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 Loss of a Titan

IMG_0720One of the all-time greats is gone: Ursula LeGuin has died, and the world of sci-fi & fantasy — hell, the world in general — is far the poorer for it.

As a kid, I didn’t care if my favorite writers were men (Zelazny, Heinlein, etc…), couples (David & Leigh Eddings), or women (Cherryh, LeGuin…), I just loved to read.  Hell, did it matter to me that Samuel Delaney was a gay, black man?  No, not then…and not now.  The man could write, and that was all that counted…

I never thought then about who my favorite writers were, but now…now, I know so much more.  That’s why I call LeGuin one of the true titans: Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that anyone who wants to claim a breadth of knowledge and experience needs to read.  It is not only brilliantly written, but is also one of those key stories that is about far more than it is “about”.

LeGuin, when you get right down to it, could flat-out write. She wrote with an honesty, and an energy and strength, that are damned near perfect.  Her career, beginning in the 60’s when women “didn’t write sci-fi/fantasy,” very much helped to change the landscape.  She had an effect then, and is still doing so now.

Hell, even those to whom the 90’s and 00’s are “ancient history” owe her a massive debt: you would not likely have Harry Potter without the Wizard of Earthsea series…

LeGuin lived to a great age, and had a life of success and influence, but her death is still a blow.   As great a blow as the early losses of Douglas Adams and Roger Zelazny, as great a blow as the losses of the likes of Dick, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein.

That pantheon of the true greats is getting awfully thin on the ground…and I’m struggling to find the new writers who can truly fill their shoes.  Oh, there are very good writers out there, writers with talent and vision and a true gift, but who can truly stand among those names who are gone?  Gaiman…Cherryh…Butler…

A few, there are, that I think could also rise to be among that pantheon, but they aren’t quite there yet: Scalzi…Rothfuss…Sanderson…Stephenson…*

*Great, so now I have a new challenge; it’s time to go hunting for new writers, and new greats.

But the one thing I ask — hell, the one thing I demand — is that those writing now acknowledge and understand the debt we owe to the past.  As writers and dreamers and creators, we stand on the shoulders of giants…and yet one more of those giants is gone.

Be at peace, LeGuin, and rest well, you have earned it.  And thank you.

The End Is Nigh!

bob3Cower in fear, for the Four Horsemen ride!  War and Famine and Death and…the other one!

The brewery is out of beer…

No, really, totally out of cans.

All the certainties in my universe are gone.  Innocence is forever lost, and my dreams crushed under the jack-booted heels of “production problems”.  Crap, it’s like they repealed all of the laws of motion, even the ones I didn’t like.  It’s like Einstein sat up in his grave and said he got it all wrong.

What’s next?  My word processor runs out of letters?

Crap, I didn’t even want the stuff to DRINK!  I had a delivery to make, one I have to reschedule now…

*sigh*

No, this is not a first world problem, goddamit!  This is universal!  Beer is either the second or third oldest drink in the world (after water and, potentially, mead), and one that was drunk for millennia in preference to water!*  Hell, it was beer that got the Israelis through that Egyptian-slave-thing; that brought the Germanic tribes strolling down to Rome to create the seeds of modern Europe; that got the Vikings off their fat asses and sailing around…

*The brewing process kills and filters most of the contaminants and little critters that made old-school urban water so…erm…questionable.

No, you say?  It’s more complicated than that?  Bah!  A pox on you!  It’s my blog, I get to interpret history however I want!

Ahem…

Sorry.  My production-problems-caused trauma is turning to full-fledged PTSD on me.

Wait…

Wait a damned second…

ohno.jpgWhat if the beer never comes back?

WHAT IF THE BEER NEVER COMES BACK?!

Forget the Apocalypse…forget AIs exterminating us…forget nuclear wars and genetic plagues and all the other End of Days scenarios…THE BEER IS GONE!!

Error, Coffee Deficiency Detected

Honesty time: I am the least handy person on the face of the planet.  I, literally, am that guy that looks at a paint brush and has to figure out which end to hold…

We are, on the other hand, redoing the taproom at the brewery.  And I, of course, have to help.

Well, “help” might be more accurate.

I’m pretty sure my friend’s two young daughters are contributing more than your friendly writer-host, but…well…

“Here, start texturing this wall…” my friend said.

“Here, build a space shuttle from scratch…” I heard.

I looked around, in a panic, until I found someone who could help.

Two minutes later, I was carrying shit to the trash and a six year old girl was texturing the wall.  All was right with the universe.

The downside, unfortunately, is that writing (and everything else) has taken a back seat for a couple of days.  Well, that work is kinda-sorta-done-ish, so now I get to play catch up.  Hell, maybe I’ll write a carpentry scene…if I had any idea whatsoever what I was doing in that regard.

error__out_of_coffee_by_runedragoonAs part of catchup, today’s post is going to be short and sweet…plus, I’m out of coffee.  Writing without coffee, even so much as a blog post, would very likely result in the spontaneous combustion of my brain.

Grocery store, here I come!

When Writers Don’t (Have To) Write

A short post today — it is, after all, an important day…

Merry Christmas, y’all!

I bitched about no one taking time out just to relax and live in last year’s Christmas post — well, the post from the day after Christmas — so I suppose I should take my own advice this year.

Still, that concept makes me wonder…  Okay, okay, it makes me kinda semi-wonder in the most general, unfocused way: does that rule apply to writers?

Is taking an hour or two to write on a holiday actually work?  I mean, c’mon, we’re writing, it’s not like we’re actually working

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the self-directed jab.  Not even I can be all dark and cynical today.  The sun is out, there’s several inches of snow on the ground…and I didn’t have to take twenty-three hours to drive all of two hundred miles in a snowstorm the other night, as did a family member.

I considered trying to come up with some profound, serious post for today.

I considered it, then I got better.

Have a great holiday, everyone — wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, take a moment to smile and just enjoy things.

I will, of course, be back to the regular programming of writing and snarky, bitter cynicism later this week!

Rolled Along The Unbroken Song*

*Hey, it’s a great freakin’ line…I had to use it at least once!

When you get right down to it, the church drove me out of established Christianity, but it didn’t kill my faith. It wounded it…it drove it into hiding…but it didn’t kill it. I still have my own version of faith, and Christmas is still a time of year that means…well, everything to me.

Now, my favorite carol is a semi-nonsense song: “Little Drummer Boy”.  If you listen to the lyrics, however — and I mean really listen — it is a song about the poor and broken, about those who have nothing to offer but themselves.  As an artist, that song resonates more than I generally like to talk about.

To that carol, I want to add another.  Err, two more.  This post was, in fact, intended to be about only one of those, but I’ve always been given to excess, so you get two.

The title above comes from the first of those, comes from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*.  It would be hard to find a song that better mirrors the bitter despair that so characterizes…well…just about everything nowadays:

 

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

That pain and despair, and the hope that arises at the end of the song…well, Ray Bradbury described it best: “immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it [is] sung.”

Much as I like that carol, however, that is not what I set out to write about.

No…for a number of reasons, I am not ready to unpack that song. Nor am I ready to truly embrace the hope with which it (and the Longfellow poem from which it was created) ends.

The song behind this post is very, very different. It channels that one sin I have so often sworn does not afflict me: the sin of nostalgia, and of memory.

It doesn’t afflict me because I don’t let it…except at this time of year. This time of year starts a chain of memory that, for me, runs unstoppably from the bittersweet of Christmas to the still-raw pain of New Year’s Eve.

There has been a lot of water under my particular bridge. I’ve felt some of the highest highs you can imagine. And the lows…they’ve been there, too.

In all that has gone on in my life — from success to depression, and everything in between — I have built and strengthened that armor we all wear…the armor of the adult. We insulate ourselves, we protect ourselves…and we forget what it means to feel.

Think back to when you were ten…

The world was a very different place to a ten-year-old. Now, in many ways, the act of “growing up” is as good as it is inevitable. But, no matter how good, we lose something in the process. More than lose something, we sacrifice something…we sacrifice a very great deal, in fact.

We sacrifice not just the magic, and the honesty, and the imagination, of childhood…but also the hope, and the ability to lose yourself. To lose yourself in the excitement of a special time of year…to lose yourself in the simple pleasures of the world around you…to lose yourself in the closeness that comes only from those who share the imagination and dreams of the young…

I want to feel Christmas how it used to be
With all of its wonder falling on me
This season has felt so empty, oh, for quite a while
I want to feel Christmas like a child

I want to see snowflakes fall to the ground
My brothers and sisters all gathered around
Singing “away in a manager” as we sit by the fire
I want to feel Christmas like a child*

Part of this, I have to admit, is because my family is not whole…and has not been for years. I miss my sister…and, for whatever reason, that loss is just more real on Christmas. I want to be able to laugh and love — to play and live — the way it was so many years ago.

I want, in the end, to go back to when it was all so easy…and so happy.

 

* “Christmas Like A Child” — Third Day, 2006, Essential Records