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  • The New York Times' Michael Wilson tells the sad story of how a woman murdered in Harlem was only identified 47 years later.

  • In NOW Toronto, Gelek Badheytsang writes about the complexities surrounding the visit of the 17th Karmapa to Tibetan-heavy Parkdale.

  • Novak Jankovic writes in MacLean's that there are real declines in the Toronto real estate market, but not enough to set a trend.

  • The Toronto Star's Jackie Hong reports that protecting Bluffer's Park from the waves of Lake Ontario could also wreck an east-end surfing haunt.

  • The National Post reports on how the Ontario NDP claims, probably correctly, that the Wynne Liberals are stealing their ideas. Good for them, I say.

  • Universe Today's Matt Williams notes a study reporting that life on Mars' surface is a much greater risk factor for cancer than previously thought.

  • Seth Miller argues that efficient electric cars will push Big Oil through the trauma of Big Coal in the 2020s.

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MacLean's' Mike Doherty has an interview with two authors, Amanda R. Hendrix and Charles Wohlforth, who argue that if humankind is ever to embark in on an expensive program of colonization in space (something much more expensive than fixing our world, they argue), Titan not Mars should be the target.

Q: Why is humanity so fixated on travelling to Mars?

AH: It’s always been fascinating because back in the earliest observations, it looked like there were canals on Mars and some sort of greenery, [as if] there could be aliens. It remains a good option for looking for past life, and more accessible than some of the places in the outer solar system that might have current life. So it’s interesting as a target scientifically, but for long-term human settlement, it’s not the place to go.

CW: We’re a very long way from being able to put humans safely on Mars. The issues with [brain damage from] galactic cosmic rays, or GCRs, are serious, and in the past year, NASA has really come to recognize them: an internal document says you only have 150 days of safe travel unprotected—which won’t get you anywhere near a Mars-and-back mission with current technology. It’s probably time to level with the American people, and setting a farther-out human habitation goal is a better way to start solving those problems, rather than thinking about a short-term trip to Mars that’s probably not going to happen.

[. . .]

Q: Why specifically is Titan the place to go, and can we realistically get people as excited about Titan as we have been about Mars?

AH: Titan is a much more interesting place just visually; in terms of the landscape and the opportunities there, Titan offers so much more. It’s really Earth-like: it’s the only other place in the solar system that has any liquid on the surface. It’s not water, but it’s ethane and methane, and there’s a nice atmosphere. It’s one-and-a-half* the [atmospheric] pressure that we feel here on Earth, so it’s not too much and not too little. The main benefit, of course, is that people will be shielded from a lot of the the GCRs that are so damaging. It takes a long time to get there, and it’s cold, but there are ways around that.
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  • blogTO shares ten facts about the Toronto Islands.

  • Centauri Dreams features an article talking about "exoanthropology", a theoretical branch of that social science aimed at examining human adaptation to offworld environments.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper speculating that white dwarf NLTT19868 shows signs of having eaten a rocky world.

  • The Dragon's Tales links to one paper identifying different species of bacteria which can grow under simulated Martian environments and notes another looking at the possibility of a subsurface ocean on Titan.

  • Languages of the World looks at patterns of religiosity in Russia.

  • The NYR Daily considers Donald Trump's long-term strategy.

  • Peter Rukavina reflects on the new music of Jane Siberry and Brian Eno.

  • Torontoist notes some neglected public art by Fort York under the Gardiner.

  • Window on Eurasia notes core/periphery divisions in Moscow's population.

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At The Space Review, in the article "Starfleet was closer than you think" authored by Major Brent Ziarnick and Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, the argument is made that the Project Orion nuclear bomb-powered spacecraft of the 1960s could and should have been made, that our world would now be an enthusiastically spacefaring world.

Today, the United States is in the process of a renaissance of interstellar thought and ambition. In the popular culture, with the discovery nearly every day of potentially Earth-like exoplanets, and popular movies like Interstellar, we are seeing an increasing public interest. And in the technical community, there is new leadership when it comes to actually designing interstellar capable spacecraft, such as DARPA’s 100 Year Starship project, Icarus Interstellar, and the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop.

But we could have been so much farther along. After the publication of George Dyson’s book Project Orion, and a few specials, a lot of people know that in the early 1960s DARPA investigated the possibility of a nuclear-pulse-detonation (that is, powered by the explosion of nuclear bombs) spacecraft.

Most assume the program was cancelled for technical problems, but that is not the case. Few know how seriously the idea was taken by the top leadership of the US Air Force.

Preceding but also concurrently developed with Apollo, this extremely ambitious project had unbelievable payload capability. Where Apollo at 3,500 tons could only put two tons on the Moon, the smaller Orion (about the same total mass, 4,000 tons) could soft-land 1,200 tons (600 times as much) on the Moon, and the larger (only three times as heavy as Apollo, or 10,000 tons) could soft-land 5,700 tons (nearly 3,000 times as much) on the Moon, or take 1,300 tons of astronauts and consumables on a three-year round-trip to Saturn and back!1 The fission powered Orion could even achieve three to five percent the speed of light, though a more advanced design using fusion might achieve eight to ten percent the speed of light.

Most assume the program was cancelled for technical problems, but that is not the case. Few know how seriously the idea was taken by the top leadership of the US Air Force.

Because internal budget discussions and internal memoranda are not generally released and some only recently declassified, almost nobody knows how close Strategic Air Command (SAC) was to building the beginning of an interstellar-capable fleet. Had the personalities of the Air Force’s civilian leadership been different in 1962, humanity might have settled a good part of the inner solar system and might be launching probes to other stars today. We might also have had the tools to deflect large asteroids and comets.


This article was dissected by commenters over at James Nicoll's Livejournal. Leaving aside the non-trivial technical challenges discussed over there, I would add that not only would fleets of spacecraft propelled by nuclear weapons make Earth orbit unusable for commercial purposes, but simply being able to get to Mars quickly is not enough. Do the life support technologies needed to sustain crews for hundreds of days exist? Is there anything on Mars, or elsewhere, that would actually attract sustained interest even with relatively swift interplanetary travel? I'm skeptical.
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  • blogTO notes a Toronto vigil for the Jordanian pilot murdered by ISIS.

  • The Broadside Blog's Caitlin Kelly talks about friends and age gaps.

  • Centauri Dreams draws from Poul Anderson
  • Crooked Timber considers trolling.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper wondering why circumbinary exoplanets are so detectable.

  • The Dragon's Tales looks at robots: robots which put out fires on American navy ships, robots in China which do deliveries for Alibaba, robots which smuggle drugs.

  • Far Outliers notes Singapore's pragmatism and its strong military.

  • Language Log notes the language of language diversity.

  • Marginal Revolution wonders about the prospects of the Euro-tied Danish crown.

  • The Planetary Society Blog notes the approach of Ceres.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer considers scenarios for a profitable Nicaragua Canal and notes the oddities of Argentina.

  • Registan looks at Mongolian investment in Tuva, and other adjacent Mongolian-influence Russian regions.

  • Savage Minds looks at Iroquois linguistic J.N.B. Hewitt.

  • Seriously Science notes how immigrant chimpanzees adapt tothe vocalizations of native chimps.

  • Spacing Toronto talks about the need for an activist mayor in Toronto.

  • Torontoist examines the history of important black bookstore Third World Books and Crafts.

  • Towleroad notes many young gay/bi students are looking for sugar daddies, and notes the failure of Slovakia's anti-gay referendum.

  • The Volokh Conspiracy notes a new Bosnian Serb law strictly regulating offensive speech online.

  • Window on Eurasia notes the collapse of the Russian world, suggests Russia should not be allowed a role in Donbas, argues that a Ukrainian scenario is unlikely in the Latvian region of Latgale and in the Baltics more broadly, and looks at the growth of fascism in Russia.

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  • Anthropology.net notes the importance of anthropological knowledge in understanding the West African Ebola crisis.

  • Centauri Dreams looks at the strange protoplanetary belt of GG Tauri-A.

  • Discover's Crux considers requirements for a starfaring civilization.

  • The Dragon's Gaze points to an apparently young and planet-forming binary star, OGLE-LMC-ECL-11893.

  • The Dragon's Tales notes that China and Russia have blocked the formation of an Antarctic marine reserve, notes the ways in which diverse sciences can be used to understand the pre-Columbian Amazon, and notes a simulation of Titan's ancient climate.

  • Eastern Approahces looks at the Ukraine-Russia gas deal.

  • Geocurrents examines regional divides in Brazil on the basis of the 2014 presidential election vote.

  • Joe. My. God. notes that PReP can prevent HIV infection even on short notice, and observes that the coming out of Apple CEO Tim Cook has been followed by a Russian parliamentarian's proposal to ban Apple and the taking down of a monument to Steve Jobs.

  • Language Hat links to a beautiful family tree illustration of Europe's languages.

  • Language Log notes complex translation issues between Cantonese and Mandarin in Chow Yun Fat's position on Hong Kong.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money does not like Frank Gehry.

  • Marginal Revolution notes a quixotic movement in the Italian island of Sardinia to be annexed by Switzerland.

  • Peter Watts of No Fucking Icons dislikes the political uses of terrorism by the Canadian government.

  • The Planetary Society Blog notes a design for a drill that could drill deeply into the surfaces of different moons and notes the return of Chinese test moon vehicle Chang'e 5's probe.

  • Savage Minds notes an interesting comparative study of Seoul and Baltimore.

  • Spacing Toronto looks at the recovery of Toronto's lost Tomlins Creek.

  • Torontoist discusses the importance of finding a new police chief for Toronto.

  • Towleroad examines reasons
  • Window on Eurasia notes the need to sustain the survivors of the Aral Sea, and observes the new isolation of Kaliningrad.
  • Zero Geography links to a paper examining the spread of telecommunications networks in East Africa now with the spread of modern transport a century earlier.

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  • Bad Astronomy shares a picture of the astonishingly crowded center of the Milky Way galaxy.

  • blogTO recommends things to do in the Junction and Liberty Village.

  • Centauri Dreans notes an interesting new binary star discovery, one where a hot Jupiter orbits each star.

  • The Dragon's Gaze reports on further research done of a close brown dwarf.

  • The Frailest Thing notes an interview with spaceflight proponent Elon Musk painting him as a messianic figure, a Moses or Noah.

  • Marginal Revolution links to a paper suggesting that western Europe experienced growign longevity from an early age.

  • The New APPS Blog notes the intersections of philosophy, religion, and euthanasia.

  • Registan notes the arrival of Islamic banking in the former Soviet Union.

  • Steve Munro notes the return of streetcar service to Queens Quay.

  • Torontoist is skeptical of Olivia Chow's transit plan, not detailed enough.

  • Towleorad reports on a Russian exchange student in the United States who has claimed asylum and reports on civil unions' new introduction in Chile.

  • Window on Eurasia notes the weaknesses of the Belarusian economy, observes the linguistic links between Crimean Tatars and various north Caucasian peoples, argues that 1600 Russian soldiers have died, observes Russian belief that China is an ally, and notes that older Muslim communities in Moscow separate themselves from the newer immigrant communities.

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  • Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait notes a new study suggesting that the star Betelgeuse will go supernova not imminently, but rather in a hundred thousand years.

  • blogTO profiles midtown Toronto's Merton Street.

  • Discover's Crux examines the most suitable potential locations for offworld colonies (Venus, the Moon, Mars).

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to one paper suggesting that binary star systems might actually be better-suited to Earth-like worlds that solitary star systems like our our and links to another speculating about the patterns of light emitted by Earth-like worlds.

  • The Dragon's Tales notes an archeological study suggesting that chocolate was eaten in the Mississippian civilization of Cahokia, and looks at an ongoing dispute over rocket development between France and Germany in the European Space Agency.

  • Languages of the World's Asya Pereltsvaig looks at the ongoing disappearance of the Belarusian language.

  • Marginal Revolution notes the exceptional vulnerability of Scotland's economy to its banking sector.

  • Personal Reflection's Jim Belshaw reflects on the movement for statehood in the Australian region of New England in the light of the imminent Scottish referendum.

  • Torontoist notes a survey examining the issues of LGBT people in the Ontario police services.

  • Towleroad notes the lesbian couple married in Iowa after seventy years together.

  • The Volokh Conspiracy notes that the Northern Marianas are the only jurisdiction with a total handgun ban.

  • Window on Eurasia notes the progress of fascism in Russia, considers the consequences of the war for both Ukraine and Russia, and looks at growing concern elsewhere in the former Soviet space about Russia.

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  • blogTO shares pictures of Queen Street in the 1980s.

  • The Broadside Blog's Caitlin Kelly considers the idea of a digital detox.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper noting strange occultations of TW Hydrae.

  • The Dragon's Tales links to one paper suggesting plants can grow in simulated (and fertilized) Martian and lunar soil, and speculates Russia will be trying to build a space station of its own or to cooperate with China.

  • Eastern Approaches examines the shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

  • Joe. My. God. notes that Joan Rivers was an early HIV/AIDS activist of note.

  • Language Hat summarizes a paper suggesting that language death and economic success are correlated.

  • Marginal Revolution considers Scottish separatism, wondering about the sense of either a currency union or a separate currency, and noting the increased possibility of separatism according to betters.

  • The Russian Demographics Blog critiques Mark Adomanis' critique of Masha Gessen's article on Russian demographics.

  • Savage Minds notes that, alas, Joan Rivers never majored in anthropology.

  • Torontoist notes that NDP Joe Cressy, defeated in his run for the Canadian parliament, is now running for city council.

  • Towleroad notes the firing of a pregnant lesbian teacher by a Catholic school, and observes the hatred felt by some anti-gay people who would like books celebrating children pleased when their same-sex parents die (among other things).

  • Understanding Society examines the sociology of influence.

  • The Volokh Conspiracy disagrees with Henry Farrell that laissez-faire ideology contributed to the Irish Famine.

  • Window on Eurasia notes Russian hostility towards the Crimean Tatar Meijis, reports on things Ukrainians think Ukraine should do doing the ceasefire and things Russians think Ukrainians should do (federalize and accept the loss of the east), notes high rates of childlessness in Moscow, and suggests that the Russian victory in eastern Ukraine is exceptionally pyrrhic.

  • At the Financial Times's The World blog, the point is made that a Scottish vote for independence would have profound implications worldwide.

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James Nicoll linked to Dwayne A. Day's article at The Space Review criticizing recent movies for suggesting that space colonies are pointless and dangerous, or worse, potential homes for only the 1%. As commenters noted, Day's critique doesn't take into consideration the fact that, with what we know now, space colonization is pointless and dangerous, and doesn't note some of the separatist issues lurking behind the space colonization memeplex.

The tag line for the new Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar premiering in November could have been written by a space settlement enthusiast: “Mankind was born on Earth, it was never meant to die here.” Based upon the newly released trailer, however, it appears as if humanity’s salvation is not asteroid mining or Mars settlement, but sending a spaceship to another solar system (because “nothing in our solar system can save us”). Quite possibly the answer is “aliens.”

But at least Interstellar’s message seems to be that there is hope in our stars. For the past several years a theme that has emerged from a number of movies is that space, and spaceflight, is at best a pretty distraction, and not humanity’s future. Human destiny, these movies argue, is on Earth, which we need to stop trashing. These movies indicate that the pro-space movement has essentially failed in its primary message. A few thousand people attending pro-space conferences and claiming that space settlement is the solution is nothing compared to the millions of people around the world who have been exposed to the message that space is at best a distraction. Space is pretty and wondrous, but also dangerous and pointless, and at best, a playhouse for the rich.

[. . .]

One of the biggest and most praised movies of 2013 was Gravity. The film stormed the box office and received rave reviews and numerous Oscars, including one for best director. Although astronauts and spaceflight experts stumbled all over themselves to discuss the technical inaccuracies in the movie while praising it for its visual and excitement, what was lost in all the chattering is that Gravity is one of the most anti-space movies to come along in a long time. It may have done just as much damage to NASA’s image as the frequent reports during the October government shutdown that NASA was the “least essential” agency, based upon the determination that 97% of its employees should stay home.

Gravity makes its message blatantly clear in text at the very beginning: “Life in space is impossible.” But the rest of the film simply reinforces that message. The resounding theme, repeated again and again throughout the film, is that space is a very dangerous place and that people do not belong there. Sandra Bullock’s character, astronaut Ryan Stone, is only in space because she’s fleeing the grief she experienced on Earth, the gravity that killed her daughter in a fall, a fact that her colleague’s ghost tells her when she’s about to give up and die. By the end of the movie, every person who was in space at the beginning of the film, most of whom are never seen, has either abandoned it for the safety of Earth, or died. And low Earth orbit has become so polluted that it is clear nobody is going back. Goodbye Hubble, goodbye space station. Goodbye Mars colony.

The other major film of 2013 that took aim at the pro-space message was Elysium. It lacked the visual grandeur of Gravity but tried to make up for it in heavy-handed symbolism. Its story was more ambitious, but also messily convoluted, and possessing all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: poor, sick masses on Earth, abandoned by the rich who have fled to the sky. This is a relatively straightforward adaptation of the pro-space message touted by groups like the L5 Society and later the National Space Society (NSS), which in the 1970s started proposing space as a means of dealing with resource depletion on Earth. More recently, NSS and others in the pro-space community have embraced space as a tourist destination for rich people, out of the belief that maybe, someday, it will become affordable for the rest of us. The film’s look deliberately borrowed from 1970s-era artwork of space colonies.

The message was so similar to ones that have been around for decades that the National Space Society went so far as to issue a press release separating themselves from the film. Clearly the NSS leadership recognized that their vision had been perverted in the movie. Rather than cities in the sky where people worked in support of providing services to Earth—Gerard K. O’Neill’s original vision for space solar power—the beautiful space station is an escape from the thoroughly unpleasant Earth.
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  • Antipope Charlie Stross wonders if one way to deal with the overaccumulation of wealth by elites is to get them to spend it in vast showy projects, like a crash program for nuclear fusion or a colonization of the upper atmosphere of Venus.

  • Centauri Dreams reacts to the discovery of the nearby and literally ice-cold brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5.

  • Crooked Timber's Corey Robin argues that a recent American court case regarding a whistleblower highlights a tension between an individual's freedoms as a citizens and limits as a private individual.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to two papers suggesting that a star's circumstellar habitable zone could expand inwards if a planet is different from Earth, one pointing to slower-rotating planets and the other to lower-mass planets than Earth.

  • The Dragon's Tales reports on the fascinating recovery of evidence of hunting nine thousand years ago from the bottom of Lake Huron.

  • Writing at the Financial Times' The World blog, Edward Luce is worried about Narendra Modi.

  • Language Log comments on browser plug-ins and other like things which adjust text to fit prescriptivist dictates.

  • James Nicoll seems much less impressed than the Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin in the idea of science fiction writers being criticized for their ideologies.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer argues that a chart suggesting there's a low chance of civil war in Ukraine actually suggests no such thing on closer analysis.

  • Towleroad notes that Russia's anti-gay laws are now being implemented in Crimea.

  • Window on Eurasia's links warn of the need for NATO to defend its own, highlight Belarus' stated interest in a foreign policy that balances the European Union with the Russian sphere, and quotes Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Cemilev on the Crimean Tatars' continued dissidence and hope for rescue.

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  • Centauri Dreams' Paul Gilster writes about a need for some paradigm to support extraterrestrial colonization.

  • At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell is skeptical about the long-term environmental effects of the Crimea crisis, as domestic fracking in Europe will start looking to be more secure than Russian imports.

  • Eastern Approaches notes the support of Poland for Ukraine.

  • Far Outliers notes the plight of German ships, civilian and military, in the Pacific at the time the First World War was declared.

  • A Fistful of Euros links to the first George Bush's infamous "Chicken Kiev" speech of 1991 counseling against Ukrainian independence.

  • Geocurrents' Asya Pereltsvaig reviews recent media coverage of the Crimean crisis, and wonders about the consequences for Russia.

  • Marginal Revolution links to some recommended books, fiction and otherwise, on Crimea.

  • The Planetary Society Blog invites regular non-astronomers to join the hunt for an asteroid.

  • Otto Pohl places the issues of the Crimean Tatars in the context of the forcible homogenization of European nation-states. Other communities also vanished.

  • Towleroad notes Republican Congressman Steve King who apparently doesn't believe in protecting LGBT right because it's not immediately visible. (Like religion?)

  • The Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin argues that making Russian leaders pay personal costs, via passport bans and the like, is a good thing.

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Scientific American's Clara Moskowski writes about the lessons of life at Antarctica's Concordia Station for crews on future long-range missions. (I'd learned of Concordia a few years ago in connection with extraterrestrial life; Concordia's usefulness for social sciences also makes sense.)

This week 13 people will begin a nine-month mission inside a small, remote station largely cut off from the world. Outside their habitat there is little air, extremely cold temperatures and no sunlight. The crew must eat only what they've stockpiled and recycle their precious water for reuse. Despite appearances, however, these people are not going to space, but to the next best thing: Antarctica.

The European Concordia Research Station is set to begin its 10th winter season on the southernmost continent, where the sun will not rise for more than three months starting around May. In addition to conducting astronomical, atmospheric and glacier research, among other projects, the crew will serve as test subjects on a mock mission to Mars. After all, their experiences are the closest we can come to learning how astronauts will fare on a real long-distance space voyage without actually sending them off Earth. "We’ll never be able to be 100 percent prepared for everything," says Oliver Angerer, project manager for Concordia at the European Space Agency (ESA). "We can only do the best we can by learning as much as we can from similar situations."

Scientists will closely monitor how the Concordia crew members fare physically, mentally and emotionally. "You have limited space for a bunch of people, no contact with the outside world in a normal way, no sunlight or normal circadian triggers," says Peter Gräf, life sciences program manager at the German Aerospace Center, who has worked on numerous Mars analogue missions. "You have a bunch of people you have to get along with, and you have no alternatives and no escapes." Studies will track how their diet and metabolism correlate with mood changes, whether their sleep is disturbed by the lack of sunlight and pressure changes, and how the isolation and stress of the situation affect crew dynamics. All of these data will eventually be used to help plan the first official missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

Concordia station, which is jointly operated by the French Polar Institute and the Italian Antarctic Research Program, is just one of several Mars analogue missions undertaken by the world's space agencies and science organizations. In 2010 Russia, the ESA and China collaborated on the Mars 500 mission, which sent six volunteers inside a sealed habitat for 520 days on a mock mission to and from the Red Planet. NASA routinely sends astronauts to the desert as well as deep under the sea on the Aquarius research station to simulate space missions. And the nonprofit Mars Society is planning a yearlong mission simulation at its Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) in northern Canada starting in summer. "By practicing these missions you can find out what technologies you need and what technologies you don’t need," says Mars Society president Robert Zubrin. "You can find out what the real requirements for crew psychology are. And I think these things do one other thing: they focus people's attention on what the space program should be doing." Simulating a mission to Mars, he says, can excite the public and galvanize support for a real journey there.
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  • First off, congratulations to friend of the blog Jonathan Edelstein for his role in setting an unjustly imprisoned man free in New York State.

  • The National Post repots on calls to send a mission to Europa.

  • Der Spiegel's English-language edition reports on the continuing ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, specifically in relationship to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serb nationalists in 1914 that started the First World War.

  • Business Week notes that the ongoing crisis in Thailand is hampering the country's economy, observes the ongoing issues with accumulating space junk, documents a Russian HIV/AIDS pandemic made worse by Russia's non-constructive dealings with the causes of HIV's spread, and notes that mass immigration from the European Union--especially Germany--is a major political concern in Switzerland.

  • CBC notes that the recent ice storm hurting spending at growing Canadian chain Dollarama, reports that an immunity deal has been struck with an ex-Tory worker charged with involvement in the robocalls scandal, and observes that the so-called IKEA monkey man has been ordered to pay 83 thousand dollars in legal costs to the sanctuary that took in her pet monkey Darwin.

  • National Geographic explores the question of whether or not there might be planets better-suited to life than the Earth, and whether these planets should be the subject of searchers.

  • The Advocate reports on the case of a transgendered woman in Louisiana, Pamela Raintree, who helped save a local anti-discrimination ordinance by offering the ordinance's opponent the first stone to throw at her, in keeping with the Bible's mandating of death.

  • MacLean's argues that Turkey is set for an inevitable crash as its economic and political and social contradictions come to a knot.

  • Universe Today notes that, after the success of the Chang'e 3 moon rover, China now wants to land astronauts on the moon and set up a crewed facility.

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  • Centauri Dreams notes the thinking of Martin Rees and Freeman Dyson on the diaspora of life beyond Earth, noting that it's going to require as much adaptation to new environments as it will (would?) the adaptation of existing environments.

  • D-Brief notes theory about planetary system formation suggesting that suggestive gaps in protoplanetary discs of gas and dust don't necessarily reveal planets.

  • The Dragon's Tales' Will Baird links to the recent paper suggesting that tide-locked red dwarf planets are much more likely to be habitable than previously thought.

  • Geocurrents analyses the possibility that Iran might be divided between a conservative Persian-speaking core and reformist peripheries.

  • GNXP's Razib Khan notes evidence from Ethiopia suggesting that there has been immigration into Africa as well out of the continent.

  • Registan describes a Chinese copper mining project in Afghanistan that never quire took off.

  • Savage Minds' Rex reviews William McNeill's biography of historian Arnold J. Toynbee.

  • Strange Maps maps the leading causes of death by continent.

  • Supernova Condensate describes the possibility of life-supporting environments on Europa, not only in the subsurface ocean but in lakes located in the ice crust.

  • Window on Eurasia quotes a Tatar nationalist who argues that Tatarstan can be to Russia what Lithuania was to the former Soviet Union, i.e. the unit which breaks the country apart.

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  • Bag News Notes' Michael Shaw takes a look at NSA Edward Snowden, as good as look as can be taken.

  • Centauri Dreams' Paul Gilster reflects on Iain M. Banks as a designer of megascale structures.

  • The Dragon's Tales' Will Baird reports on Chinese interest in paying for the reconstruction of a Nicaragua canal.

  • Eastern Approaches notes that the iconic Gdansk shipyards, which fostered the growth of solidarity, are at risk of closing.

  • Geocurrents' Asya Perelstvaig writes about the coverage of the news of the last speaker of the Baltic Finnic language of Livonian, in all of its flaws.

  • Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen likes a book describing why some East Asian economies hit the First World and others didn't, while Alex Tabarrok advocates for a new regime in the United States for the approval of medications.

  • New Apps Blog's Lisa Guenther uses a documentary on the fate of the long-term incarcerated to start a discussion on what we grow to tolerate.

  • Normblog's Norman Geras interviews Daniel Libeskind.

  • The Signal's Bill LeFurgy writes about word processing, the killer app that jumpstarted the computer revolution.

  • Window on Eurasia argues that Ukrainians generally haven't assimilated the Crimean Tatar history of deportation into their own and quotes from a Kazakhstani writer who argues that real, broad-based Russian influence is much more threatening to Kazakh identity than anything the Chinese have done or are likely to do.

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  • Bag News Notes' Michael Shaw takes a look at the pictures indicating extensive use of tear gas against protesters in Istanbul.

  • In a guest post at Centauri Dreams, Larry Klaes takes a look at a 2011 anthology of papers examining the dynamics of spacefaring societies (ours and others'), Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society.

  • Crooked Timber's Chris Bertram, visiting Brazil's preplanned capital of Brasilia, starts a discussion about planned cities.

  • Eastern Approaches notes the breakdown of the current coalition government in the Czech Republic.

  • Geocurrents examines two Stalin Second World War-era ethnic cleansings, the first of the Volga Germans (now largely resettled in Germany) and the second of the Crimean Tatars (now largely returned to their Crimean homeland within Ukraine).

  • Normblog's Norman Geras wonders why many elements of Communist culture remain cool, despite its linkages with oppression.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer takes a look at mass transit in Colombia's capital of Bogotá, noting that the current light rail system isn't the best imaginable but is the best possible given the politics.

  • Gideon Rachman notes the politics of green space, including parks, as exemplified by the Istanbul protests.

  • Technosociology's Zeynep Tufekci argues that online-driven protests do all fit a certain style.

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Via Bruce Sterling I came across an article by Greg Klerkx at Aeon Magazine, "Spaced out". The author takes a look at the apparent paradox that in our post-Cold War era, just as the technology necessary to support a viable manned presence in space is appearing, interest in space colonization is dropping off. He draws interesting parallels with ocean colonization.

Most of what we have learned about living in space is that we should not live in space. We are designed for gravity; without it, strange things happen to both body and mind. For each month spent in space, humans can lose up to two per cent of their bone mass. This means that each day, for hours on end, the ISS becomes the world’s highest-flying gym to keep its occupants fit. But even with such precautions, some returning space travellers require months of rehabilitation to readjust to life on Earth. Others, despite having access to the best facilities and treatments available, experience headaches, sight loss, and undiagnosed physical and psychological frailty for the rest of their lives.

But these are mere hardships, not showstoppers, and those who’ve pioneered at the edges of human experience have always managed to endure them. Physiological challenges aside, life aboard the ISS is not unlike life on a submarine or in an Antarctic research station: isolated, cramped, and relentlessly task-focused. ‘But,’ the space futurist will say, ‘who is to say these limitations are permanent?’ After all, we might one day be able to create artificial gravity, which would significantly minimise the damage done to the human body in space. We might one day be able to build, launch and populate some version of the floating paradise envisioned by Tsiolkovsky and O’Neill, giving us greenery and companionship in space — and some measure of Earthly elbow room.

‘One day’ is the sustaining trope of today’s astropreneurs, and it is mother’s milk to the clever engineers and researchers at NASA and the European Space Agency, who continue to churn out studies and CGI animations pushing, ever pushing, for a humans-in-space future. One day, anything is possible: science and science fiction, hand in hand, have conspired to make us believe this is true. One day, living in space might be as easy as living on Earth.

But will it matter to anyone? That we might be able to live in space does not mean that we still want to, or that the arguments put forward for doing so will still resonate across the cultural landscape. Indeed, a closer look at the four space stations now in orbit reveals that the living-in-space dream is, in fact, in serious trouble.

No amount of spin can mask the incredible expense of the International Space Station, which has thus far cost an estimated $150 billion to build and operate. For that price, NASA could build, launch and operate several dozen Mars Curiosity rovers. The station’s scientific value is routinely criticised as being paltry, particularly when compared with other high-end science projects such the Large Hadron Collider, which was built for about $10 billion, less than a tenth of the price of the ISS. The ISS is routinely promoted as a stellar example of cross-cultural collaboration, but it’s unclear whether the multi-national consortium that runs it will keep it operating past 2020.
rfmcdonald: (Default)
Writing at his blog Centauri Dreams, Paul Gilster in the previous days has made three posts about the audacious possibility of colonizing the Oort cloud, drawing on earlier writers referenced in the posts. The Kuiper belt and the scattered disc, zones of the solar system stretching far beyond the orbit of Neptune, are remote enough: frigid, distant, icy. The Oort cloud, the cloud of innumerable comets orbiting our sun at a distance of sizable fractions of a light-year, are more remote yet.

The first post was "Into the Oort Cloud: A Cometary Civilization?". Resources are available.

Embedded with rock, dust and organic molecules, comets are composed of water ice as well as frozen gases like methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and an assortment of compounds containing nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Porous and undifferentiated, these bodies are malleable enough to make them interesting from the standpoint of resource extraction.

[. . .]

Put a human infrastructure out in the realm of the comets, in other words, and resource extraction should be a workable proposition. Terra talks about colonies operating in the Oort Cloud but we can also consider it, as he does, a proving ground for even deeper space technologies aimed at crossing the gulf between the stars. Either way, as permanent settlements or as way stations offering resources on millennial journeys, comets should be plentiful given that the Oort Cloud may extend half the distance to Alpha Centauri.


The second was "Life Among the Comets". This one imagined sources of energy for these deep-space colonies, including nuclear energy but also mirror farms.

[M]irror farms are themselves components of even larger arrays, spread out perhaps 200,000 kilometers from the cometary nucleus. Growing the community would mean creating comet clusters by moving new comets into range, which would allow populations up to 100,000 or so to exist, though spread out widely through the cluster. With perhaps a light-day of separation between communities living in such clusters, the colonists would be in constant electromagnetic communication with other settlements scattered throughout the inner and outer Oort.

As wondrous a science fictional setting as this provides (and vast mirrors inevitably call to mind the continent-sized sails of Cordwainer Smith’s “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”), I’d like to think there are more practical ways to produce the needed energy. But what? Fission doesn’t fly out here because the heavy elements are found in only minute amounts. Remember, we’re not talking about a colony world that is sustained by regular supplies from the inner system. We have to exploit local resources, and that takes us to the deuterium available in comets.


The third, "Into the Orion Arm".

A small but growing human population in the Oort Cloud will master cometary motion, taking advantage of the fact that at 10,000 AU, the speed needed to orbit the Sun is just 300 meters per second. Compare this to the Earth’s 30,000 meters per second and it should be obvious that it takes only a small change in velocity to alter a comet’s orbit. We’ll have learned this in theory if not in practice because it factors into the engineering needed to divert a potentially dangerous comet from striking our planet decades in the future. Learn how to bump comets to change their orbits and you start thinking about what else you might do with such an object.

Interstellar space must be littered with comets that have been ejected from our system through the 4.6 billion years of its existence. Some estimates run as high as 1000 Earth masses in cometary material, so the resource base between us and the nearby stars should be plentiful. If Oort Cloud comets are separated by about 20 AU, these interstellar comets may be hundreds of thousands of AU from each other. The Oort Cloud should be in perpetual flux as some interstellar comets enter and move through it while other comets are pushed back out.


The whole idea strikes me as very implausible, given the vast distances and scarcity of resources needed to support life. Even if there are--quite plausibly--rogue worlds, dwarf planets like Pluto and even larger worlds, in the area of the Oort cloud, that still leaves vast spaces without resources. The whole area of the Oort cloud is likely to be lacking in the metals--conventional metals such as iron and copper, not just elements heavier than hydrogen--that play critical roles in industry, even if other materials are present. As for the sociology of scattered groups of dozens of people separated from realistic likelihoods of physical context, I'm confident in fearing the worst.

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