs decreases. What this means is that prior to recent times (and by recent we're talking the past 5 billion years or so), GRB extinction events were quite common. And in fact, some scientists suspect that the Earth was struck by a GRB many billions of years ago. Piran and Jimenez figure that these events were frequent and disbursed enough across the Milky Way to serve as constant evolutionary reset buttons, sending habitable planets back to the microbial dark ages before complex life and intelligence had a chance to develop further. Fascinatingly, before about 5 billion years ago, GRBs were so common that life would have struggled to maintain a presence anywhere in the cosmos (yes, the entire cosmos)."

So, we are alone in the galaxy. In fact, we are the oldest civilization in the galaxy.

WE are the "Ancient Old Ones". Our purpose as a species is to spread intelligent life throughout the galaxy and we seed the universe with our kind (like the Engineers in the Prometheus movie).

Again let me reiterate - WE are the Engineers who will seed the universe.

Jon S. said...

"As for subjects of the Klingons and Cardassians, there was a Mirror Universe episode for ST:DS9 that showed conquered Humans living like slaves under their rule.

But then it was the evil universe where Spock had worn a goatee, so maybe these Klingons and Cardassians are worse than the ones in "our" universe."

Actually, the Klingons and Cardassians in the Prime timeline were pretty bad - by the time of the Klingon occupation of Organia, they had a fully-developed procedure for dealing with local populations (if one of them does something bad, kill 1000). And the Cardassians had in fact enslaved the Bajorans to exploit the resources of Bajor.

However, what you saw in the Mirror Universe wasn't just "ooh, evil Klinks and Cardies" - it was a reaction to the repressive, xenophobic Terran Empire which had collapsed about a hundred years before. The Alliance didn't need Terran slaves, they wanted Terran slaves, or more precisely to keep the Terrans subjugated so they couldn't even dream about raising an empire again. Unfortunately for them, the underground Terran contacts with the Federation led to them getting advanced tech from the Prime universe. It was left unstated how that situation might develop later.

(In the STO timeline, the Mirror contacts with DS9 resulted in a resurgent Terran Empire, albeit one that accepts other species into its ranks - there's a whole series of missions where, as the fabric of spacetime is weakened in the Badlands, we get to have repeated run-ins with Terran forces near DS9, letting us chart the rise of Mirror Leeta from captain to admiral, with hints she might be plotting to become Empress.)

Acacia H. said...

On an unrelated note, here is a video of a small tornado created inside a bubble that is then set on fire. I mean, that was just entirely too awesome :) (So I'm easily amused, I know...)


scidata said...

I said, "the aliens are the ants"
What I meant was that the aliens look like ants, or dust clouds, or stars, ie nature.

Larry Hart said...

Daniel Duffy:

Fascinatingly, before about 5 billion years ago, GRBs were so common that life would have struggled to maintain a presence anywhere in the cosmos (yes, the entire cosmos)."

So, we are alone in the galaxy. In fact, we are the oldest civilization in the galaxy.

While I've always kind of thought that to be the case, the evidence you've given wouldn't preclude other intelligent life from developing in the same time frame that we did. Just sayin'

WE are the "Ancient Old Ones".

I hope this isn't a spoiler--if it is, it's an uninformed one--but I've suspected for some time now that that's where Dr Brin intended to go with the Progenitors in the Uplift stories. Not sure how he'd get there without time travel, so I'll admit (as a good liberal always should) that I may be mistaken.

Larry Hart said...

Since I'll probably be busily engaged tomorrow, Happy Father's Day to all for whom that is appropriate.

Larry Hart said...

Alfred Differ:

when I first watched that Watchmen sequel, I couldn't quite decide how much of that they were making up. I knew from the original graphic novel that it was founded on an alt-history with recognizable politicians and all that. I had to consider that they were doing the same with Tulsa's history.

I haven't seen the HBO show, but in the original graphic novel, I don't believe the world was different from ours until Dr. Manhattan came along in 1959.

Ahcuah said...

@Larry: "I've suspected for some time now that that's where Dr Brin intended to go with the Progenitors in the Uplift stories."

I usually figured that that was too obvious, and he was deliberately teasing us with the idea.

B.J. said...

I think it's easy for there to be grinding poverty, if all the potential wealth from automation is kept by short-sighted cheaters who don't recognize the value of a healthy middle class.

David Brin said...

Okay then, I was willing to endure the nasty traits of the New Blogger (many new clicks to do) if they fixed bigger issues. But now alas, it is a catastrophe. I spent half an hour doing edits in a draft that weren't saved. Pressing "preview" leads to a claim it has prepared one - there's none. And trying to actually POST is utterly futile.

Does anyone see an option to go back to the older wretched version that at least allowed me to post blogs?

David Brin said...

Okay I found how to revert to legacy blogger. WHat kind of jerks release software without standing behind users and watching what goes wrong? Don't answer. Nearly every software releaser you or I ever saw.

duncan cairncross said...

Daniel Duffy

I suspect you are correct that we are the ancient ones
But not because of GRB's

GRB's are very short time events - seconds or minutes - earth takes 24 hours to rotate so any such event would only affect one hemisphere

We would need to be a lot closer than your 10,000 light years for that to happen

The mechanism that is James Annis - the destruction of the ozone layer is
(1) Almost certainly not enough to cause a mass extinction event
(2) Even if it did happen it would only cover one hemisphere - the animals and plants on the other hemisphere would be untouched and would spread back in a few thousand years

A "mass extinction event" has to be much much more than that and it has to be worldwide

The dino killer killed everything on one hemisphere - but it also killed 99% on the other hemisphere

If there is a 95% chance every Billion years then reducing the range by a factor of 10 makes that a 0.095% chance every Billion years

David Brin said...