Archive for August, 2010

An acceptance and a cover

“A Little Song, A Little Dance,” a ghost story co-written with Andrine de la Rocha, will appear in charity anthology Breaking Waves: An Anthology for Gulf Coast Relief from Book View Cafe. It will be published very soon but I don’t know if it will be an e-book, hardcopy, or both. All the proceeds will go to help victims (people and animals) of the recent Gulf oil spill.

Also, take a gander at the fabulous cover for Wild Cards I, coming in November! Might be the best cover I’ve ever had.

So much to do before our trip to Australia, but we had a pleasant afternoon hanging out with our friend Nevenah from New Orleans, a nice surprise.

Have I mentioned I won’t get a Thursday this week? We depart the US on Wednesday and arrive in Australia, 18 hours later, on Friday. On the other hand, when we come home our flight takes negative 53 minutes.

Preliminary Aussiecon program schedule

The preliminary program schedule for Aussiecon 4 has been posted, and I’m on the following items:

David D Levine
Thursday 1700 Room 201

I could do better than that
Whenever a Hollywood science fiction blockbuster enters cinemas, there seems to be a queue of fans lining up to complain how bad it is—and even that they could do better if put in charge of the studios. Here’s your chance: a team of panelists will lead the attempt to generate the better blockbuster: looking at Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Avatar and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
Catherynne M. Valente, David D. Levine, Darren Maxwell
Friday 1300 Room 213

David D Levine, K. A. Bedford
Friday 1700 Room 207

To market: How to sell your short stories
Submitting a story to a journal, anthology or magazine might seem as simple as attaching a Word document to an e-mail and firing it off, but is it? How do you know the appropriate market for your fiction? How much is enough money to be paid for your work? How should you approach an editor? What are the dos and don’ts of getting published in the speculative short fiction marketplace?
Cory Doctorow, Robert Silverberg, David D. Levine, Angela Slatter
Saturday 1100 Room P3

The race to the Red Planet
Ever since the Apollo moon landings, it always seemed Mars was the next target for human space exploration. It’s been 41 years and we still haven’t been there. As the debate over a human mission to Mars continues, we ask the questions: should we go? What is stopping us? What will we need to do, and consider, to make a human mission to the red planet a success?
Kim Stanley Robinson, David D. Levine, James Benford
Sunday 1300 Room P3

Mission to “Mars”
In January 2010, Hugo-winning SF writer David D. Levine spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, the Mars Society’s simulated Mars base in the Utah desert. Although the Martian conditions were simulated, the science was real, as were the isolation, hostile environment, and problems faced by the six-person crew. Although his official title was Crew Journalist, he soon found himself repairing space suits, helping to keep the habitat running, and having interplanetary adventures he’d never before imagined.
David D. Levine
Sunday 1400 Room P3

The bioethics of terraforming
Let’s say we colonise Mars, and develop the technology to terraform its environment and create a warmer, breathable atmosphere for humans to breathe. Let’s also so that we discover bacterial life on Mars – life that cannot exist if the planet’s atmosphere changes. Do we have a responsibility to leave Mars intact, or simply try to save the bacteria the best we can. What are the bioethics of terraforming worlds?
Kim Stanley Robinson, James Benford, Sam Scheiner, David D. Levine
Monday 1000 Room P1

An everyday future: Including popular culture in science fiction
Most science fiction writers take care to present the broader culture and technology of their fictional futures – but what about the elements many writers forget? What is the media of the future like? What are the sports? A look at the everyday aspects of future life that can bring a science fiction world to life.
Paul Cornell, Gord Sellar, David D. Levine
Monday 1400 Room 219

I’m also listed in the preliminary program on panels The future of gender and sexuality, Music, movies and speculative fiction, The difficult second album: Middle parts of movie trilogies but I’ve had to drop those due to scheduling conflicts.

Progress, of a sort

I’ve actually worked on the YA novel for three days in a row, which is a rarity so far this year. Unfortunately, most of today’s work consisted of messing with spreadsheets and Wikipedia to work out the calendar and timekeeping system of my fictional Mars settlers rather than any actual, you know, fiction. This is my comfort zone, to which I retreat when the writing itself is not cooperating. Oh well, it’s valuable worldbuilding and at least I typed it into my notes file rather than as yet another expository lump in the text which would eventually have had to be either excised or smoothed into the action.

Australia itinerary

Oh my gosh, we’re leaving for Australia next week! We have all of our hotels and internal flights arranged, and most of our major tourist activities reserved. Soon it will be time to pack!

Here’s our itinerary, in brief:

August 25-27: Fly to Australia.
August 27-31: Melbourne, plus at least one day trip out of the city.
September 1-6: Aussiecon 4 (68th World Science Fiction Convention), also in Melbourne.
September 7-9: Mungo Outback Journey at Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. Kangaroos! Emus! Cockatoos!
September 10-13: Adelaide.
September 14-16: Lady Elliot Island Resort on the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling! Manta rays! Sea turtles!
September 17: Hervey Bay. Whales!
September 18-21: Sydney.
September 22: Fly home.

Local color

For a change, we were in town for the weekend, and we decided to take advantage of the many fine activities offered by our own home town for a change. It was uncharacteristically hot all weekend but we made the best of it.

On Saturday we drove up to Mt. Hood for a tour of five cabins built by Henry Steiner and his family in the 1920s and 30s. Steiner himself hand-carved the massive hexagonal columns in the grand hall of Timberline Lodge, and he is also responsible for the Oregon Writers Colony’s Colonyhouse. These cabins on Mt. Hood share the same aesthetic and hand-built details that make the Colonyhouse so delightful. You can read an article and see some pictures of one of the cabins we visited, and a few small pictures of another.

Today the city closed a bunch of streets in our section of town to cars, an event called Sunday Parkways, creating a couple of bicycle-only loops and offering a variety of bike- and pedestrian-oriented activities. Kate took her bike around and had a grand time while I stayed home and did laundry and other chores. When she returned we went back out again to hit the Hawthorne Street Fair, our neighborhood’s annual festival of food, shopping, and face-painting (we saw Tina Connolly taking a breather from her day job). And of course, it wouldn’t be Hawthorne without a visit from the local unicycle-riding bagpipe player.

After a nap, we went downtown to the India Festival, which was hot, crowded, noisy, and otherwise completely authentic. We ran into an old friend, Keith Lofstrom, there and talked about novel methods of launching satellites into orbit while sitting on a park bench and eating delightful Indian food.

Then we came home to enjoy our air-conditioned house.

A rather ordinary day in some ways. But it’s ours.

Mars Society conference: Sunday

I’m on an hour-and-a-half layover at the Salt Lake City airport, where there are little carrels with power outlets and free wi-fi. Why can’t all airports be like this? (Though, all in all, I’d rather have returned the way I came, via Seattle, which would have given me at least an hour less time in the air.)

The day started with the usual end-of-convention prepositions: get up, wash up, dress up, pack up, check out, eat up, and check in (for my flight). I bought my ticket from Alaska Air, but the flight is actually a Delta flight, and since Alaska doesn’t actually fly to Cincinnati itself I was unable to check in on the Alaska web site (which for some peculiar reason requires you to specify the originating city as well as the confirmation code). Fortunately, they gave me a Delta confirmation code as well and I was able to use it to check in via the Delta web site. But the boarding pass, when printed on the hotel’s printer, had its outer half-inch cut off and would probably not be acceptable at the airport. Grr. (As it happens I had to check a bag anyway, so it cost me little time to reprint my boarding pass at the gate. My bag, by the way, weighed the same 50 pounds as my Monster Bag from MDRS on the way out, but I seem to have sold at least 12 pounds of books at the conference.)

Having dealt with all that, I was only a bit late for the morning’s plenary session by David Chuss, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, about The Early Universe. Much of this talk was not new to me, but it’s nice to be reminded about what we know and how we know it.

He started with the earliest development of cosmology, going back to Tyco Brahe and Newton and the statement “Mathematics starts with a truth and looks at the consequences; cosmology starts with the consequences and looks for the truth.” Einstein’s general relativity implied that the universe was either expanding or contracting, not static, and he added a term (the “cosmological constant”) to get rid of that. Not too much later, Hubble’s observations of the apparent motion away from us of distant objects showed that the universe was indeed expanding, and Einstein took the constant back out, saying it was his “greatest blunder.”

So, astronomers reasoned, if the universe is expanding it must be cooling. This prompted them to look for the red-shifted light of the early, hot universe, but they were scooped by a couple of microwave engineers who were trying to track down the source of some interference in their antennas and wound up with a Nobel Prize.

NASA has launched several satellites to map this cosmic background radiation, with increasing detail and sensitivity, and they are telling us a lot about the early universe. This radiation is slightly uneven (anisotropy), which tells us that the early universe was lumpy; these lumps coalesced into galaxies, stars, and us. Doing a Fourier transform on this radiation reveals the power curve of the early universe, which (through math I have never been able to follow) explains where the fundamental particles like baryons came from and whether the universe is positively curved (closed, leading to an eventual collapse) or negatively curved (open, continually expanding). Weirdly, the data tells us the universe is exactly flat, which is unexpected and unstable (the slightest curvature in either direction will tend to increase). No one quite understands yet how this can be.

Recent observations of extremely distant objects reveal that they appear to be accelerating away from us — that is, the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This implies that the universe is mostly (over 75%) composed of “dark energy,” whose properties are completely unknown — all we can say is that it accelerates expansion. A negative value for Einstein’s cosmological constant fits this data, but we still have no idea what this might mean in real-world terms.

Careful examination of lumpiness in the cosmic background radiation hints that the very early universe expanded faster than the speed of light (“inflation”); we don’t know how this is possible, though perhaps in the first moments of the Big Bang the laws of physics had not yet coalesced into their current form. NASA is launching the Dark Energy Explorer and Webb Telescope satellites to investigate these questions.

In 1900 they thought 20th century physics would be boring, with only a few questions left to answer (the “ultraviolet catastrophe” and the presence or absence of ether). The search for answers to these questions led us to relativity, quantum dynamics, transistors, and GPS. We don’t have such low expectations today, but we know we will be surprised.

Kevin Sloan was up next, talking about the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge, which is held each year at the MDRS in Utah (students participating in the challenge stay at a hotel in Hanksville, not at the hab).

The University Rover Challenge gives engineering students a concrete project that they can use to build skills, work in teams, and maybe win cash prizes. This year’s URC had 12 teams from 4 countries; 7 teams made it to Utah for the final trials.

We believe that astronauts will work together with various kinds of machine to amplify their abilities. Rovers can, for example, be used to perform tasks outside a Mars base without having to suit up. The rovers in the challenge are wheeled (or tracked) vehicles with cameras and a manipulator arm; they are remotely operated, not autonomous. This is an engineering design, construction, and operation challenge with no artificial intelligence component. Rovers are limited to 50 kilograms and must perform 4 different tasks (they can be reconfigured with different parts for each task, but no configuration can be over 50kg). Most rovers weigh in at right around 49.9kg, but one team was surprised at the official weigh-in and had to quickly strip the rover of unessential cameras and batteries to get under the line.

The four tasks are: Equipment servicing task: navigate to a panel, read the instructions posted there using the rover’s camera, and perform several tasks such as flipping switches and plugging in an electrical cord (this part was really hard, only the Oregon State University team was able to do it). Site survey task: find and survey several markers in a field, recording their coordinates with GPS-like accuracy. Sample return task: search for and return samples of biological interest, perform field analysis, and deliver field briefing to judges. This task requires engineers to work with biologists who are directing the work, rather than just drive and scoop. Emergency navigation task: cross difficult terrain, find a stranded astronaut, and deliver emergency supplies in less than 20 minutes. This one too was won by the Oregon State team. One of the Polish teams would have won the contest if they had gotten the full 100 points for this task, but their rover with its single camera was looking the wrong way and drove right past the astronaut.

We got a talk from the winning Oregon State team about their rover design and the lessons they learned from the previous challenge, which was very cool, but I’m running out of time here.

The final session I saw before departing the conference was Joseph Palaia from the NewSpace Center, talking about a planned “themed attraction” called Interspace. He said that the current wave of commercial space development is a “new barnstorming era” and very exciting, but direct participation is extremely expensive and the facilities are too isolated and not set up for the public. Current science and aerospace museums are focused on the past, not this new technology. Interspace is intended to be an interactive, immersive experience for tourists based on what’s happening now and in the near future in space. They have a 75-acre site in Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center, and are currently trying to nail down the $72 million they’ll need to build it. It looks like a lot of fun and I hope they succeed.

Then I drove to Cincinnati, dropped off the car, and flew to Salt Lake City without incident. At the moment it looks like my flight to Portland is about 15 minutes behind schedule, but I don’t anticipate any problems getting home. See you soon!

Mars Society conference: Saturday

This morning’s first plenary session was Carol Stoker of the NASA Ames Research Center, talking about the Drilling on the Moon and Mars in Human Exploration (DOMMEX) program from last season at the MDRS. The first half of her presentation was an overview of MDRS, which largely overlapped with my own presentation from yesterday, but I’m not going to fault her for that; she’s on deadline and probably wasn’t even here yesterday. It was interesting to see a different take on the same material, and (dropping modesty for a moment) to analyze the things that make my presentation more interesting and entertaining.

The DOMMEX part of the presentation was also interesting, because I’d read the emailed field reports and wanted to know more about it. Drilling will be an important part of any Mars mission (because so many interesting things are below the surface) and the DOMMEX experiments are intended to demonstrate different drilling technologies. The Mars Underground Mole (MUM), a self-driving impact-driven sampling robot, barely managed to embed itself completely in the soil, while a human-operated gas-powered backpack drill worked much faster and was more adaptable to unexpected situations. Bottom line: humans are more efficient and effective than robots. Other technologies tested included ground-penetrating radar and a manual core sampler (basically a small post hole digger, good for samples up to 1 meter in depth).

Dr. Stoker’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion on Obama’s new space policy. None of them like it, particularly for the cancellation of the Ares heavy lift vehicle. The good news is that the Senate doesn’t like it either and has restored funding for that program in their budget. We were all encouraged to write our representatives and ask them to support the Senate version of NASA’s budget.

Carol Stoker returned after that with a presentation on the habitability of the Phoenix Lander site. She went into some detail on the factors that govern habitability (defined as suitability for Earth-like microorganisms, either in the present or in the past), what the Phoenix lander did to test for them, and how the site stacks up on each of them.

The items required for habitability are: liquid water, energy in forms usable by living things, the presence of the chemical building blocks of life, and the absence of factors inimical to life such as radiation and toxins. Phoenix had an extensive suite of instruments to detect most of these things. Its landing site (selected for the highest concentration of ice outside of the north ice cap itself) had plenty of direct and indirect evidence of water; chemical energy in the soil in the form of perchlorates and iron; solar energy available for photosynthesis, plus mica rocks in the soil which are transparent to visible light but opaque to damaging UV; and most of the chemical building blocks of life (except for nitrates, which might be present but were not tested for). Unfortunately, temperatures at this near-polar location are too low for life most of the year. However, in the distant past Mars had a much larger axial tilt and during the northern summer this part of Mars could get warmer than Antarctica does on Earth today. The Phoenix lander site is more habitable than any other site visited and deserves a follow-up expedition to search for signs of ancient life below the surface (which ties into her previous presentation on drilling).

After that plenary session I stuck my head in on Mars Camp, a family-friendly event that was open to the public. It was just hopping with kids and parents, flying flight simulators, working in a glove box, directing robot arms, and enjoying an inflatable planetarium. A very keen addition to the conference. I also picked up a couple of cool Mars coloring books.

I skipped the afternoon program in favor of a visit to the Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a mere 15 minutes’ drive away. I’d been told that it has a better collection of airplanes than the Smithsonian, and I have to agree with that assessment. Here are just a few photos of some of my favorite bits:

The Bockscar, the bomber that dropped the Fat Man A-bomb on Nagasaki

A German V-2 rocket

A U-2 spy plane

The one and only Berlin Airlift Dog Parachute

An East German Trabant automobile and a section of the Berlin Wall (okay, this is not an airplane by any stretch of the imagination, but it is associated with the Berlin Airlift)

In the evening we had the annual banquet, with pretty good food and an awesome presentation by Dr. Carolyn Porco, director of the Cassini mission’s CICLOPS Saturn Imaging Team. Her collection of amazing images of Saturn, its rings, and its moons (over 60 moons are now known) was like a year of Astronomy Pictures of the Day all at once, and she was excellent at explaining what we were seeing and why it was exciting. I had not known that we learned some amazing things about Saturn’s rings at its equinox, when the sun shines directly across the rings and we can see the long shadows of any variations in height within them. The wobbles in the ring on either side of the moon Daphnis, for example, were revealed to be mile-hile walls of rubble thrown up by the moon’s passage (the ring itself is just 30 feet thick). I had also not seen the amazing photos from the surface of Titan returned by the Huygens probe, or the plumes of salty water erupting from the surface of the moon Enceladus.

I had convivial table companions for the banquet, handed out many business cards, and made some professional contacts whose potential is very exciting. About which more later, if any of them should happen to pan out. For now, to bed.

Mars Society conference: Friday

Today was my big day. Paradoxically, this means I don’t have much to say about it.

I presented my Mars Talk as the first plenary session of the day. It went well, there were no technical issues or embarrassing lapses, and I got a lot of compliments on it. I had been concerned that I would either say something technically or politically incorrect for this audience, but even those who had been to the MDRS themselves agreed that it really summed up the experience.

The panel discussion “The VASIMR Drive: Silver Bullet or Hoax?” consisted of four people who didn’t think it would work, and was harmed by starting off with a detailed and jargon-heavy technical discussion of the problems rather than Geoff Landis’s introduction to the concepts of electric propulsion in general and VASIMR in particular, which came third. Basically, the entire panel agreed that the powerful nuclear reactor necessary to power the thing could never be made lightweight enough to achieve the drive’s stated potential of reaching Mars in 39 days. Apparently the drive’s proponents argue that a nuclear reactor can be made that’s 100x lighter than current designs, which all four of the panelists believe is highly unlikely. It would have been nice to get a representative of the pro-VASIMR viewpoint on the panel.

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin spoke about how NASA has spent about as much per year in inflation-adjusted terms since Apollo as it did during Apollo, but the last 40 years haven’t seen anything resembling that level of actual achievements, and the budget on the table right now does not have any US government capability to put people in space after the Shuttle is retired. Commercial space travel is all well and good, but Griffin argued that this capability is a critical function for the nation and should not be left entirely in the hands of private industry.

In the afternoon I attended several smaller presentations, including Geoff Landis’s entertaining talk about colonizing Venus. Although Venus’s surface is one of the most hostile places in the solar system for human life, above the cloud layer it’s actually quite pleasant, with reasonable temperatures and air pressure (though the air is carbon dioxide, you can live without an expensive and fragile pressure vessel) and you are protected from space radiation by the atmosphere. And floating in Venus’s atmosphere is easier than you might think; Earth air is much less dense than carbon dioxide, so on Venus it is a buoyant gas. A 400-meter-radius bubble of Earth air on Venus could lift the Empire State Building.

After dinner I was on the Sci-Fi Writers panel, also featuring Geoff, Mary Turzillo, and Robert Zubrin (whose published books include the SF First Landing as well as numerous works of non-fiction). It was two hours long and very, very basic by SF convention standards, but I think I aquitted myself well and at the end of it I sold a bunch of copies of The Mars Diaries and Space Magic.

This was followed by an entertaining presentation about “a century of Mars in the movies,” with posters and trailers for films from Edison’s A Trip To Mars (1910) to Disney’s Princess of Mars (2012?).

Tired now. Bed.

Mars Society conference: Thursday

The day started off with a hotel breakfast, as my iPhone was dead and I didn’t yet have the convention restaurant guide. Once I registered (name badge, foil-lined cloth tote bag, recyclable pen, comb-bound program book, “Mars or Bust” button) there was coffee and milling about and I chatted a bit with Geoff Landis and Mary Turzillo before we all filed in for the first plenary session.

Robert Zubrin is an angry man. Or, to put it another way, he’s passionate and committed and enthusiastic about human exploration of mars, and frustrated by the blindness of those who don’t see how important it is or how badly they are going about it. NASA works best, he says, when it is given a strict goal and deadline and must focus all its efforts on that goal; he compared the current NASA funding model to stopping by a series of garage sales to see what’s available and then building a house from whatever you find. Apart from this, the bulk of his talk was an outline of the Mars strategy outlined in The Case For Mars and was not new to me, nor I suspect was it new to most of the attendees, but it got the conference off to a good start.

The second plenary speaker was William Borucki, the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope mission. Kepler is a deliberately unfocused telescope, peering Mr. Magoo-like at the stars as opposed to Hubble’s tight focus. But the area of sky that Hubble can see at any one time is the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length; Kepler can look at over a hundred thousand stars at once, gathering just a little bit of data about each one.

The purpose of this exercise is to find Earth-sized planets orbiting in stars’ “habitable zones” (close enough to the star that water is a liquid, not so close that it’s a gas) by examining the light output of each star over time. If the light shows a small dip at regular intervals, that might be a planet crossing in front of the star’s face. (The exact size and shape of the dip are used to distinguish a planet from a companion star.) Of course, this only works if the stellar system in question is edge-on to us, which is only a small fraction of them, which is why so many stars must be examined.

It takes at least three occurrences of such a dip before you can be fairly sure that you’re seeing a regular pattern; four is better. This means that to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone (which, given a star like the Sun, means the planet’s orbital period is around one Earth year), you’ll need to look for at least several years, and the Kepler telescope is funded for 3.5 years. But in its first 43 days of operation it found over 300 candidate planets, five of which have already been confirmed. Because of the short observation period, the planets discovered so far all have orbital periods of just a few days, which means they orbit very close to their star, which means they are very hot (some are above the melting point of gold). They are also huge — much bigger than Jupiter — which had been thought impossible. Some scientific theories will have to be rewritten, which is rather the point.

The third plenary speaker was SF writer and NASA scientist Geoffrey Landis, who gave an extremely entertaining overview of what the Mars rovers have been up to in the six years since he last appeared at this conference (which has an annoying tendency to conflict with the Worldcon). The basics were familiar to me, but he had lots of cool details I didn’t know. Opportunity, for example, landed smack dab in the middle of a small crater, which was named Eagle Crater to honor this hole-in-one feat. When Spirit landed the geologists cried “It has everything we need in a landing site!” By which they meant rocks. Unlike Earth, Mars has three kinds of clouds (dust, carbon dioxide, and water vapor). “Mars is not the red planet; it is the butterscotch planet.” (The name of the color is actually “adobe-orange.”) Spirit hasn’t been heard from since March but it’s still midwinter, it might wake up as early as September. Opportunity, still going, sees a dark rock sitting atop the sand every mile or so — these are nickel-iron meteorites! Some are 500 pounds or more. And the Curiosity rover (2011) is the first rover that can defend itself; it has a powerful laser designed to drill through rocks.

The morning’s final plenary speaker was Charles Doarn of the University of Cincinnati, talking about Telerobotic Surgery in Extreme Environments. It was an interesting talk, and I live-tweeted it like the others, but it’s getting late so I’m not going to attempt to summarize it.

I had lunch with Geoff and Mary, again at the hotel restaurant, then decided to blow off the afternoon program in favor of getting my iPhone fixed. My main motivator was the scary idea of taking the trip back to Portland without my primary information, entertainment, communication, and navigation device. The drive to the nearest Apple store, in Cincinnati, took about an hour, which is what it might take me at home to go to the most distant Apple store in town (which I have done upon occasion, when the others were sold out of the product I wanted) with traffic. Once there I was met by a bright and knowledgeable fellow within five minutes of my Genius Bar appointment. He confirmed my suspicion that the phone had suffered a hardware failure and that it was still under warranty (with 63 days to spare!) and sent me away with a brand new one, just the same as the old one, at no cost. Missing the afternoon program seems a fair trade-off for restoring the device that acts as my clock, calculator, map, camera, calendar, address book, email client, Twitter client, music player, games machine, blog reader, e-book reader, and… oh yeah, phone!

In the evening we had a reception with cocktails and reasonable amounts of pretty good food, which turned into the Mars Society’s annual “town meeting”. There was more program after that, but I returned to my room to rehearse my Mars Talk, which I will be giving first thing tomorrow morning.

Speaking of which… it’s time for bed. G’night!