Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Stephen Baxter's 'Voyage' Is Very Hard Science Fiction

This is a review of Stephen Baxter's 1996 novel 'Voyage'. It belong to the genre of hard science fiction - it does not depict technologies or phenomenons that go way beyond our understanding of laws of nature. Actually, its events happen roughly between 1970 and 1986 - but not in our history but of a parallel world, where John F. Kennedy did not die in 1963 (though Jacqueline Kennedy did).

I say very hard because the whole book is a detailed description of a space program that could have been real. Stephen Baxter is an engineer by training and many NASA engineers and astronauts were involved in creating 'Voyage'. The story does have human eyes and many of the events are seen through the first female (American) astronaut Natalie York, a civilian scientist who gets chosen to the crew of the first manned Mars mission. A lot of the narrative, however, is actually description about the technical and political aspects of the endeavor. This is, somewhat naturally, the strongest point of the book, and at the same time, the most boring for those who do not care about space technology and manned space flight.

The narrative switches between York's experiences aboard the Ares flight to Mars and her and others' journey through the aftermath of Apollo, astronaut training, NASA internal politics, flight hardware contracting process and, quite importantly, the development of the NERVA nuclear booster stage. We meet York's boyfriend, a couple of fictional astronauts, the fatherly veteran cosmonaut, many NASA administrators and directors. Everything is connected and Natalie York's sometimes cynical attitude reflects the realities of manned space program.

Indeed, York is chosen for astronaut training as one of the new scientist astronauts, to complement the old test-pilot astronauts, who she regards as 'assholes' with a macho attitude. To get freedom handling his characters, Baxter embeds fictional astronauts in the history of spaceflight - Joe Muldoon seems to be a fusion of Deke Slayton and Buzz Aldrin and is described as having been the LM pilot of Apollo 11 and is in the focus as a new director of NASA - and does have many of Aldrin's personality traits. Chuck Jones is a former Mercury astronaut, an archetype of a flight jock, a manly test pilot who perishes with his crew during the Apollo-N test flight. He reminds me of Alan Shepard. The Soviet veteran cosmonaut Vladimir Viktorenko is, of course, the fictional counterpart of Alexei Leonov, even so far as being the commander of the Soyuz/Moonlab mission (counterpart of Apollo Soyuz Test Project), where he meets Joe Muldoon (commander of Moonlab, clearly a counterpart of Deke Slayton in this role).

In the story, Apollo 13 happens as in real history but then President Richard Nixon cancels all future Apollo missions, except for Apollo 14, which is a huge success. After a lot of speculation of the future of the American space program and plans of a Space Shuttle (and launching of two "wet workshop" space stations), Nixon authorizes the manned Mars program, named Ares. It is to employ the NERVA nuclear engine as the third stage of the successful Saturn V booster. However, its first manned test flight goes wrong as the NERVA stage blows up (due to damage after S-I stage pogo oscillates during launch) and the astronauts die of radiation exposure. After this disaster, the NERVA project is cancelled and a Venus flyby trajectory is chosen, with S-II (with extra fuel tanks) acting as injection booster.

The development of the Mars Excursion Module (MEM) by (fictional) Columbia Aerospace and its innovative but obsessive director JK Lee gets a lot of attention in the story. It is a classic tale of heroic engineers - an echo of the Apollo program of the 1960's. Baxter in no way pretends that the engineering work that went into Apollo and in this book to Ares was the right way to work - he makes it very clear how working around the clock does bad things to marriages, physical and mental health and so on. The obstacles of getting the program funded by the Senate are detailed, too.

An excellent YouTube video of the Ares mission as depicted in the book

This is an engineering adventure. All the characters in this novel live for the program. Through them, the reader experiences the process of building a manned space program.

Some details did not completely fit in place. I may be nitpicking, but there is no reference to the actual flight numers of the Ares program. There is only one manned Mars mission - called Ares - but the several test flights are only referred with the mission types, not mission names. Or should I expect a flight to be called "Ares D-prime"? The NERVA test flight was called Apollo-N for some reason. A more logical naming would have been Ares 1 for the first test flight of the program, Apollo-N being maybe Ares 4. The manned Mars flight might have been Ares 12.

The descriptions of Skylab/Moonlab, Saturn VB, mission control and other aspects of (fictional) manned spaceflights are very realistic and vivid. They reflect very much what flying to space is like - or how I would imagine it to be. There are many anecdotes of obsolete technology, fears of disasters and failures and endless notions of the test pilot astronauts' not-so-perfect attitudes towards serious scientific work.

The novel is quite balanced, straight-forward engineering adventure. The reader must withstand tons of technobabble but is also rewarded after going through it all. Everyone interested in manned spaceflight should read this book - not because of the quality of its narrative (which is not bad) but because of the unique and believable vision of how humans would have reached Mars.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Miss USA Pageant Contestants Discuss Teaching of Evolution

As part of the Miss USA 2011 beauty contest, the contestants were interviewed on a variety of subjects. One question was about teaching of evolution: should evolution be taught in public schools? There is still a lot of debate about this matter around United States, especially in the Southern states, where conservative Christian views dominate.

There was a good variety of answers by the very pretty contestants and they speak in a clear and smart manner. Most of them, however, approached the problem with the idea that evolution is a belief or that a student's personal belief's should dictate what is taught at school.

Many of the contestants stress that they personally do not believe in evolution. Because it is a matter of belief, it should not be taught in classroom, or "both sides" should be presented so that children could make their own decisions about which is true.

While I find it worrying that these ladies confuse science with personal beliefs, let us think why they are in this contest in the first place. They are not competing to become science teachers. They are trying to convince the judges that they are not only good-looking but also gentle, friendly and good to present themselves, in a clear and positive manner. They probably aim to work in a profession related to publicity: as a model, actor, presenter.

In what they were expected to do, they did well. They presented themselves as caring, gentle and friendly. The question was presented as a challenge, not as an inquiry about their scientific and theological knowledge. They had no problem speaking their mind and answering the question and many of them extended a hand to "both sides".

At the same time, they present honest and dangerous misconceptions about what science and beliefs mean and what should be taught in the classroom in general. The theory of biological evolution is the prevailing scientific theory about the origin and development of species. There are no other significant theories, so if you want to present the children "the alternative" or "both sides", what should you tell them? Also, should the kids' own (or the parents') conceptions about the matter affect what they are taught?

At the same time, kids should be taught what a theory is and how science is done. They should understand that while there is a theory of evolution, it is not "just" a theory and while you can criticize it like any other theory, it prevails. Creationism, on the other hand, is a religious belief and while some of its claims could be assessed like other details, as a theory it should not be taught in a biology or physics class. Generally, I believe, that it is important to know that people have conflicting views about the origin of the world, but that is not a matter of physics or biology but sociology, philosophy and ethics.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nokia's Real Screwup

Since Nokia went to panic mode some months ago, it has been led by the new CEO Stephen Elop, formerly of Microsoft. The Finnish media (and foreign, as well) has been publicizing stories about this man and his plans to fix, refine or rebuild Nokia - the pride of Finnish high-tech industry.

I used exclusively Nokia mobile phones from 1996 to 2010 - 1610, 5110, 3310, 3650, 6630, E70 and E71, in that order. Even though I jumped on the Android bandwagon by buying a Samsung Galaxy S a year ago and moved to United States, I have been following what is happening at Nokia - not the least because so many of my friends are employed (either directly or indirectly) by Nokia.

The Symbian operating system showed great promise when its first edition was running on the Nokia 3650. The year was 2003. The user interface was slow and unstable but with it, and the advanced hardware, the phone was ahead of all competition. Period. Many years later, it seemed as Symbian, while evolved, still had the same problems as before. A nasty architecture, stiff user experience and no real support for touch screens (that Nokia avoided). Symbian^3 then arrived, being touted as a great leap for both Symbian and Nokia.

In early 2011, it became clear to Elop and VP Kai Öistämö and the rest of the MeeGo team that their new Linux-based operating system for mobile devices will not be completed quickly enough to have the intended impact. (However, I must wonder how many phones per year do they think they need?). The new Nokia N9 flagship phone was apparently cancelled and most of the MeeGo and Symbian development axed. The Windows Phone operating system from Microsoft was brought in. Elop indeed rocked the boat and caused huge ripples with his (alleged) comments and opinions about Nokia's products.

There has been a lot of speculation about how Nokia actually screwed up. The big and formerly innovative company ended up wasting resources in projects that never matured and managers stopped real innovative projects. Sure, something had to be done and possibly even moving to Windows Phone was the right choice.

The way Elop handled the crisis (read Nokia CEO Stephen Elop rallies troops in brutally honest 'burning platform' memo?) was not proper. I think right now, that is the apparent screwup.

I recall Steve Ballmer said that the Finnish engineers are the best in the world (could not find the exact quote). He is probably right. At the same time, there have not been so many positive comments coming from the new CEO of Nokia. He has compared Nokia to a burning platform. What do you do to a burning platform? You probably jump away and abandon and sink it, and build a new one. For a major technology company, that does not sound right. There should be a managed transition.

Right now, there are still millions of happy (or unhappy) users and owners of Nokia's Symbian and Maemo smartphones in the world. Thousands of developers who create software for these platforms and are using the Ovi Store to distribute their work. Millions of outlets around the world selling the phones to customers. As the Symbian and Maemo/MeeGo systems have been effectively abandoned and defaced, what is going to be the sales pitch for these devices? While the systems are being phased out, Nokia still has to put out phones until they can use Windows Phone in all of their new smartphones (excluding S40, of course).

I have the feeling that the message the Nokia of Elop is giving is:

  • To users: We lied. Actually, our phones are crap and you still use them.
  • To developers: You are developing for dead platforms. You are idiots. Get a job!
  • To Nokia employees: You are crap. Get a job!
  • To affiliates and the distribution network and outlets: You sell crap, and you will be selling crap, until we get our new phones out. Good luck!
Apple is not remembered for its failures (there have been many) but for its successes, but here it seems that the whole Nokia (or at least the mobile communications division of it) is a failure. Stephen Elop might be on the right track in restoring Nokia into a company that actually innovates and makes money but at the same time he rebuilds Nokia into something that is a bit alien to us, and causalities from the destruction of the old Nokia will be haunting its efforts to climb to spotlights. It will be but a hardware manufacturer and I doubt there will be much pride in it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Feelings after Detroit Electronic Music Festival 2011

The Detroit Electronic Music Festival - or Movement, as they want to call it - used to be the largest music festival in the world, attracting over a million visitors in 2001-2003. After transforming into a more commercial venture with tickets, the attendance has been under 100,000, still being a major event, especially in the context of electronic dance music.

Sven Väth playing on the main (Vitamin Water) stage on Sunday evening
There have been big names behind the festival: Carl Craig, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, all legendary techno producers from Detroit. Even though the tickets to the events are quite pricey (weekend pass $80 plus taxes if bought from the gate), the festival is very much a product of local culture and talent. I was happy to be able to take part this year, on the Memorial weekend in May 2011 and experience the whole thing.

I only attended on Saturday and Sunday because my feet were too sore to go on Monday... There were five stages (Movement/Torino, Vitamin Water, Made in Detroit, Red Bull Music Academy and Beatport), each with a slightly different style of techno but still offering a true bass pounding experience - and the Made in Detroit stage featured exclusively DJ's from Detroit.

I haven't attended many music festivals. I went to Joensuu Song Festival in 1995 and Donauinselfest in 2001 but both were mainly about popular (and rock) music (the latter was free to all, attracting more than a million visitors). At DEMF everyone seemed to be interested in the music, there were no intoxicated people around (though the cannabis odor was everywhere) and all organization seemed to be well in place. And the music - it was as true to the city as it could be, just techno everywhere.
The Vitamin Water stage is visible in the background, and so are the skyscrapers of Detroit's Financial District. I may look grumpy but I am actually quite happy.

At one point in the early evening of Sunday, one DJ at Made in Detroit stage had some problem starting his set, so another guy grabbed the microphone and gave a little speech to the crowd. I try to recite some of it: "Welcome to Detroit! We are here to show you how we like to do it. Have fun - or as we say it, get busy!"

The people at the festival - both visitors and the artists - seemed to be immensely proud to come from Detroit. Different Detroit or "D" t-shirts were very common in many designs. Detroit has a pretty bad reputation worldwide, for being a dirty industrial city with lots of crime and other problems, like urban decay and poverty. However, it is also a city of culture and great music. The legendary label Motown (short for Motor Town, a nickname for the city) originated from Detroit, as did the techno group Underground Resistance later - of which the "father of techno music" Juan Atkins was a member.

By being there, one cannot avoid the feeling that the festival is Detroit. It is not just an event, just music or just a festival. The artists, the music, the surroundings - all of it is Detroit. When techno music was born there over 20 years ago, Juan Atkins wanted to give the city an exhilarating soundscape, drawing inspiration of its industrial atmosphere. I see the techno movement as contributing to the community, instead of just producing dance music. The festival is a continuation of that.

DJ Rolando's hit track Jaguar played live by Mark Flash & co.
Of course, there would be much more to write about. The numerous afterparties (which I did not attend), the fabulous lineup (in addition to Adam Beyer, Sven Väth and Richie Hawtin), excellent PA systems, the cooling rain, bikini girls, Moog synthesizers at technology showroom, powerful strobes & other lights, Christian electronic music booth, Border Patrol officers, breakdancing local youth, expensive beer and so on. I hope I can visit this event again some other year, but as I am just studying in United States, I am not sure if it is possible.

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