Archive for the ‘ramblings’ Category


Audiobook recommendation: “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem

September 15, 2014

I’ve been away from this blog for over a month and a half, because life has a habit of intervening. We had new windows put in the house and a host of smaller projects, some which we did and some which we hired out. In any case I had to be around a lot of the time and my time was not always my own. Oh, and I set up a couple of web sites for organizations. Maybe more on that in another post.

What compelled me to write tonight, though, is that I tend to listen to audiobooks when traveling alone, or working in the yard or garage. I’m at the beginning of marching band contest season, so I will be spending some time on the road in the car. Music doesn’t keep me as alert when I’m driving through the fields of Indiana as audiobooks do.

Some months ago I set up a Platinum account at I have six credits built up that I haven’t used to select books yet, and I’m behind in my listening, so I may have to downgrade that subscription in a few months.

Sort of on a whim I bought the audiobook of “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem, a Polish science fiction author who wrote the book in 1961. It was translated into English in 1970, but Lem himself didn’t care for the translation. (That translation was actually taken from a Polish-to-French translation, with results you might expect. Maybe 80,000 words or so of the telephone game.)

For the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the book a new direct-to-English translation was finally commissioned by Audible, and made by Bill Johnson, with the cooperation of the Lem Estate. It was read by Alessandro Juliani, who I know best as Felix Gaeta in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. The book is written in the first person, and Juliani reads it as if he is telling you the story himself, in a generally quiet, intimate voice. It seems very appropriate to the tone of the book.

Short synopsis, without spoilers: Psychologist Kris Kelvin is called to the human research station hovering just above the planet Solaris, a very unusual planet in a stable orbit about two stars, one red and one blue-white. The planet has been studied off and on for almost a hundred years, and the research team on the station is now reduced to only three. One of these researchers has asked for Kelvin’s help, but does not disclose why.

The planet is almost completely covered by an ocean of a gelatinous substance. It has been theorized over the years that the ocean is somehow sentient, since it builds huge structures within itself and then destroys them, but no means of communication can be found. The ocean is sometimes responsive to human stimuli and sometimes not, and eventually the teams of researchers lost interest in the planet out of frustration. Various theories about what Solaris is and what it is not have been proposed, but nothing definitive has been determined in decades.

Kelvin finds the two surviving members of the station’s crew to be furtive in answering his questions. Both seem distracted, almost haunted, but are unwilling to say what is bothering them. The third member, the one who called Kelvin in the first place, is dead, apparently at his own hand.

I won’t spoil the story for you. If I say any more, it will spoil it, at least a little. Let it suffice to say that Lem created an amazing world, one that even today, with our supposed advanced technologies, seems fresh and new – and presented problems for humans to deal with on a very personal level as well.

There have been two film versions of the book. One was made in 1972 and was Russian; the other is a 2002 version starring George Clooney and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Both focus on the personal issues of the characters and give very little time to the awesomeness of the planet’s intelligent ocean itself. I’m not terribly interested in seeing either; this happens with movies very often – we must make movies that are “character-driven,” even if we have to distort the science terribly to do so.

I’ve not finished the audiobook yet, but I think it is so good that I recommend it even before finishing it. I don’t know how the story ends, myself, at least not yet. I’ve toyed with ideas of how humans might deal with extraterrestrial intelligence that is completely impossible to understand myself. Most aliens are people in rubber masks, even in “hard” science fiction books. What happens if what we find is so alien as to be impossible to communicate with?


Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.


Avengers – Ensemble!

February 1, 2013

Avengers ENsembleToo good to not post…Thanks to Ren for passing it on. Are those cats or something in the cello section? And…HULK PLAY BASS!



I don’t usually…

November 2, 2012



Chinese Heavy-Lift Moon Rocket Designs

July 18, 2012



According to this article at, the Chinese are considering two possible super-heavy launch vehicles. Both are considered to have first stages in the 11 million pound thrust class, considerably higher than the 7.5 million pounds of thrust of the Saturn V. They are in the same size class as the ill-fated Soviet N-1 moon rocket, which suffered four spectacular failures – the last destroying not just the rocket but the launch pad as well – before the Soviets abandoned their quest for the moon in 1972.

“Option A” uses LOX/kerosene engines in the first stage, with liquid-fueled strap on boosters. “Option B” uses LOX/liquid hydrogen to power the first stage, but with solid rocket strap on boosters. China has very little experience with man-rated solid boosters, unlike the US, which has used them for decades.

While the thrust of the first stage is higher than the planned US SLS, the payload is not that much greater. The US rocket will burn LOX/hydrogen, with solid or possibly liquid-fueled boosters.

What I don’t get about both the US and Chinese designs is that Russia has shown us that mass production produces increased reliability, and probably, reduced cost. (Why do we need a demonstration of what should be basic American manufacturing principles, anyway?) Is it really worth the huge development cost to build monster rockets when we could accomplish the same goals with multiple launches of smaller rockets?

This was the fundamental flaw with the Apollo program. It was designed to be a dash to the moon, not a foundation upon which long-term space exploration infrastructure could be built. We’ve spent many billions of dollars and man-hours building the ISS, and we now even have reliable software and hardware that makes autonomous rendezvous and docking possible. Since the 1940s there have been designs – hundreds, probably – that showed how to build a moon mission from components in space. Granted, launching larger pieces of hardware translates into fewer launches, but we don’t ship auto parts across the country using behemoth car carriers…we put ’em in boxes and crates and ship ’em by rail or truck.

ImageGranted, it would be messier than the way it was depicted in Colliers Magazine or the Disney “Man in Space” specials in the 1950s, but we have thousands of man-hours of assembly and work outside of a spaceship now. We didn’t have that experience in the 1960s, and to meet the Kennedy deadline, von Braun and NASA chose the “fast track” moon mission. Today, we could build real moon ships – that could travel from low Earth orbit to the lunar surface, multiple times, and dock at the ISS or a facility nearby. In fact, we could use a Bigelow habitat for the LEO staging area, and maybe even one in lunar orbit and multiples on the lunar surface.



Well, we can dream. can’t we? (Oh, wait, there is that agreement between Bigelow and SpaceX…hmm. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, eventually. He’s building an entire launch infrastructure so he can do just that.) 



Aaron Sorkin’s new show on HBO, “The Newsroom”

April 3, 2012

Trailer is here.The following is expanded from an email I sent Bogus after he tipped me off to this:

Heh. It’s soooo Sorkin! So…the character’s a Republican, sort of?

Sam Waterson and Jane Fonda! He’s identified with TV viewers as a big lib from “Law and Order” – i have no idea what his real politics are. He does TV commercials for that Evil Wall Street, after all.

Jane Fonda – probably nobody has stronger nutcase-liberal street cred this side of Bill Ayers. Of course, her former husband Ted Turner probably gives her a little insight into how a network president would behave. Especially if he is cutthroat and a bit nuts.

And around it, the classic Sorkin “below decks” young staff people. It’s a formula of his since “Sports Night,” but it works. I swear that show was one of the best ever on TV. And “The West Wing” was darned close, until the suits threw Sorkin under the bus.

I’m going to have to watch it, I guess. And Sorkin has apparently learned what JMS  learned while writing “Babylon 5”: “Hey, we’re on cable! We can use swears!”


Lake Erie from space

March 26, 2012

This image is from the Terra satellite using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer. It’s supposed to show the amount of sediment in the lakes. You can go to a higher-resolution image here.

Now, Lake Erie has taken a bad rap since the early 1970s. The reason that lake, of all the Great Lakes, looks different and has been more sensitive to pollutants is because it is much shallower than the others.

Lake Superior has an average depth of 483 feet. Lake Michigan, 279 feet. Huron, 195. Ontario, 283 feet. Lake Erie…only 62 feet. Its deepest point is only 210 feet, only 15 feet deeper than the average depth of Lake Huron. Its volume is less than a third that of its closest neighbor, Lake Ontario. (Source of the data.)

This makes it far more sensitive to what runs into it from the surrounding cities, towns, fields and rivers. It drains over 30,000 square miles, and Lake Ontario drains just under 25,000. The largest of the lakes, by volume, is Lake Superior; it only drains about 2/3 more area than Lake Erie.

It’s also the lake with the second largest surrounding population, after Lake Michigan, which has over twice Erie’s shoreline – and it’s second by less than 0.1 percent. It has had more industrialization and more farming in its drainage area than any of the other lakes.

The good thing is that it has a retention time (how long water remains in it before moving to Lake Ontario) that is half that of Lake Ontario, at 2.6 years. Lake Superior has a retention time of…191 years!

So don’t look at this image and say to yourself that it shows a lake in trouble. It’s not – it shows a shallow lake with a lot of movement. It can hardly be compared chemically to the other Great Lakes at all. That gives it unique advantages and unique problems. You have to be very careful what you put into it – you can’t hope it will be diluted and forgotten. That seems to me to be a pretty mature attitude. I know at one time it wasn’t taken care of very well, but today it’s much better.

What you won’t find there is that deep, clear, blue water you can find in Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. It’s just too roiled up for that. It’s most likely always going to look a little green and muddy…on the other hand, in the summer it actually gets warm enough to swim in!