Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

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Archive for December, 2006

Fascism and Starship Troopers, Once More

Posted by hyperpat on December 28, 2006

This is part two of my comments about David Itzkoff’s ‘review‘ of John Scalzi’s works.

In the second paragraph of this, while talking about Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, he makes the following statement: “but to a contemporary reader it is almost impossible to interpret the novel as anything other than an endorsement of fascism, from an era when the f-word wasn’t just a pejorative suffix to be attached to any philosophy you disagreed with”.

Really? Let’s look at the definition of fascism and see if there is anything in Starship Troopers that fits that definition: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition (Merriam Webster).

Let’s take these pieces one at a time.

A dictatorial leader – nope, don’t find one in the book. The society Heinlein envisioned still had elections (yes, only veterans could vote, but they were still elections), still had courts, still had law making bodies.

Exalts race over individual – a very specific no. Heinlein makes a point that anyone, regardless of race, creed, political affiliation, or any other characteristic (including being blind and disabled) were treated identically within the military, and that everyone could join if they so desired.

Exalt nation over individual – a qualified yes to this one. Heinlein made the very specific point that the individual, as a member of a society that provides him benefits, owes that society a debt and a duty to help serve that society. In fact, it’s the lynch pin of his envisioned world, as he felt that only by balancing the power represented by the vote with the individual’s acceptance of responsibility towards the society could the malaise of the average voter of today voting for bread and circuses be prevented. Though it’s not in the book (apparently cut during his editing of it), Heinlein in later interviews also indicated that not just military service would do to qualify for the vote, but other service to the community would fulfill the requirement, such as things like the Peace Corps, as long as such service demanded real commitment by the individual. In other words, even conscientious objectors could qualify.

Severe economic and social regimentation: nope, not here either. Juan Rico’s father certainly had the liberty to conduct his business as he saw fit, and only complained about new government tolls and requirements when they were deep into a war footing. Regimentation? Don’t think so, when the local town punks think it might be great fun to mix it up with a few ‘low-life’ soldiers.

Forcible suppression of opposition: not there, though the general political landscape outside of the military was not greatly detailed. There was some commentary about how little political unrest there was in this society, attributed to having all the ‘wolves’ be part of the decision making process, but not because the government actively suppressed all opposition.

So the fact is the actual contents of the book do not support Mr. Itzkoff’s statement.

Now the movie version is a different matter – and I have exactly the same objections to that movie as to Mr. Itzkoff’s statement. Quite frankly, that movie was a travesty, completely mis-representing the philosophy Heinlein was trying to present. Given Mr. Itzkoff’s statement, I wonder if he’s actually read the book, or only seen the movie.

Now, on the other hand, Heinlein did do a bit to glorify the military. The service he shows is efficient (in fact, Heinlein shows specific methods of improving the head-to-tail ratio that normally plagues military organizations), it has an officer corps trained not just by military academies but by actual experience in the field (something not true of our current military, where 90 day wonders are all too prevalent), and it’s training courses are meant to train not just interchangeable bodies but to educate the minds of the soldiers in why they fight. Then he cheated a bit by concentrating only on those soldiers who see direct front line action, and he set up a war scenario where diplomacy was impossible and our species survival was at stake, thereby hiding the fact that the decision to wage war, and how to wage it, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

But it should also be remembered that Heinlein was a graduate of Annapolis, and duty, honor, and patriotism were hallmarks deeply engraved in the man. This book was a response to what he saw as a dangerous trend within American society, the ‘better Red than dead’ faction. Heinlein did not serve actively in the military in WWII, as he was medically discharged in 1934 with tuberculosis, but he did serve in the fashion he was allowed, working on high-altitude pressure suit research and other avionic work. But he certainly knew and detested everything about the Hitlerian regime.

Finally, Mr. Itzkoff makes another statement that is foolish on its face: ” “Starship Troopers” might be the least enticing recruitment tool since “Billy Budd.”” It might surprise him to know that this book has been on the recommended reading list of all the service academies – and I really don’t think it would have been placed there if it was a poor recruitment tool. And personally, I enlisted in the Air Force in 1968, when Vietnam was really warming up, and quite a few of my friends were figuring out every possible way to avoid the draft – something that Heinlein was absolutely against, as exactly the kind of slavery that a fascist state could demand. A good portion of the reason I did so was the influence of this book.


Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Politics, science fiction, SF | 16 Comments »

Critics Who Use a Newspaper for Bodily Functions Other than Information Input

Posted by hyperpat on December 27, 2006

The New York Times devoted an entire page to a review of John Scalzi this last Sunday. As written by Dave Itzkoff, I found it to be the epitome of everything I don’t like about critics. This response will be in two parts, the first being on the failings of this critic, the second on an accusation he makes within the review that I take extreme exception to.

In general, I find that far too many critics:

1. Can’t read

2. Can’t write

3. Can’t think.

4. Force their own pre-conceived notions onto what they are supposedly criticizing.

Mr. Itzkoff displays all these qualities in fine style here. Taking the second item first: This is supposed to be a review of Mr. Scalzi’s works. But the entire first half of this piece is taken up by a diatribe on the supposed failings of Robert Heinlein, with Scalzi not even mentioned till the fourth paragraph. Now Scalzi is known to have been influenced by Heinlein, but it might be noted that anyone who writes SF today has been influenced by Heinlein, whether they know it or not, and anyone who writes a military-oriented SF book is guaranteed to have some comparisons made to Starship Troopers. Now back when I took a few courses in writing, having an introductory paragraph to ease into the piece’s theme was fine, but backhandedly slipping in a review of Heinlein’s work in a piece that supposed to be about Scalzi, and then highlighting it by having it be the entire first half of the piece, is bad writing.

Now let’s look at the piece’s content when he does get around to discussing Scalzi. The first paragraph of this is reasonable, detailing the plot of Old Man’s War and drawing parallels with Starship Troopers. But in his next paragraph, Mr. Itzkoff shows his biases by attributing much of OMW’s commercial success to “recommendations from conservative political blogs like Instapundit and The Volokh Conspiracy”, ignoring the fact that word of this book was spread by a large contingent of SF fans, of all political stripes, and doesn’t even mention that it was nominated for the Hugo Award. The next paragraph sees the statement “Heinlein may have cultivated a philosophy that now seems distasteful bordering on appalling”. To whom is this philosophy appalling other than Mr. Itzkoff himself?

Then Mr. Itzkoff has the temerity to diss Scalzi’s latest novel, The Android’s Dream, because “there is still a position less commendable than having dangerous ideas, and that is having no position at all”, totally missing the fact that this book is meant to be a fun romp and not a political diatribe. Then he has even more chutzpah to insist that Scalzi get back to works like OMW and more political philosophizing, that The Android’s Dream was merely a detour for Scalzi’s career. All of this is a pretty good example of items 1, 3, & 4.

Now since Mr. Itzkoff has indicated he is at least somewhat familiar with Heinlein’s works, I would direct him to the last chapter of The Number of the Beast, where there was a special room set up just for critics. I think he belongs there.

Now any exposure in something with as much clout as the NYT is probably good for increasing sales of Scalzi’s books, even something as negative as this piece. I just wish the NYT would find someone else to review works in this genre.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Politics, science fiction, SF | 8 Comments »

Where My Dreams Are

Posted by hyperpat on December 22, 2006

A bit of doggerel for the season:

My Gift

It’s December, and I’m looking for snow

Outside the window there’s only dust

Powdered and blown

And red, not white, with violet sky


Santa’s reindeer won’t ever clop on this roof

They’d gasp and crash and freeze out here

Where there’s no speck

of green, no leaves, no amber wheat


Dusk, then night crawls up then over the window

Changing red to gray, hiding the grit

And now my gift

Appears, bright stars, glorious rainbow.


Argh! this thing won’t let me format this the way I want.

Posted in poetry, science fiction, SF | 2 Comments »

Commercials, Commercials

Posted by hyperpat on December 22, 2006

It’s almost Christmas time again. A season that has now become a celebration of commercialism, with darn little reference to its supposed roots. In some ways, perhaps this is not a bad thing, given the track record of just about every major organized religion. Unfortunately, every religion requires its adherents to trust in faith, to accept without any provable physical evidence a concept of a supreme being. And of course, once you allow such a thing, logic disappears, replaced by emotion. All too often, that emotion is distrust and hate for those who are not adherents to your own particular concept of god, which leads, again and again, to strife and wars.

Religion may not be the only cause of wars, but it’s certainly a major player.

Still, there are times when I wish that this season would be more like it was when I was kid, when church, carols, apple cider, and small, heartfelt gifts were more the rule, and I was watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time. The sentiments that Christmas is supposed to have are admirable ones,  and it seems they’ve been shoved under the pile of sell, sell, sell.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, religion | 2 Comments »

Gobbling Up the Earth

Posted by hyperpat on December 19, 2006

Where are we heading? Will, in the very near future, computers totally take over the world? This is a concept championed by Vernor Vinge, what he terms the Singularity. A time when computing power not only becomes ubiquitous, but rapidly reaches the point where all the physical resources of the solar system are converted into still more computing chips. What he is counting on is that the exponential curve of improvement in computing power that has so far ruled the day (Moore’s Law is still holding) will not flatten out, but will keep right on going. Now he may be right, but I have strong doubts. Every other exponential trend that we have seen both in nature and human societies eventually runs into an insurmountable obstacle. Runaway population growth eventually leads to total depletion of the resources that spawned the growth in the first place, as any ecology student will tell you. ‘Boom’ economies eventually outstrip their base population and monetary support, often leading to ‘crashes’ (remember the dot-com boom? Or the panic of 1893?). Pyramid schemes also lead to this same scenario – which is why most governments look very coldly at them, as when they collapse a lot of people get hurt.

The blocking point for the computer explosion will probably come when the circuits can no longer operate at the atomic level, but instead will have to try to work at the quantum level. Making stuff work in the macro world while depending on the effects at that level will probably take a major breakthrough in scientific knowledge, and when that will occur (if it does) can’t be predicted. A secondary blocking point is the state of software improvement. All the computing horsepower imaginable doesn’t help if you can’t tell it what to do, and software improvements, at least at this point, are dependent on a real, live human doing some serious thinking and (very) slow coding – a condition that won’t change until a true AI is created. Which will put a pretty sharp limit on how fast computers can take over everything. These blocking points will probably be reached sometime in the next decade or two, if current trends do continue on their current curves, and the state of world will be well short of the complete computer domination foreseen.

This is not to say that there won’t be some large changes in the world due to all this computing power floating around. Twenty years from now, a person without access to the computing net will be lost, unable to function in a society driven by constant input of information from everywhere about everything. I foresee that cars will be driven by computers, and that ‘manual mode’ will be reserved for driving out in the ‘sticks’, where technology hasn’t (quite) reached. Not that you’ll be doing that much driving anyway, as most jobs will now be capable of being done at home. Manufacturing jobs for humans will just about disappear, taken over by ever more sophisticated robots. For that matter, the general-purpose household robot (as foreseen in Heinlein’s Door into Summer, written in 1956!) should make its appearance, freeing the homemaker to do other things than clean house all day (such as work on the computer!).

Now if, in the next twenty years, a more direct interface to computers can be achieved (such as a direct neural hookup), the changes may even be more startling, as human-computer entities will have strong advantages over mere un-enhanced humans, and virtual realities may become the preferred place of abode.

Certainly a different world from today, but the Earth won’t be getting disassembled to make more computing chips in any future I foresee.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | 2 Comments »

A Fine Ending and a Nice Homecoming

Posted by hyperpat on December 17, 2006

Got back from Oregon last night, with my son in tow. A very nice graduation ceremony, and one I think will mean much more to him than those that happen at traditional schools. The school he attended is one that specializes in emotional growth for teens that are having troubles. Those troubles can range from drugs, sex, and violence to complete isolation and down-in-the-dumps self-images. The school does its damnedest to give these kids new tools to handle life in all its flavors, and for the most part they are quite successful. When I looked at all the kids at that school, I was pretty much amazed at just how well the program had impacted them; all I could see were bright, cheerful, polite, confident, and well-rounded young adults (and I do mean adult). And it’s not just the kids that learn from this program, the parents do too: better ways to communicate and interact with your children, what works and what doesn’t, how to identify and de-fuse potential flash points, the list goes on for a very long way.

However, for those that need and can benefit from such a program, there is one major stumbling block, and that is the cost. I would imagine that less than 5% of parents can afford to send their kids to such a place, and very few health insurance plans will cover any of the cost. It put me deep in debt (to the tune of $100,000), and the whole thing probably won’t be finally paid till fifteen years from now. But certainly more than 5% of all kids need something like this, and unfortunately all too many of them will end up with broken lives, incarcerated, or have very short life spans, as they simply will not have the chance to get this kind of help. And that’s a shame and a tragedy, as by not providing some means to help these kids, America is unnecessarily squandering at least some of its future potential.

Posted in Daily Happenings | 3 Comments »

Up In the Air and Down on the Ground

Posted by hyperpat on December 12, 2006

My youngest son graduates from his boarding school this weekend, and I’m busily getting ready to fly up there (it’s in Oregon). So naturally I looked at the list of banned/limited items I can take on the plane. Now some of the items you can’t take make sense, like no chlorine gas cylinders. And some of the items you can take in carry-ons make sense, like infant formula.

But there’s a whole lot of other stuff that doesn’t make much sense. Like I can take a 7″ inch screwdriver in my carry-on stuff. Don’t know about you, but I could make a pretty good weapon out of nice, thin screwdriver of that length, and just what else are you going to do with it inside the aircraft cabin? And I can take safety matches in carry-on, but not in checked baggage – this one has me really scratching my head. The whole business of gels and liquids being limited to 3oz amounts and packed in see through zip-locks kind of makes sense, but here again it’s quite possible to create some really nasty things by combining a couple of (separately) harmless items of this nature. Rational sense calls for a complete ban on these types of items, if you really want to cut down on the opportunity for a nut-case to wreak havoc with your day – but this is one case where political expediency has ruled the day, as the initial outcry about the ban on such things was deafening.

In the end, it still comes down to where do you draw the line between cost and risk. Inspecting all these items is a huge cost, and a real look at the problem shows that all this effort does not radically reduce the risk. Between the holes in the list of banned and allowed items and the fact that just about every test of the adequacy of security screeners has been a dismal failure, with way too many banned items allowed through, anyone who is really determined to blow up a plane can find a way to do it.

And it’s still true that driving a car is far more risky than taking an airplane. Where’s the outcry to install devices that won’t allow you to drive your car when drunk, or to install regulators and computers that won’t allow you drive way over the speed limit, or on board radars and video cams that can show stuff in that ‘blind’ spot that far too few drivers check for? It would seem that we don’t have a proper set of priorities. But that’s no surprise. Anything that involves a risk of death, no matter how small, that is outside of an individual’s control gets a lot of attention and demands to ‘do something’, while anything that might limit that same individual’s right to do whatever he wants, regardless of how risky that behavior might be to others, is immediately attacked as too costly, inconvenient, or unnecessary government intrusion into private lives. Welcome to America, land of the not-quite-screwed-on-tightly.

Posted in Daily Happenings, Politics, Science & Engineering | 3 Comments »

(Root)Beer and Bowling Don’t Mix

Posted by hyperpat on December 8, 2006

Bowling last night was a disaster. Everything was going just fine, my warmup practice games were good with a 256, 201, 192, and 202, and in the first league game I’d opened with a double, when I managed to spill my root beer, soaking my shoes. After cleaning up the mess, I went and got a pair of rental shoes, as I obviously couldn’t bowl with my soaked ones. Unfortunately, the rentals weren’t much better than using those wet things – I still stuck at the line, and after the first couple of balls thrown with these shoes, I got very leery of approaching the foul line. Of course, this played havoc with my game. I managed to finish the first game with a 187, but I had to turkey the 10th to do it. And it didn’t get any better in the second game, resulting in a 163. I’d had enough of this by now, so I went into the pro shop and bought a new pair of shoes. It took about three frames to break these in, but after that things got quite a bit better, and I ended with a 193 for a 543 series. Which is the lowest total I’ve had in four weeks. And really disappointing after Wednesday night’s performance, where I turned in  a 216, 265, and 200, for a 681 series. I guess this will teach me to have back-up equipment!

Posted in Bowling, Daily Happenings | Leave a Comment »

Concepts and Inertia

Posted by hyperpat on December 7, 2006

My previous post was an example of concept thinking. This is the kind of thing engineers in Silicon Valley are famous for, except you usually hear about those incidents where the idea was scratched out on a napkin, the instigators then moving to a garage, and three years later are multi-billionaires – but I’m afraid my little conceit won’t get me those bucks; heck, it’s not even original. The nice thing about playing around with ideas like this is that you don’t care if your numbers aren’t exactly right; you’re only looking for whether the thing is possible at all, within an order of magnitude. A lot of little details can be safely ignored, to be dealt with much later in the implementation phase. Of course, sometimes those ‘little’ details show up to be not so little, occasionally they are even idea wreckers. But this kind of thinking does weed out those ideas and concepts that have no hope of ever becoming a reality, and does allow for long-term planning and the generation of a road map for where you want be sometime in the future.

In government-speak this is called a feasibility study – but they don’t do it in quite the same way. Instead they spend three years and 50 million dollars to study an item, at the end of which they’ll issue a 50 page memorandum that will basically say no more than what I did in that prior post – they’ll just do it in that lovely indecipherable language bureaucrats are so fond of.  Large corporations also seem to be subject to this problem, which is why continuous innovation at such companies is so difficult to achieve.

The real question is, how do we get large organizations to be innovatively nimble? The ideas are always there – there’s always someone who thinks a little weirdly. Getting those ideas through the boardroom or the congressional committee is something else again. This has been the subject of numerous books on business, I know. My own answer is, you have to let the decision-making empowerment drive down to the level of very small groups within the organization – I don’t think that group size can be much larger than 30 people. And that empowerment means just that – that small group has to have the power to actually start implementation of whatever idea they come up with, that funding will be there, and the amount of paperwork justification and upper level reviews must be held to absolute minimums. Now this means there might be a large probability of failure for not just the little group but the company as a whole, but it also means that the company can grow dramatically when the idea works out. A few companies have taken the approach of spinning off a new company when tackling potentially good but expensive ideas, to help protect themselves from the possible failure of the new idea, and this method can work – but only if the spin-off company is started with enough capital to see the project through.

Unfortunately, decision empowerment down to this level doesn’t seem to be possible in government circles. Governments are almost necessarily driven from top-down, and as anyone who has ever had to deal with a government clerk and twenty-two different forms to get a permit to cut down a tree in their front yard can tell you, this leads to extreme inertia and slavish following of the ‘rules’. How we change this, I’m afraid I don’t know – all suggestions appreciated.

Posted in Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

A Starship Today?

Posted by hyperpat on December 5, 2006

Some earlier comments here got me to wondering about just what we would really need to build, staff, and launch an interstellar multi-generation spaceship. Such a craft has some obvious advantages, mainly in terms of what type of propulsion system is needed, as with very long travel times allowed, there are a lot of different options. But what about the problems such a craft would have? How do we build one? Just how big would it have to be?

A short list of minimum requirements:

1. A method to completely recycle all elements within the craft. While most of the requirements for keeping people alive are common (mainly hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus) and are fairly easy to handle, there is a long list of trace elements that human body requires, some of which are not easy to handle (such as fluorine) and even harder to get into forms that the human body can assimilate. Having a hydroponic garden is not going to be enough, unless the plant variety can be so wide that all the trace elements are available in their output – and a width this wide would probably need a fully functioning closed ecology, something we don’t know how to put together yet. This implies at least some form of chemical processing plant, or a pretty large stock of non-perishable vitamin and mineral supplements. This also means that everything has to be recycled, including people (and no, this is not a Soylent Green scenario, it happens on Earth – just most people don’t think about it). As a completely sealed environment is almost impossible to achieve, some allowance in terms of foodstuffs and other raw materials must be made and appropriately stocked. Also, some very close attention needs to be paid to air recycling. Very small contaminants that build up in the atmosphere would be deadly, so we need both some very good scrubbers and the effects of ‘natural’ plant recycling.

2. A certain minimum number of people of child-bearing age. Studies have shown that if your starting population is too small with too little genetic variation, the species will die out due to excessive recessive reinforcement (not counting the possibilities of disasters, which on a starship we hopefully don’t have!). There are some estimates that indicate that at least 100 females would be needed, other estimates indicate you might need 10,000. For our purposes here, let’s assume the lower number, with an equal number of males (not totally required, genetically, but it will probably ease the social problems of this group – sorry about that, guys, but we just aren’t all that indispensable).

3. Living habitat. People don’t respond very well if they have to live cooped up in a small, never-changing environment (think prison). We’ll need bedrooms, parks, entertainment areas, exercise rooms, places to work (more on this later), schools, hospitals, and places of worship, and at least some of this ‘cityscape’ needs to be changeable in reasonable time frames at reasonable effort levels. And there needs to be some provision for expansion, as the second and later generations may be quite a bit larger than the starting one.

4. Something for everyone to do that can’t be seen as just ‘makework’. Needed are cooks, teachers, doctors, janitors, astrophysicists, police (even a society this small probably needs someone to enforce decorum), farmers, drive and power plant maintenance men, judges, preachers (?!), ecologists, electronic repairmen, artists and musicians, homemakers, and probably several other professions. Not needed are stock and bond dealers, salesmen of any stripe, soldiers (at least not until they get to their destination), construction workers, check-out clerks, accountants, race-car drivers, weathermen (again, not till arrival point), etc, etc. Matching up people’s talents and desires to the required jobs is not a trivial exercise, and it would get worse at second generation and beyond, which implies some sort of forced assignment to particular positions whether you liked it or not – I don’t think this society can function as a completely democratic one, but rather must be a autocracy.

5. A method of maintaining a reasonable gravitational field (or its equivalent in terms of acceleration) throughout the trip, along with some very good shielding from interstellar radiation.

6. Absolute fail-safes on all critical ship operational equipment – anything from the space drive to light and heat controls. NASA has shown how to handle this one, but it means multiple redundant backups for everything.

So what does the above imply about the size of the craft needed?

Minimum personal living space per person would have to be at least 10,000 sq ft. This may sound like a lot, but the stir-crazy factor becomes a big issue when you have to live your entire life there. Communal space is even larger; add another 20,000 sq ft per person. Working space (offices, hospitals, schools, etc) adds another 10,000 sq ft/person. But the really big space factor is space for farms and hydroponics – under Earth conditions we’re looking at 1.2 acres (about 52,000 sq ft) to support one person. Even assuming large use of hydroponics and plant types that don’t waste a lot of space, we still need to allocate something like an acre/person. For round number purposes, let’s call it 40,000 sq ft/person. So far, we have 80,000 sq/person, and we’d have to plan for at least a maximum population of 400, for a total of 32,000,000 sq. ft.

Then there are the storage space requirements for water, other supplies, and replacement parts: about 2,000,000 sq ft (most of this is water storage, figuring on total use of water, including agriculture, at 300 gallons/day, with a 100 day free supply before recycling). Let’s add another 2,000,000 sq ft for power plant, sewage piping, recycling plants, machine shops, etc. This gives us a total of 36,000,000 sq ft.

For our space-ship design, let’s model it as a torus, which will allow for easy generation of pseudo-gravity by a simple spin. If we make the ‘height’ of the torus 1000 ft, this gives a radius of just about 6000 ft to achieve our 36,000,000 sq ft habitat. Assuming that we use 2” thick aluminum or other light metal walls, our craft would weigh about one billion pounds, or about 500 million kg. While this may seem large, it’s probably buildable even with today’s technologies – just take a look at some of the aircraft carriers we’ve built. Though it would certainly have to be assembled in space, with all its component parts ferried up, as we certainly have nothing that could lift something of that size into space all at once (not even counting the incredible stresses such a launch would place on an object of this size and topology). But it’s doable.

For propulsion, we could use a light sail augmented by an ion engine. This isn’t going to get us there very fast, but a light sail has a great advantage in not needing reaction mass, and while the amount of acceleration derivable from one even near the sun is not great, it adds up over time. How long will it take to get to the nearest star?

Assuming we have a light sail of 10000 meters on a side (something this large is not buildable with today’s technologies), we will get an acceleration at Earth’s distance from the sun of about 400 nanogravities (that’s a decimal point followed by 6 zeroes and a 4). After 100 days of sailing, we’ll be traveling at about 68 miles/hour, and it would take about 560 years to reach the nearest star. We’re a pretty slow tortoise, and even for a multi-generational starship this is probably too long. So we might think about augmenting the solar flux with some large laser arrays to point at our sail, and achieve an acceleration rate of perhaps 10-20 times what we can get from the sun alone. This would reduce our trip down to about 140 years, short enough that people might actually consider doing this.

But as this little exercise shows, traveling to the stars with enough of a population to guarantee the continued existence of the human species even if some major disaster strikes Earth is not impossible, just difficult, expensive, and very time-consuming. Perhaps this plan should at least be put somewhere on the priority list of things the human race should be doing.

Posted in Science & Engineering, science fiction | 2 Comments »

The Four Horsemen, or Science?

Posted by hyperpat on December 4, 2006

Seems that many people have a strong aversion to any form of genetically modified crop. Most of that aversion seems to be based on poor assumptions: that such crops have a high potential to be unhealthy to eat, that the modified plants will run wild and take over the world, destroying all other types of plants in the process, or that the whole idea is ‘unnatural’, against God’s will. While there are some risks associated with directly modifying the germ plasm of plants, the risk factors are on the same order as those that have existed ever since farmers have been around and ‘crossing’ various plant species. Today’s corn is a far cry from the types that existed when European settlers first hit the American shores, and almost all of that change is due to careful cross-breeding and culling for the desired qualities.

Now, with global warming of some degree almost certainly on the near horizon, studies are showing that existing types of food plants can be expected to have decreasing yields, in a world with a still all-too-rapidly rising population. Genetic modification offers at least some hope of keeping yields up, and farming’s impact on the overall ecology within bounds. Unless we want to see huge famines and even more of the world’s population with only marginal amounts to eat, we either have to use such methods, or figure out a way to reduce the world’s population. Of course, we know how to do the latter, but I don’t think most people really want to go that route.

Posted in Science & Engineering | 2 Comments »