Reflections on Jerry Pournelle

I saw in the midst of all the hurricane-related news this morning that science fiction author, technologist, and political advocate Jerry Pournelle has passed away. I am saddened by this, though not greatly surprised, as Dr. Pournelle has been in ill health for a while now. Still, he shaped a great deal of my thinking and post-formal education, and so I’d like to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on the man. Continue reading “Reflections on Jerry Pournelle”

What’s the Matter With These Kids Today?

If you believe a recent article in The Atlantic, kids born 1995-2012 (in other words, kids my niece and nephew’s age) are going to be “destroyed” by their mobile-technology-driven lifestyles. I am not going to respond directly to all of the article’s points, but for a change, I’m going to stand up for the younger folks. They might be doomed by some future cataclysm we cannot imagine yet, but I don’t think smartphones are going to be the direct cause of it. Continue reading “What’s the Matter With These Kids Today?”

Introversion in the Age of Interactive Entertainment

Fair warning: this is a longer-than-usual entry. Feel free to read the short version and get on with your day. 

There’s no doubt about it: our forms of entertainment are becoming increasingly realistic and interactive. Video games, for example, have advanced at a tremendous rate, creating ever more detailed environments for humans to play. Theme parks, too, are not just creating environments but putting visitors in the middle of the action. This presents possibilities but also problems for the dedicated introvert. Continue reading “Introversion in the Age of Interactive Entertainment”

Yuri’s Night 2015

LogoYurisNight_WHITEring_TRANSPARENTbackground250x250As a practicing introvert, I don’t make a big habit of getting out into public for large parties. Once a year, I make an exception for Yuri’s Night. For the uninitiated, Yuri’s Night is an excuse for space geeks and other space-interested folks to get together and celebrate the anniversary of the first human to fly into space, Yuri Gagarin. The brainchild of Loretta Hidalgo (now Hidalgo Whitesides), whose birthday is April 12, the original concept was sold as a “Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick’s Day for space geeks.” The concept went viral quickly, with the “official” site (Loretta’s, of course) providing logos, selling t-shirts, sharing party sites, and offering tips for setting up one’s own festival.

What exactly happens at a Yuri’s Night party? Truth be told, it varies. Some folks show up in space- or science fiction-related costumes. Some folks plaster Yuri Gagarin temporary tattoos on their bodies, like my buddy Laura Seward Forczyk.

LauraWhat else happens? Well, space people show up just to hang around other space people. And by space people, I guess I mean those of us who are fascinated by space exploration or even actually work in the space industry–NASA, military, or private sector. Depending on the dedication, organization, and resources of the people involved, It can be a party in a bar, which is what we did for the first Yuri’s Night in Huntsville (thanks to Laura for reminding me! And yes, that’s me in the Hoban Washburne shirt below)…

Laura Bart and Emily…to a takeover of a wine shop with a space art installation and band, as they had at Bacchae Wine Bar in Cape Canaveral, Florida last night…

image3 image4 image5 image6 image8…to a full-blown invasion of the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville…Under the Saturn VThe point being, hey, it’s an excuse to party, have fun, be a tad silly, and hang out with people who share a common interest in, and love for, space exploration. Is there drinking? Certainly. Par for the course, I suppose. But the point isn’t just drinking, like other holiday gatherings I could name. And sometimes you can even do a little good. I recall that at least one of the Huntsville events raised money for Court Appointed Juvenile Advocates (CAJA). These are “my people,” so of course I join in, even if it gets a little loud at times.

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I always learn something or talk to interesting people at Yuri’s Night. This year, one of my interesting talks included Chris Lewicki, CEO of Planetary Resources, who was in Florida because his company’s Arkyd 3R satellite was about to be launched to the International Space Station. From ISS, it will be launched into a low-Earth orbit from the Kibo science module. Once in its proper orbit, it will test technologies that will eventually lead to an asteroid-detecting and -prospecting spacecraft.

Chris Lewicki Ryan Kobrick Me
From left to right, Chris Lewicki (Planetary Resources), Ryan Kobrick (Space Florida), and Your Humble Narrator, babbling on in my Science Cheerleader t-shirt

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Another worthwhile chat I had was with Gabriel Rothblatt, a lawyer and space advocate who recently ran for Congress in Florida’s 8th District (the Space Coast, of course!). His big interest when we talked was in streamlining the process for commercial space companies that want to launch their rockets out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). He’s advocating for a “Port Authority” sort of structure, where the actual Port of Cape Canaveral would also have launch approval authority–from cruise ships to space ships!–and any potential launch customers would only have to go through one set of red tape to get approvals.

For instance, if SpaceX wants to launch off of Launch Complex 39A, they have to get approvals from NASA for use of the facilities but also from the U.S. Air Force, which maintains the Eastern Range off the Florida coast. A Port Authority for the Space Coast would maintain its existing facilities plus a few of the launch pads at CCAFS, which would be converted to commercial use. It would be the Port Authority’s job to centralize approvals so that a launch customer would only have to go through one round of red tape instead of two or more.

Rothblatt was also interested in some of the “singularity” technologies, including nanotechnology. Nanotech, theoretically, could extend life spans by providing people with molecule-sized robots in their bloodstreams that would kill things like cancer, clear out cholesterol, etc. Why get interested in longevity? Aside from extending life spans, it could change the dynamics of space investments. Rothblatt reasons that if people were living 150-200 years instead of 70-100, they might be more willing to invest in ventures such as space settlements, which will take decades beyond the usual planning (or investing…or even thinking) horizons of most people alive today.

A third cause Rothblatt advocates for is space settlement. “Fifty years ago, we had to send humans,” he said. “The computers weren’t that good or that fast. Now they’re getting to the point where they can most of the basic things without the need for humans. Space settlement is the only compelling reason to send humans into space” long-term. It’s hard to argue. Settlements mean families, communities, businesses, cultures, and all the things that (so far) only humans do. A lot of what he was saying sounded familiar, so I asked if he’d been talking with Rick Tumlinson. Indeed he had, which was why he was talking to Tumlinson’s New Worlds Institute about space settlement.

There are exciting things happening in the space business. It’s not quite that NASA-centric vision that America had in the 1960s, but a lot of our rapidly developing technologies are making space more democratized and, eventually, more accessible. And perhaps, more hopefully, dedicated individuals are willing to run for Congress to promote a technologically promising future. It’s that sort of thinking that makes even an introverted space geek like me happy he goes to a loud party once a year.

Making a Better Future

STAR TREKI’m a big fan of Star Trek. I like the notion of a high-tech, idealistic future with attractive architecture and clean streets. So I do wonder, occasionally, what it will take to get there and whether specific policies enacted now can make that future happen. Or, if not THAT exact future, something like it.

Politically it seems like most of the folks interested in making the environment clean are on one side of the political spectrum–but their primary political methods for ensuring that we get that clean environment are coercive: more government rules, regulations, and taxes. Such policies interfere with economic growth and even freedom in some cases, causing many folks to resent the policies even if they result in a better environment for everyone.

On the other side of things, we have capitalism, which depends on continual growth, which means continual expansion of products and services, which in turn means we must extract more resources and very often create more pollution. Many people believe that growth can continue unchecked without any consequences.

This endless hostility between environmentalism and economic growth doesn’t need to be permanent. There have to be policies that can be pro-economic growth that also support the environment. I’d like to see cleaner streets, self-driving electric cars, clean air and water, trash heaps used for resources or fuel, and more greenery in cities and towns.

  • Why not talk tax breaks (not subsidies, which are direct payments of taxpayer monies) for such technologies?
  • Why not streamlined regulations to bring newer, safer nuclear power plants online?
  • Why not treat space as an economically undeveloped area (“enterprise zone“), where space-based solar power and asteroid mining can be developed tax-free for 20 years until the space above our heads has an economy strong enough to produce growth?
  • Why not zoning laws that set aside space for and encourage greener technologies?
  • Why not capitalist-based incentives to develop carbon sequestration or other technologies?

bosco-verticale-on-the-move-upScience fiction author David Brin calls these technological efforts TWSBDA (Things We Should Be Doing Anyway). If you find a way to provide incentives for building world-improving technologies that lead to profit (without direct government spending), you might eliminate some of the political friction in the climate change debate. We can do all these things–create a better, growing economy with more clean energy and more technology–without coercion and without sticking it to “the system.”

Or perhaps I’m just being too optimistic again. Jeez, I hope not. I really want to see someone build a starship.