Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering Challenger

Today has seem folks across the internet offer moving tributes to the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion 25 years ago today. Many have pointed out that this was the "Kennedy moment" for Generation X--one of those events that cruelly burned itself into our collective memories forevermore. I am no exception to this. At the time, I still aspired to be an astronaut, the harsh reality that my hopeless math skills effectively precluded me from realizing this dream having not yet burst this particular bubble. I was a sophomore in high school, in the chemistry lab waiting for class to begin when Tony Pierson wandered in from the hall with the awful news, leavened with the gallows humor "I guess this means teachers aren't meant to go into space."

Like many others, it took me a a while to process the news, and still longer to get over the shock. Disasters like this didn't happen to NASA--spaceflight was safe. Hadn't we proven that with the 24 previous flights? Now, with the hindsight of 25 years and much additional learning, I understand that it is inherently unsafe, and that hazard was compounded by the terrible, mind-bogglingly inefficient design of the shuttle itself (which I've complained about in previous blogs). At the time, however, I bought the hype and believed that the so-called reusable shuttles were getting the U.S. into orbit quickly, cheaply and safely. The disaster was a glass of cold water thrown in my face. I'm not certain, but I believe my dream of becoming an astronaut died shortly therafter.

A few years before, while I was still in junior high, I attended a summer camp Texas A&M put on at the Galveston campus. It's focus was space science (not to be confused with Space Camp put on in Florida) and it was run by June Scobee. June is an engaging, enthusiastic woman. The first day of camp she greeted all of us with a hearty "Howdy!" as all good Aggies do (although I have no idea if she ever took a single course hour from A&M). She won us science geeks over with tales of her introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. The next two weeks were an amazing behind the scenes look at the U.S. space program, and it took me many years to realize how privileged I was to partake. You see, June was married to astronaut Dick Scobee, and pretty much had an all-access pass to the Johnson Space Center. We spent a day with noted Russian space program expert James Oberg. Another day, we went to a NASA image processing lab and got to select some archival photo prints as a souvenir (mine was an orbital shot of the lunar lander Spider as taken from the command module Gumdrop). We visited the original, circular wet-F tank, which was housed in the converted centrifuge building. This was a work area, strictly off-limits to tourists. I loved that fact. We learned that the astronauts had a rubber shark they'd hide in compartments to spring out at unexpected times. When the shark eventually disappeared, as such toys are wont to do, a rubber alligator soon appeared to take its place. We visited and went inside the massive vacuum chamber, the door of which looks for all the world like it should be the entrance to Superman's Silver-Age Fortress of Solitude. I noticed, taped near the doorway of the room that housed this enormous chamber, a brittle, yellowing newspaper cartoon that appeared to date to the late 60s. When The Wife and I returned to the Johnson Space Center around '97 or so and took the official tour, I was delighted to see the cartoon still in place. Alas, the vacuum chamber is no longer on the public tour. But the best had to be meeting Dick Scobee himself. He was every bit as friendly, patient and enthusiastic as June. In my Hollywood-tinged view of space as a roiling maelstrom on non-stop action, I asked him what would happen if the shuttle were hit my a meteor and damaged.

"We'll fix it and come back down," Scobee answered.

"But what if you can't fix it in orbit?" I demanded, expecting to hear of some elaborate rescue mission with a second shuttle.

Scobee merely smiled. "We come down anyway."

So yeah, the Challenger disaster struck home for me. Scobee was my astronaut. And he was taken from me. My loss didn't compare to that of the astronauts' families, but awkward, geeky teens aren't known for their grasp of the big picture. I went back to that summer camp at Galveston several times more, but never took the space science track again. I don't even remember if they offered it after that.

I saw June just once more, years later. It was the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I took my younger brother Jim to a Houston Astros game at the old Astrodome. They were giving out commemorative baseballs to the first 5,000 fans, signed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (I know they were machine signed, don't be a party pooper). We got our baseballs, and in fact, I'm playing with mine right now. It's a little scuffed up from the kids playing with it off and on over the years, but I still have it. June Scobee threw out the first pitch. I remember she got a standing ovation. There was an introduction, and she said some words. I can't remember what, but I do remember choking back tears. I really wanted to go and introduce myself, and thank her for everything she did during that camp years before, but of course that was impossible.

Every year I remember, and every year I pray that someday we'll get it right before apathy sets in and we, as a nation, turn our backs on the stars. My eldest daughter professes the desire to be the first person to set foot on Mars. I hope there are no more disasters between now and then to wither her dreams.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Muddle Instead of Music

Today is the anniversary of one of the most infamous reviews in history. In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich, already a world renowned composer, woke up to read in Pravda that his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk was "music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all."

If that didn't tighten Shostakovich's stomach enough, the review goes on to say the score offers "quacks, grunts, and growls" in place of a more traditional operatic language.

At the time "Muddle Instead of Music" was published, Lady Macbeth had been running (and praised) for months, not just in the Soviet Union but abroad--which was another one of Shostakovich's problems. This broadside represented a shift in direction of the government's attitude towards music and its musicians. The nature of the shift can be read in the review itself.

The article attacked the music's slight jazz touches as "nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic." The Soviet regime's response to jazz being the same as Germany's where it was termed degenerate music. With regard to the Soviets, I've seen an Bambi influenced animated film "Someone Else's Voice" that made the same point (collected in the wonderful Animated Soviet Propaganda DVD collection).

Also on the spit was the opera's alleged vulgarity: "The merchant's double bed occupies the the central position on the stage. On this bed all "problems" are solved. In the same coarse,
naturalistic style is shown the death from poisoning and the flogging -
both practically on stage."

So both the modern--read atonal--musical language and the more naturalistic style of the story were objected to. Interestingly, Pravda called this "leftist" but clearly not the right kind of leftism. Shostakovich's opera gets tied to "Meyerholdism", again not a good sign for the composer because the theater director had already had his show trial and was in prison (he'd be executed in 1940).

Finally, in case the composer and readers hadn't gotten the point: "The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

Shostakovich noted in his memoirs the most ominous thing about the review was that it was unsigned. To him, and presumably to others used to reading the tea leaves, this meant the review stood as an official statement of the Party and by extension directly from Stalin. Shostakovich goes on to describe the immediate personal result: whispers, furtive glances, nervously closed doors.

For musicians in the Soviet Union, Muddle was a signal to tone down experimentation. A union was formed to firmly enforce socialist realism, in this case the view that in the Soviet Union music's purpose of music was solely to uplift the masses (to use their language). I wish I could make a blanket statement that all the work produced under this edict was terrible, but in fact personally, I like a lot of what I've heard. Tikhon Khrennikov, for example, who ran the union for most of its history and whom Shostokovich names as one of his chief tormentors, wrote some cello concertos that are "steaky" to use Elgar's term for a good strong tune.

Meanwhile, Shostakovich, lucky to avoid exile or worse, learned to speak in two voices. His Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) of 1941, Symphony No. 10 (1905) from 1957 and especially to me Symphony No. 12 (The Year 1917) are all big, completely tonal, and easily accessible works. He also scored films--watch the amusing Cherry Town (1963) on YouTube, for example. At the same time, into the drawer was going the more personal work, usually written for smaller ensembles and more and more relating to Judaism. After the Secret Speech and subsequent thaw under Khruschev, Shostakovich did begin to publish and have some of this work performed, but the overriding theme of his memoirs--Testimony, which I highly recommend--is caution and the exhaustion that came from having to spend the rest of his life nervously watching the shadows.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Plasma Rain

Amazing weather recently on the Sun: a solar prominence raining plasma onto the Sun's surface in torrents. There's particularly good video here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

People Who Deserve the Campbell More Than Me

As those of you who are members of Worldcon know, the nominations for the Hugo and the Campbell award are now open, and the greatest responsibility in fandom now rests on your shoulders.

This is my first year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and as I have vociferously proven, there's no way that I deserve it.

Which is why you will get such a cathartic rush by nominating me. Go ahead and try it. Nominating me for the Campbell is as thrilling as driving 50mph through a school zone.

Essentially everyone on the Campbell eligibility page is more deserving than me, but I would like to take a moment to highlight those folks who are particularly more deserving.

I worked with S. Boyd Taylor recently as we got his story "A Distant Sound of Hammer" produced for The Drabblecast. One of the most original zombie stories that's come along in a while, it elegantly capturing a sense of brutality and desperation. Norm posted my story "Snuggle the Dead" at the same time on the B-side feed because he thought it was a less gruesome counterpoint to Taylor's story, which has got to tell you how willing Taylor is to let it all hang out.

I've not actually read anything by Saladin Ahmed, but I have the feeling that he's going to take the Campbell award home, so I want to suck up now. He published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies twice to my once, so already you know he's more deserving.

J.C. Hutchins' profile declares that he's a "successful New Media storytelling pioneer" and he's not kidding. His 7th Son series put podcast novels on the map. For those of us who have long since devoured all the sci-fi books on tape in our local library system he's a life saver.

Nicky Drayden is exactly what the Campbell award means to celebrate: she's a new writer who has hit the scene with shocking force. She only started writing a couple of years ago, but her list of publications is already arm-length and growing longer. If you haven't seen Drayden's particular blend of style and humanity, then you should check out her dramatic visuals-enhanced reading of "You Had Me at Rarrrgg."

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the brilliant mind behind Innsmouth Free Press, a thriving, throbbing, amorphous polypous publication of everything Lovecraftian. Aside from a rare misstep where she published my story Beneath the Red City, the quality of the site has been consistently high.

You need to keep your eye on David Steffen. He is an engaging and sophisticated writer with big things written all over him. His name keeps coming up and I'm sure that will only continue into the future.

So if you're a Worldcon member, please vote your heart, and by that I mean vote against common sense and nominate me for the Campbell. And while you're at it, you should consider jotting down for best fanzine, and The Drabblecast and Space Squid for best semiprozine.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for what I should put down in all those lesser categories, I haven't filled out my nomination form yet and I just realized I haven't read any new novels this year.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

You too can wear Lansdale out

Now folks, I suspect that if you're reading this blog, you have the good taste to appreciate the literary stylings of Joe R. Lansdale, His Ownself. And for that you are commended. But for the average person passing you on the street, there's been no clear way to broadcast this deep-seated appreciation for Lansdale's prose, save for dressing up in a Bubba Ho-Tep costume or quoting the finale of "The Night They Missed the Horror Show" verbatim. Until now:

Yes, what you are seeing is the fine apparel on sale now at The Runaway Mule in beautiful downtown Nacogdoches. Why am I writing about this, worthy subject though Joe may be? Well, I'll tell you. That image of Joe's visage upon the woven garment is one of my very own, taken under the auspices of The Wife's photo studio, Lisa On Location, and licensed to Tim Bryant of Runaway Mule for a very special cause--the proceeds from sale of these shirts will go to benefit PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children, an organization Joe is strongly involved in.

So there you have it, your chance to display your unambiguous love for all things Lansdale while at the same time doing some good in the world. Order yours now, so that you too can look cool like me!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Joseon X-Files

My fascination with Bollywood is close to satiation, so I've been hunting for new cinematic delicacies.

Luckily, Kaigou, the author of the cry havoc blog gave me a very compelling pitch on the subject of Asian TV drama. I've had virtually no contact with that genre of programming, mainly because it is not at all easy to get your hands on it. The best option seems to be downloading bittorrents (un-distributed foreign content is one of those areas where copyright law gets a little fuzzy) with fan-produced subtitles (the subtitles are timed to match the more popular bittorent rips).

Fantasy and science fiction doesn't have the same representation as romantic dramas (a genre that doesn't interest me much, although I want to check out "Dr. Champ" a romantic drama about a doctor at the Korean olympic training facility), but Kaigou recommended a Korean drama officially titled "Special Investigation Report" but almost universally cited as "Joseon X-Files."

It takes place during Korea's Joseon period, a long stretch of self-governing bureaucracy, specifically in this case the early 17th century. You can tell it's the Joseon period because most of the characters wear the semi-transparent "gat" hats.

The X-files comparison is hard to avoid. There are two investigators, one with a mysterious past, the other filled with skepticism, who must investigate bizarre events at the behest of covert government forces. There's even a "smoking man" character who smokes an insanely long pipe.

But there's some nice Korean flare to the stories. For instance, the premiere episode has a local governor reporting mysterious lights in the sky. The report gets him arrested because the emperor's authority comes from the heavens and heavenly omens are seen as intent to foment rebellion.

I've seen about half the series so far, and sure there's some rough spots in the production. It's shot on harsh video and the live-sound is clunky at times. The locations, whether a remote village or the emperial capital, all seem to be the same eight or nine buildings. But it's not bad. The stories are imaginative and the characters compelling. Definitely worth the time for a serious science fiction fan to hunt down. If nothing else it's better than two of the three Stargate TV series.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Space Station Solar Eclipse Transit

French astrophotographer Thierry Legault positioned himself and his gear in Oman for a fantastic shot of the International Space Station against the solar disk during a partial eclipse on January 4. See the picture and brief remarks by Legault at or Google the key words to see where else it’s in evidence on the Web.

By coincidence, ISS resembles a certain prop from STAR WARS.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Groupthink of Snails

I spent last week in Belize, and while messing with the hermit crabs on the beach, I had a series of John Muir style observations. It started with the realization that hermit crabs are asymmetric. They have a definite lean to them. Their legs and claws are shaped in such a way that when they snap into the shell they’ve chosen as their personal armor, their body completes the spiral of the shell. You can see this fairly clearly in the picture I took of the cutest hermit crab ever, which should be easy enough to distinguish from the picture of the biggest and ugliest hermit crab in the world, which I was also lucky enough to find.

Which raised the next question, if hermit crabs fit tightly into a spiral shell, what happens when the threads are reversed? Can hermit crabs only screw into clockwise-coiled shells, or are there right-handed and left-handed hermit crabs?

I scoured the beach and I only found clockwise-coiled shells, and whenever I raised the question with anyone, the only answer I got was a facetious “They only turn clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.”

While I may be a genius in the style of John Muir, I was not the first to notice all the clockwise shells. Once I got back to civilization I asked the internet. The answer is 90% of all snail shells coil clockwise. The term is “dextral” or right-handed. “Sinistral” or left-handed shells are common in a few species, but nearly all gastropods have a dextral coil with rare sinistral mutants who produce a counter-clockwise coil that are highly valued by avid shell collectors (of course there’s a sub-culture of avid shell collectors, why wouldn’t there be?).

Few snails turn left-handed because a counter-spin to the shell makes it essentially impossible for their genitalia to fit with others of their species. Left-handed mutants don’t produce many offspring. From this simple mechanical limitation to snail sex comes the correlated adaption of hermit crabs. There are also snail predators with asymmetric jaws to make it easier to extract their escargot snack.

But this hasn’t always been a world of right-handed snails. In the fossil record there are periods when most snail species have the sinistral spiral. I couldn’t find an explanation for why species that have no genetic interchange would keep their left-right handedness in sync. Considering that the dextral-sinistral gene influences the process of speciation, by all rights there should be a near random spread of left-right spiraling throughout the gastropod family.

I can only conclude that there is an external influence that causes pan-species right-handedness, an influence that could just as easily extend as far up the evolutionary ladder as humanity. Perhaps there will come a day when the snails coil the opposite direction and our children are born left-handed, their livers sitting in the wrong side of their body.

It’s a world that will look much the same, but with a sinister twist.