Friday, November 30, 2018

Dual Hunters

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day combines a long exposure to show Orion in the sky and in a river. Look at all that light pollution along the horizon! Those people will never see what you're seeing in this image.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Southern Crown

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Corona Australis, a rich complex of stars, gas and dust and even (by accident of alignment) a globular cluster. Imagine that as a view from your front porch on a new planet!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Warthog Wednesday

Happy Warthog Wednesday, everyone. How can anything so ugly be so beautiful (to a ex-armor crewman)?

Situational Awareness

"All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us...they can’t get away this time” —Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller.

That reminds me, I have a book to read.

Late Night Radio

Back in the days of my misbegotten yut, we listened to podcasts transmitted "over the air".

Set the Controls

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day takes us into the depths of the heart of the Soul Nebula, IC 1871, found in the constellation of Cassiopeia. Cold gas and dust coming together, hot young stars flying apart.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

First Image

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the first image transmitted by NASA's InSight lander from the surface of Mars. The lander (based on the design used in the polar-exploring Mars Phoenix mission and Mars Polar Lander) will emplace instruments on the surface and beneath the surface to get a better picture of what the interior of Mars is like.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Launch to Orbit

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a short video showing the launch of a cargo vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as seen from the International Space Station. Where have I seen that before?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Falling Potato

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is an image of Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars, courtesy of the Viking 1 Orbiter. Take a good look, Phobos will not always be with us.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Infalling Star

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows a Leonid meteor over the skies of the Black Forest. "Mouseover" the image in the link for a constellation guide.

On this morning's walk with our dog, I observed a meteor, the International Space Station and Venus. You can see some amazing things with even just the "naked" eye!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Bag of Holding

Back at the Dawn of Time, The New York Times ran a regular column in the business section call What's in My Briefcase? (eventually it was expanded to bags and backpacks). Each week they would interview some business person about what their everyday carry was (this was years before that concept became a series of websites and social media feeds). I always enjoyed these, especially when you'd come across a large fund manager who still used a slide rule, or somebody who had an interesting notebook or study system and the like.

Andrew Liptak brings us the bag of holding for Simon Stalenhag, artist behind Tales from the Loop, Things from the Flood and other wonders.

Fall Colors

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows NGC 281, looking positively autumnal in the constellation of Cassiopeia.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Jovian Palette

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the palette of colors and the mad dash of fractals and vortices that is the atmosphere of Jupiter, as imaged by the Juno Orbiter. Fascinating stuff—I especially recommend seeking out any of the sequences made by stitching together multiple images.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Mystery Visitor

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day  is a short video showing the trajectory of asteroid 1I/2017 U1 'Oumuamua through and out of our solar system. The first known interstellar visitor, the asteroid seems to be wandering from the computed trajectory. Outgassing? Course correction?

Watch those skies!

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Forever War

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (St. Martin's, 2009).

I have read this book a number of times, starting with while it was still being serialized in the pages of Analog. From there, the first edition hardcover (missing text), the first edition paperback (still missing text), and finally a restored edition.

It's odd to read this now on a number of fronts, First, the "future" of the first several sections of the book is now our past. Second, we've had our own Forever War going on, for more than a decade. Perhaps we should give copies of this book to returning troops? Haldeman served in Vietnam, and like other SF authors (David Drake springs to mind) found the re-entry into "the World" jarring, as do troops serving today. The major difference between then and now is that we allegedly support the troops today where we did not support them back then.

In either case, people return to "normal" as if they are aliens, as if they are time travelers, visiting a place that is both familiar and strange, peopled by those that resemble who they used to know, but who do not understand what they did.

The result is sometimes people that can adjust. But also people who return to service because that is what they know best, people who abuse drugs or alcohol to cope, or people who end their lives because of the trauma they suffered.

The Forever War is a book about war, future war, the Vietnam War, and it is also about the differences between civilians and the military, the support of troops, using people as tools, and not being able to fix what we use.

William Mandella is conscripted along with others in good physical condition and excellent academic or other ratings in order to fight a war in space. The enemy, the Taurans, are enigmatic and uncommunicative, fighting us for control of the travel routes that both races use to jump from star to star. Difficulty arises thanks to relativity, as troops travel from engagement o engagement, time piles up at home and those that signed up in the 1970's are now living in the 2000's, the 2200's, and so on.

This means that you never know what you're coming up against at the next engagement. Will the opposing force have better tactics? Better equipment? Will you? And given travel times and lack of FTL communications, will you still have a home to return to?

Mandella musters out of the service only to find that he can't live on Earth. He is wounded in another engagement and is rebuilt, only to lose the love of his life, Marygay Potter, his only connection to the time and society that he knew. His troops become increasingly different than his baseline, until they are almost as alien as the Taurans. Eventually humanity is as alien as the Taurans as the war ends in the 3100's.

There's plenty of action and technology and such here, but it's the humanity that keeps me going back to the book. Especially several comments by Haldeman that makes me realize how little things have changed since he returned from his Forever War.

Looking Back on Looking Forward

A long article in The New Yorker on Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog. You can definitely see the influence of that periodical on websites like Cool Tools, and even in non-fiction such as The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan and science fiction novels such as John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider and The Sheep Look Up. The weird thing about Whole Earth, is while it gave you tools to live better, live more independently, many of those who claim to have been influenced (hello, Silicon Valley!) do not fully embrace it (see "No User Serviceable Parts Inside" and the like).

What is the Whole Earth Catalog of today?

Near Jupiter

Art by Peter Elson.

The Mountains and the Moon

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the waning gibbous Moon over the mountainous landscape of Sweden.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Auroral Fish

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows auroral activity over the skies of Norway. The astrophotographer suggests that it resembles an animal. I'm calling for a fish (or maybe a dolphin). Other thoughts?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nebular Spider

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows NGC 2070 or 30 Doradus, more commonly known as The Tarantula Nebula. Creation in action.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Quest for Home

E.C. Tubb was a prolific author that populated the mid-list in the 1960's and 1970's both under his own name and a number of pseudonyms. I first encountered his Cap Kennedy series in the spinning wire racks of magazine stores and drugstores of my youth, but the series that attracted my attention the most was his Dumarest of Earth, a sprawling space opera series that led across multiple publishers and multiple revivals in our world, while visiting multiple worlds in the galaxy of the story.

Earl Dumarest was born on Earth and spent several decades traveling ever further and further from his home by the time the story opens in The Winds of Gath. The books in the series are both standalone and linked, and very formulaic. The standard Dumarest tale could have worked equally well as a horse opera: the enigmatic hero blows into town, encounters a variety of characters and is presented with a problem. He is aloof, but due to a strong moral streak, gets involved in the local trouble. He may fall in love, but he will either lose that love or leave that love when he moves on. The problem is resolved, usually messily and with consequences, to our hero is forced to move on again.

The linkage comes from story elements that come in and out of play throughout the series. Dumarest is questing for Earth. The Cyclans, a galaxy-wide organization of cybernetic humans seems to want to conceal Earth and opposes Dumarest and acts as one linkage across the series. Another linkage is the Church of Universal Brotherhood, a religious order that opposes the Cyclans. That makes them an occasional ally to Dumarest.

The series interested me after I initially started reading it in the mid-1970's because of the influence it has had on the science fiction roleplaying game Traveller. Not only does Dumarest appear as a nonplayer character in one of the game supplements, but the game adopts some of Tubb's terminology, most noteably the High, Middle (or Working) and Low Passages for starship passengers (and Traveller, of course, even uses that spelling used by Tubb). A High Passage is one that you spend the journey in relative luxury. Middle Passage means you're working for the ship. A Low Passage has you spending the journey in cold sleep or suspended animation, hoping that you don't burn off too much muscle mass and you wake on the other end and don't find that a less-than-honest handler has stolen all your goods.

My initial reading of the series was somewhat sporadic. As stated above, the series jumped across publishers, over time. I'm not sure if any publisher, until Gateway Essentials, published the whole run in the USA. I recall volumes from Ace, DAW and Pyramid, plus possibly one UK publisher in the paper copies I had.

As with the starship types mentioned by Andre Norton or the mercenary Bond Authority of David Drake making their way into the game, it's nice to find this linkage here.

The books are now out in eBook format, including the final volume that wraps the quest up (long impossible to find in the United States of America). These editions (mostly) lack cover art and suffer (to an extent) from the occasional shoddy production found in other books from Gateway Essentials. On the plus side, it's nice to read a non-doorstop volume in a few hours that provides entertainment, and it is really nice to visit with old friends again.

The Series: Volumes Read (This Time Around)

001: The Winds of Gath

The Series: Volumes Not Yet Read (This Time Around)

002: Derai
003: Toyman
004: Kalin
005: The Jester at Scar
006: Lallia
007: Technos
008: Veruchia
009: Mayenne
010: Jondelle
011: Zenya
012: Eloise
013: Eye of the Zodiac
014: Jack of Swords
015: Spectrum of a Forgotten Sun
016: Haven of Darkness
017: Prison of Night
018: Incident on Ath
019: The Quillian Sector
020: Web of Sand
021: Iduna's Universe
022: The Terra Data
023: World of Promise
024: Nectar of Heaven
025: The Terridae
026: The Coming Event
027: Earth is Heaven
028: Melome
029: Angado
030: Symbol of Terra
031: The Temple of Truth
032: The Return
033: Child of Earth

2017 saw the announcement of a television show. Will we ever see it, or will it ever be trapped in development hell?

For a fan website dedicated to the series, please see this link. TV Tropes even has a page dedicated to the series, please see this link.

The Moon Is Hell!

John W. Campbell, Jr.: The Moon Is Hell! (Gateway Essentials, 2011).

This novel (probably more a novella by "modern" standards) is usually found in an anthology with another Campbell story, The Elder Gods (for details, see this Wikipedia entry). This edition is an eBook from Gateway Essentials, a low-priced set of eBooks from the larger Gollancz line.

The story details an expedition to the Moon. Not the first (which was to the lunar nearside), but the second, to the farside of the Moon, in order to claim it for the United States of America. A sizable crew lands and builds a domed station from which to explore the terrain. The mission is to stay for a year and launched with supplies for the second mission...but no fuel for an actual return. Think of it as a model for Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars missions (which included a lunar version as well).

The crew is kept busy for the year, exploring the surface. Unfortunately, the relief mission does not show up on schedule (and the crew does not know what happened as they have been out of radio touch being on the farside of the Moon, far enough from the horizon the lunar libration does not help.

From here, the story becomes one that anyone who has read the Andy Weir book The Martian (or who has seen the excellent movie) is familiar with: a race for survival. However, there are no potatoes among the supplies the crew brought and they must learn to live off the land in order to survive. On the airless Moon, you ask? Yes, given that Campbell did not have the benefit of drawing on a NASA database, he took the knowledge of a chemical engineer, applied a (very) liberal assumption of how hard people could work with limited resources and postulated that the crew could get hydrogen, oxygen, various metals (ranging up to things like silver, gold and lead) and make water, solar cells, engines, a rocket sled and even synthetic food to survive until the relief expedition (which turns out not to be even the fourth attempt) can arrive.

Campbell is pretty optimistic about how much a small crew can accomplish, even with easily reached resources like he postulates on the Moon. In this, he makes the same mistake as E.E. "Doc" Smith in Spacehounds of IPC (but that was quantum leaps worse, where one character essentially invents civilization in order to go from no technology back to spacefaring technology). Both draw from things like Robinson Crusoe, but all, I think, overlook how much time one must spend just surviving before one can build a base (in the case of Campbell) where you have massive tunnel complexes, individual crew quarters, a swimming pool and multiple automated factories.

Don't get me wrong, I think Campbell is on the right track here. If we are to move into the solar system and beyond, we can't bring everything with us. It's nice to find a relatively early story of space exploration like this (it puts me in mind of both The Watch Below by James White and The Planet Strappers by Raymond Z. Gallun, as well as many stories of shipwreck or exploration of the polar regions of our planet).

Now the downside: First, the writing. Campbell writes this as if it were a log being kept by the main character. As such, we get no other points of view, no internal monologue or glimpses of personality, no nothing. It's a pretty flat story. Second, the eBook. Good grief, Gateway, could you please hire a proofreader? Words are randomly capitalized, sometimes different capitalization uses in the same sentence for the same word. There were a few occasions where something probably was translated by the OCR system incorrectly, or a few incorrect uses of italics or even weird line breaks and the like. Get some human eyeballs on these books!

Moon and Evening Star

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the New Moon (with plenty of the Old Moon showing through reflected Earthshine) and Saturn.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Faint Fuzzy

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Comet 46P/Wirtanen, a periodic comet now visible (but not to most naked eyes). Keep watching, though, some day we'll have the confluence of a large comet passing close enough to Earth at the right time to put on a good show.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In Plato's Cave

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day brings us an image of Sh2–155, better known as The Cave Nebula. A combination of sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen bring us the rich colors (as does the fine work of the photographer!) together in a phrase I've noticed several times of late: the Hubble Palette.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tumbling Dice

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a short video of asteroid 101955 Bennu, a near-Earth (or Earth-crossing) asteroid currently being visited by the OSIRIS-REx vehicle.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Not Blue

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Messier 8 (or NGC 6523) in the constellation of Sagittarius.

Mount Hadley

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a panoramic shot from Apollo 15: Mount Hadley Delta, the Lunar Roving Vehicle, Astronaut David Scott and the shadow of Astronaut James Irwin. Dream mighty things—let's go back!

Saturday, November 10, 2018


Greg Stafford passed away recently. You can read about some of his accomplishments here and here. For me, I appreciate that he, along with several other very famous game designers, always were happy to take time when I met them at conventions or sent them a piece of (paper) mail. The genuine enthusiasm of people like Greg Stafford were a big reason that I have been a gamer since 1976.

Thank you, Greg. Vale.

Today you may see the hashtag #WeAreAllUs around the various social media platforms. At the request of Greg's family, people are playing games designed by Greg, or, if they don't have one, just playing a game, in his memory.

I'm currently between game campaigns thanks to Real Life (TM) constantly whacking me, but I hope to rectify that. Soon. Hopefully with something that Greg had a hand in.

Ham Interest

Because I am interested in more than just space and astronomy and science fiction and the like, but also finance, the economy, trade, history and so much more...I present...THE HAM BOND!

Dream Mighty Things 05

More Robert McCall artwork, freeflying in Near Earth Orbit and over the Moon.

Dream Mighty Things 04

Picking on a recent theme, here is more Robert McCall artwork, all clustered around a large deep-space vehicle. Above, a visit to an asteroid. Below, the vehicle returns to Earth orbit, slowing down through the process of aerobraking.

Arm in Arm

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day has the Old Moon in the arms of the New Moon, high in the skies of the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Landing Ellipse

The ESA and Roscosmos have recommended a region of Mars known as Oxia Planum for the upcoming Exomars rover. With a launch planned for 2020, the rover will explore the surface and drill up to two meters into the surface to hunt for clues that life once existed on Mars.

We've gone from a geologically dead planet, to a planet with an active geological past; from a dry planet to a planet with countless traces (to put it mildly) of a very wet past. How long before we can knock off "lifeless" (even if it is "just" traces of previous life)?

Warped Speeds

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a "little planet" composite of star trails near a tower in Hungary. Like crazy, man.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sky Pattern

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a multiple exposure image (over time) of the pattern that Mars traces across the sky. The Earth moves around the Sun, Mars moves around the Sun, and the interplay causes Mars (or the other planets) to appear to dance back and forth in our sky.

"Mouseover" the image in the link for a constellation guide.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Finally, A Lizard

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows NGC 6188, in the constellation of Ara. The dragons of Ara? No, finally, after horses and a state over the past two days, my assertion that nebula look like lizards is proven true.