The Olympics? Err, No Thanks

4947999_700bOh, Winter Olympics, why can’t I love you?  Summer games, you are a lost cause, I know…but winter?  We should be so good together!

I’m a hockey player and fan.  I ski (quite poorly).  I snowshoe and hike in the snow and ice.  Hell, I live in the frickin’ mountains!

But the Winter games are still dead to me.

Part of it — a very big part, admittedly — is due to the sheer level of corruption and insanity that go along with putting on the games.  The money involved passed stupid a long time ago, blew right past ludicrous, and has moved well into the realm of silly.  For no host city or country are the games even remotely “worth it”.

The Games have become, sadly, nothing more than an uber-expensive exercise in nationalist chest-thumping.  Why on Earth would you ever want to spend the tens of BILLIONS it costs to host one?  And spare me the BS about tourism and marketing: you could pick twelve million people at random, give them each a thousand dollars to come visit you, and STILL spend less than the Pyeongchang games are costing…

And if the games cost too damned much to put on, so too do the athletes.  The games cost billions just to put on, but sending the athletes ain’t much cheaper.  And then you get into paying those athletes…and, no, “amateur” most definitely is not a thing anymore.

A gold medal isn’t about excellence, or pride, or competition — a gold medal is about money.  And that, I think, is my real problem with the whole thing.  Well, that and the raw nationalism…

I don’t give two shits how many medals the US won in comparison with Canada, or Norway, or freaking Lichtenstein, for that matter.

“Wow, that skier is really good…but they’re fucking British, so they can burn in Hell.”

One of my best friends in the hockey world is Polish…and, you know what?  He’s still my friend.  I still root for whatever team he is playing for…

I very much am a US patriot, but count me out on pointless-nationalism-thing.

Err…sorry about the squirrel-moment-rant — I just happened to read a story this morning about how “bad” the US team is in these Olympics, and about how the whole thing was a failure because of that…and about how the athletes themselves are failure, and miserable people.  Yep, you guessed it, that article drove me freakin’ nuts.

The Olympics were supposed to be about individual and team competition and achievement.  They were supposed to be about sport, not politics on skis.  Unfortunately, for most of the commentators and many of the viewers/fans, they are not about the sport…and all about the chest-thumping politics.

And with many of the athletes, that doesn’t get much better: they are about the dollars and sponsorships, not the sport.

Oh, there are still examples of the “true spirit” of the Olympics (“true” if you believe the old Chariots of Fire image), but they are all too few and far between.

Previews - Winter Olympics Day -1If I watch anything at the Peyongchang games it will be one thing: the Jamaican women’s bobsled team.  Not because of Cool Runnings, but because their coach quit and took their damned sled…and they stayed.  Red Stripe beer bought them another sled*, and the team is still trying.

*Brilliant damned marketing, by the way.  Even I’ll go buy a six-pack of a beer I don’t like for this one…

The Jamaicans won’t win, and they won’t make shit for money, but they’re still trying.  And THAT is what the Olympics are supposed to be about.

Shut Up and Listen

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  — Isaac Asimov

imageShut up and sing.  Or write.  Or play.  Or any other occupation…

That’s a favorite phrase among a certain kind of folks nowadays.  Of course, what those folks really mean is “shut up…if you don’t agree with me.”

Now, there’s a belief out there that it is conservatives that embody that drive.  And, to a certain extent, there is a strong element of that among the more vocal and rabid “conservatives”.  But, just as much, the same belief and impulse holds true on the left.  Liberals can point to talk radio hosts and TV talking-heads, but conservatives can point just as much to college campuses and, well, more TV talking-heads.  And me?  I point to (pretty much) all of them.

And, no, it is NOT worthwhile to get into the tit-for-tat bullshit of “Well, they did it first!’

“No, THEY did it first!”

“Well, you’re a poopy-pants!”

“No, YOU’RE a poopy-pants!”

Is it any wonder why the most hated professions in the world are politicians and reporters*?  Even lawyers rank above them, for pete’s sake…

*To which I will add media talking-heads & “political-pundits”.

Let’s put this argument to rest right now: art, and especially writing, has always played a political role…and it always will.  Most often — and worse, to those who hate & fear voices that do not toe their particular line — that role has been to argue against the problems and abuses of the day, according to the artist’s personal perceptions and opinions.

Shit, Shakespeare’s Richard II is one of the most overtly political plays ever written.  Virgil’s Aeneid was written as pure political propaganda.  The Canterbury Tales had true political significance…Twain…Dickens…Fitzgerald…Wolfe…  And that’s just a handful of names, limited for reasons of word-count and space.  Hell, if I get into the poets, I could spend a good three seconds of thought and add another hundred names.

But, you know what?  Everyone deserves that freedom to express themselves.  Not just writers and singers and artists: athletes, and plumbers, and engineers, and astrophysicists….well, maybe not astrophysicists, those folks are freakin’ weird.  The point is: if you have an opinion, and sincerely held beliefs, it is not just your right, it is arguably your duty, to behave accordingly.  And it is manifestly NOT someone else’s job or right or duty to tell you to “shut up”.*

*And, before you ask (or yell): I fully realize that at-work and at-home are two different things.  I am trying to stay high-level and general in this post; I do not want to get into the briar patch complexity of when and where you are “allowed” to express yourself…

Once again, if you don’t like the message, don’t read, or listen, or watch.  It’s that simple.  Honestly, there are plenty of messages out there that I do not like, and therefore do not “consume”.  In the end, Person A cannot compel someone else to toe a specific line of belief or action.  But, just the same, Person B cannot compel someone else to agree with, or partake in, their beliefs or actions.

It really is that simple…and it really does go both ways.

No, the “command” to shut up and write (or sing, or play, or whatever) is one of the stupidest and most futile things imaginable.  If you don’t like the message, don’t read…or listen, or whatever.

Or, and let’s just try this on for size, YOU could shut up and try to at least envision another point of view.  You could try to understand, maybe even to learn.

Or you could live a bubble where the only voices you hear are those that agree with you.

What a miserable world — and life — that would be…and, sadly, pretty much IS right now.

Do you know what we call people who are utterly convinced that their every thought and opinion is 100% sanctified, righteous and correct?

Psychopaths.

And politicians.

But I repeat myself.

Some Village Out There Is Really Missing Me Right Now…

Not a writing post today.  Not a politics post, either, nor a space post, nor any other kind of useful thing.  Sorry, but I just don’t have it in me.

I don’t have it in me because…well…umm…pain really ain’t all that conducive to writing.  Not emotional pain — that’s great(ish) for writing — but pure, annoying physical pain.

idiotI managed to break a couple of toes the other day, and it sucks.  I’d love to come up with some great story about wrestling a bear, or jumping off a bridge to save a drowning kangaroo, or even just tripping down a flight of stairs, but the simple fact of the matter is…well…I’m an idiot.

I did it at hockey.  Okay, that sounds good, that’s a good start.  Err, well, the problem, you see, is…well…I wasn’t actually playing hockey.  That would’ve been just far too easy….and far less embarrassing.  Hell, I’ve broken a fairly significant number of things playing hockey, and pretty much all of those stories are entertaining as hell. There was the time my hand got stepped on by a skate…

But, nosiree, not this time.  There’s no hiding from the shame this time.

Nope, this time I was out on the ice early, just screwing around with a bunch of the high school kids after their practice.

I wasn’t wearing gear.  More importantly, I wasn’t wearing skates.

“Hey, the puck’s coming,” I thought, “I know, I’ll block it with my foot!  Wait, hang on, maybe I should rethink this…OOOOOWWWWW*!!!!”working-with-idiots1

Like I said: idiot.

*Err, there just might have been some four-letter words in there as well, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

One of the guys I play with is a doctor.  When he got done laughing at me (definitely not with me), he tossed me a roll of tape and a couple of Advil.  “Have fun,” was the extent of his medical advice.

I got a text this morning from another of the guys about playing in a tournament.  Apparently my nickname has now become “Toes.”

I hate the entire universe right now.

There Is Never Enough Space

Handout image of Saturn from space, the first in which Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus and Mars are all visibleI wrote a space post last Friday, and that’s always a dangerous thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I like writing space posts.  No, the problem is that I had nowhere near enough words — nowhere near enough space — to write what I wanted.  So, today, I get to touch on one more of those (several) things I didn’t have the space or time to say in that post…

The ISS and current proposed NASA budget may have some folks clutching their pearls and searching for a fainting-couch, but complaints and battles about budgets are only the second oldest debate in space exploration.  No, the oldest argument — older than the flights of Gagarin and Shepherd and Glenn — concerns the value of manned spaceflight itself.

Now, one piece of explanation and background is required before I get into the argument itself.  Launching shit into space costs.  The more you launch, the more it costs.  It costs weight, and technology, and (most of all) money.  When you send just one astronaut into orbit, you are sending not just a 180-pound human, you are sending all of the food and water and air that human needs.  AND all of the additional fuel launching that stuff requires.

When you get right down to it, putting humans into space is expensive.  Your ships and stations have to be bigger (read: heavier), because they have to have things like atmosphere, water, HVAC, radiation shielding, toilets, medical supplies…you get the idea.  It is (literally) tons of stuff to support just one human.

That’s bad enough in low Earth orbit, but what about things like trips to the moon, or Mars, or even the asteroid belt?  That is A LOT of stuff to be trying to move around.

So, is it worth it?

You bet your ass.

Robotic probes can do an awful lot.  Hell, the Mars rovers have been absolutely phenomenal.  Even better, take the Juno and Galileo missions to Jupiter…the Cassini mission to Saturn…New Horizons…the various space telescopes & observatories…and, especially, the granddaddies of them all: Voyagers 1 &2.

We wouldn’t have learned half of what know without robotic probes.  And, let’s be honest, there are certain places where we HAVE to use robots.  No human, at our current tech level, is going to orbit Jupiter or Saturn.  Barring major changes, we are probably a century or more away from that.  But, the inner system still beckons…

Why?

If robots can do so much, why go to all the trouble and expense of sending people?

Because we — as a people, and as a species — need to stretch and reach and strive for more.  Because we need to feel as much as to see.  Because, in the end, we need to dream.

No robotic probe, no matter how capable or sophisticated or multifaceted, can provide the same connection and capacity as does a human.  No robotic probe can inspire dreams.

We anthropomorphize the shit out of our probes: from plucky Curiosity, to the self-sacrifice of Cassini, to the reckless daring of the two Voyagers, we have imbued our exploration craft with “personality” and “life”.

It’s not the same.
Why did the Apollo program resonate so very deeply with people?  Why did it connect with not just the people of the US, but also folks around the world?  Even back then, we could have done the missions with robotic probes.  Hell, the Viking landers were little more than Apollo technology, sent to Mars…but they had far less “connection” than a few frail humans walking awkwardly in bulky suits.  Why?

Because they were people.moonbeer

Because Neil Armstrong nailed it.  To paraphrase that famous quote: a giant leap for humanity required one small step by a man.

Hell, to tie this all back to writing: why did The Martian (both book and movie) resonate so very deeply with folks?  Because it was the drama of exploration and danger and disaster, yes, but also — and far more importantly — it was the story of “Mark Watney.”  It was the story of a person.

*sigh*

I just checked my word-count for this post…sure enough, just like last Friday, I’m running long.  Very long.  And there is still more to say.  More to say on this particular topic, more to say on space exploration, more to say on astronomy and science…

But not now.  I’m out of space.

Late…Again. *Sigh*

I know this will shock you — given that I write sci-fi, and all — but I love astronomy. I listen pretty fanatically to a handful of astronomy podcasts*, I buy astronomy & cosmology texts alongside the vast numbers of history books I collect, I can (and do!) still work a telescope for long nights of observations.

*And, yes, they are in fact kinda like the old “astronomy/cosmology for idiots…err, non-majors” courses back in college…

All of that means, of course, that I also pretty fanatically follow current missions and discussions and debates about space exploration. Crap, I remember sitting in my living room and watching the “live stream” of Voyager 2’s encounter with Neptune. The data didn’t really make much sense to me, given just how much interpretation and adjustment it requires, but I nerded out on it nonetheless.

Why am I writing about this?

804E49CA-BFC3-46EF-B980-3EEC244B0AD6Well, the recent test flight of the Falcon Heavy got me to thinking. First off, it is nice to see some options for (relatively*) heavy-lift become once again available. It was also seriously geek-worthy to watch the two secondary boosters land themselves pretty much simultaneously. That the primary booster did not also successfully land was an important learning experience that in no way detracts from the accomplishment. The ability to re-land and re-use boosters is a vital element of practical and affordable launch systems — and the space shuttle’s “drop ‘em in the ocean” system was, well, pretty damned inefficient.3E2B612C-2C19-4C83-A073-04EE44757693

*”Relatively” because we have given up A LOT of capability over the years: the Falcon Heavy is capable of about 3.4 million pounds of thrust at launch, with a payload capacity to low Earth orbit of about 70 tons — compared (sadly) to the capacity of the decades-dead Saturn V that we can no longer build of 7.9 million pounds of thrust, and 155 tons to LEO.

But the biggest part of the whole thing? Getting launches into private hands, and opening LEO to be an economic asset (and battleground). Look, NASA is phenomenal at pushing the boundaries, and at exploring and furthering our knowledge and understanding. It is, on the other hand, absolutely shit at turning those accomplishments to practical endeavors.

And you now what? That’s okay, that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to explore, not to exploit.

There is an old saying, however, that “trade follows the flag”. In the old days, that meant that practicalities followed (and built on) exploration and discovery. In space, however, that has not happened…well, has not happened quickly.

Want to make space — more specifically, low Earth orbit — accessible and efficient? You gotta open it up to people to make a buck, then. Right now that is pretty limited to the launch systems of SpaceX and Blue Origin, but even baby-steps can get you there…

The astro-nerd world is currently roiling itself up pretty seriously in regards to the Trump Administration’s recently released “plan” to begin phasing out the International Space Station after 2024 with an eye to turning it over to commercial enterprises.

At first glance that sounds nuts…but only at first glance. That plan actually is one I am happy to hear, for a few reasons:

1) The damned station is ridiculously expensive and complicated to operate given that it is controlled and funded by the bureaucracies of no fewer than FIVE space agencies (US, Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada). Keep in mind, none of the other four have shown any interest whatsoever in funding the ISS after 2024, and we sure as hell ain’t gonna pick up the whole tab.

2) NASA, as I said, is bad at following up exploration and discovery with practicalities — the ISS is little more than a laboratory to learn about the human capacity to live in space for prolonged periods. The other experiments and tests that happen up there are basically 75% public relations.

3) A private company — more likely a consortium of several deep-pocketed corporations — could turn it from PR stunt into a legit lab for practical, realistic engineering needs. The speculation is that micro-gravity can help in the manufacture of things like fiber optics, certain pharmaceuticals, some metals & ceramics, and a handful of other applications. NASA doesn’t give two shits about that, it’s not their mandate. Commercial enterprises, on the other hand, can and will turn the place into a test-bed for technologies with potentially direct benefits to those of us here at the bottom of the gravity well.

NASA gave us shit like Velcro, carbon composites, Mylar, and automated flight computers — even Tang, for God’s sake! — but it took private companies to turn those into everyday tools. And that is not a bad thing.  No government agency on the face of the planet understands efficiency, or commercialization, or supply and demand…so let’s find ways to encourage those who DO understand those things to get involved. Let’s let trade once again follow the flag.

This Is Not Us

Sometimes I just can’t help myself…sometimes my love of history, and my life experiences, overcome my libertarian, ignore-DC-at-all-costs leanings.

The US has always been strongly and openly patriotic.  We have always — well, mostly always — been very supportive and appreciative of our military.  I usually keep my associations with that part of life private, but even I wrote about it once, in this post.

But, even with our propensity for open patriotism and the close (although declining) relationship between the civilian and military spheres, we have never really gone for outright militarism.  We have celebrated those who fought and bled and died, but never have we celebrated the tools of war.  Never have we valued and celebrated the power and lethality of our military over its humanity.  Instead we have valued and celebrated our friends and relatives, our neighbors and peers, who bear the burdens of those weapons, rather than the weapons themselves.

We are not Russia.  We are not North Korea.  When a nation — when a society — turns to celebration and glorification of its power, rather than of its people, a line is crossed.1  A line, and a crossing, from which there is no stepping back…

Now, it turns out, Mr Trump wants to have a parade.  He wants to have not a parade like those we have known in the past, but rather the opposite.  He wants to glorify the tools and weapons of war in ways the US has never done.

Look, I’m not a partisan of either stripe.  I neither hate nor love Trump…I just want a government that freaking works.  But, the nice thing about neither hating nor loving the man is that I get to call things the way I see ‘em.  And the way I see this “parade” idea is that it’s damned well insane.

When the soldiers of WWII came home, this is the kind of parade we threw:

maxresdefault

When Bush senior arranged a celebratory parade after the Gulf War — one aimed to also celebrate and acknowledge those who fought in Vietnam — it looked like this:

President_Bush_greets_General_H._Norman_Schwarzkopf_who_leads_the_Desert_Storm_Homecoming_Parade_in_Washington,_D.C_-_NARA_-_186434

What we do NOT do are parades like this:

nintchdbpict000322444369 Военный парад на Красной площади 7 ноября 1990 года

Or like this:

Report-North-Koreas-military-parade-to-include-fighter-jets-artillery 468a168249305b39b42bf3ae03846bd31

Shit.

If a parade we must have, then let’s do it right.  Let’s do a parade that celebrates the right thing…the thing in our military that really matters:

 

The Stories I Want To Tell

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the month: what do you love about the genre you write most in?

Nice question, folks!  It’s especially appropriate since I’m looking at the stories I want to write after I’m done with the Dockrat series.

I’ve talked before — a bit — about writing sci-fi.  First and foremost, it’s important to remember that I’m a nerd.  I’m a major nerd.  Sci-fi and fantasy have been tied for my first love since I was old enough to turn that jumble of big words and strange spellings into understandable stories.

The first time I read The Chronicles of Amber…my first encounter with Mote In God’s Eye…the day when Left Hand of Darkness started to make sense…Downbelow Station and Lord of Light and Hyperion Cantos and A Canticle For Leibowitz

Watching Star Wars and Outland and Excalibur and Alien(s)

Yep, I’m a freaking nerd.

But — and this is the big BUT, for me — writing is different than reading.  Very different.  I might love to read sci-fi, but that isn’t why I’m currently writing it.  Not at all.  Hell, I’ve mentioned before my shameful, only-talked-about-in-private love of Downton Abbey, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write soap operas about the early 20th century English aristocracy…

No, the stories I am currently writing (Wrath, Silence and Flicker) are sci-fi not because I love the genre, but because it serves the story.

I have, in all honesty, been asked and challenged as to just WHY Connor’s story is written as sci-fi when it could, just as easily, be set in 1970’s Boston…or 1980’s Marseilles…or Long Beach, or Brooklyn, or any of a dozen other “real” cities.15_gal_copper_1_1024x1024

Honestly, the story is sci-fi for the same reason I love the genre: it’s not a lens, nor a dream, nor a filter…it’s a still.

Sci-fi lets the writer take dynamics and issues and problems from the everyday world, and distill them down.  You distill them, mix them with other dynamics and issues and problems, then release a concoction that intensifies and combines everything into one (hopefully) coherent liquor.

Connor’s “world” in Wrath very intentionally distills the willfully insane socio-economic disparities with which I grew up (thanks, Los Angeles!), then mixes it with manifestations of the ever-growing problems I see plaguing the US today.  Dockside’s asian cultural and linguistic elements were then added as “seasoning” in order to foster a sense of otherness for my US-based readers.

That combination of elements would not be possible without the…errr…”lubricant” of science fiction.  That, as a writer, is what I love about sci-fi.  Oh, the ability to take on any and all themes is nice, as is the ability to take ideas and settings and, well, space-magic, and just run with them…but none of those compare with the flexibility and fun of building a world built to say what you want to say.

Quite simply, there are stories you can tell only in a sci-fi setting.  Oh, I don’t mean alien invasions and grand space battles…I’m talking about commentaries on societies and cultures and peoples.  The Forever War tackled the Vietnam War in a way not really possible in other genres.  The War With The Newts, Brave New World, Frankenstein, The Time Machine, (just to name a few of the oldest) all used sci-fi to tell stories about so much more than they were about.

When you get right down to it, the genre of a story is nothing more than one of a writer’s many tools.  It sits right there with setting and tone and language as a way to tell and define the story.  If sci-fi does not serve a particular story for me — or anyone else — then something else must be used.*  None of the future stories I’m toying with are sci-fi for much the same reason that Dockrat is sci-fi: each has a genre that best fits the story.

*But, use something else or not, sci-fi and fantasy are still my first loves — and, as we all know, you never really get over your first love!

When you get right down to it, what I love about sci-fi is what I love about writing itself: telling stories.  More precisely, telling the stories I want to tell.

I’ve been asked — more times than I can count — “who are you writing for?”

Now, look…I’m an ex-sales and marketing weasel.  I can bullshit with the best of ’em.  A question like that all-but FORCES me to bullshit.  But, sitting in a quiet pub with a nice drink, and some quiet conversation between just you and me, the truth comes out: who am I writing for?  Me.  I’m writing for me, and for the stories I want to tell.

And if those ghosts fluttering around the back of my mind, waiting to tell their stories, all have a sci-fi or fantasy bent? So much the better.

By the way, the next round’s on me…2017_08_18_31194_1503028826._large

Tea Was A Mistake This Morning…

…I require COFFEE!!1ow6xw

I thought about touching on investigations and memos and brinkmanship and the breakdown of anything resembling a sane political process…

…then I got better.

What’s the old saying?  You lay down with dogs and you get fleas.

A trip into that particular swamp will do nothing but make me grumpy, and undoubtedly create problems and anger among others.  While I like a certain amount of creative friction, it’s the first word in that phrase that really matters: creative friction.  Debate and discussion and disagreement for the purpose of making something better.  The current state of things is friction for the sake of, well, friction.  It’s friction not to hone and improve, but to heat and ignite.

When in doubt, by the way, you can always trust Twain to have something appropriate to say:

All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.

So, instead of irritating myself and you, let’s go a different way!

A nun walks into a bar…

Erm…never mind.

This is, by the way, why I usually don’t write these posts sitting at home — I get too distracted to focus, and my thoughts can’t come together on anything.  I know it pretty much makes me a freak in the writing world, but quiet isolation is the last thing I need when I write.

Oh, I’m still one of the most introverted, misanthropic humans you’ll find, but I feed off the life and energy of people around me…even when those people irritate me.  I don’t write in the brewery taproom because I’m there to get drunk, I write there because of the crowd…

Picture the scene: a taproom beginning to grow busy, a random guy sitting in the corner, furiously typing away.  A few pets for the great danes as they wander by, the occasional sip of a beer, and and the isolation of overly-loud music in his earbuds while he makes up a world of streetkids and criminals and bitter hopelessness…

Nope, not weird at all.