Saturday, August 29, 2009

Powering The World With Solar Panels

CLICK HERE to link to a very interesting graphic showing how much of the world's total surface area would have to be covered in solar cells in order to supply all of Earth's current energy needs.

I don't know the map's ultimate source, but it looks legitimate enough. And even if not completely accurate, it does provide plenty of food for thought. I'm guessing the chart is assuming present-day efficiency with solar cells (the best current commercial models are about 42% efficient); future versions of the technology could greatly improve on efficiency, and require less surface area to produce the same amount of power.

The problem with all of this, though, is cost. Look at the figures; 495,805 square kilometers = 496,805,000,000 square meters. The cost of commercial solar cells today is about $1000 per square meter, so putting up enough solar cells to meet projected 2030 demands would cost $496 trillion--over 30 times the current yearly output of the entire United States economy. Assuming very optimistic cost reductions from mass production in quantity and more advanced, lighter, and cheaper-to-produce solar cells that could reduce costs 100 fold, the total would still hover around $5 trillion dollars. Spread out over 20 years, that's $250 billion a year.

That might seem to some to be a small price to pay for powering the entire world CO2 free, but try convincing any current politician or economist of that, especially with so many more pressing economic issues today.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: Planetes!

(I don't know why I keep putting exclamations after the titles for the 'hidden treasures', it just somehow seems appropriate.)

Planetes is a 2003 hard science fiction anime TV series that, like Cowboy Bebop before it, is quickly building up a substantial fanbase in North America mostly from sheer word of mouth about its quality. You don't even have to be an anime fan to like Planetes; its very West-friendly, features a broad cast of international characters, and like most great fiction, speaks to universal themes independent of cultural nuance.

The series begins in 2075, when an international treaty organization of space-capable nations (the US, Japan, Russia, and some European countries) have built up a substantial infrastructure both in orbit and on the Moon. The development of Helium-3 fusion, with Helium-3 mined from the Moon, has replaced the old oil economy and has led to a major financial boom among the treaty countries, allowing them to fully expand into space. Hundreds of thousands of people now live and work off-Earth.

But of course there's a downside; all that activity in space has produced a tremendous amount of debris; i.e., space junk. Today, in real life, orbital junk represents a potential hazard to space missions. Sixty plus years from now, its a primary ongoing danger to all orbital activity. So who gets the thankless job of cleaning it up?

The series focuses on a crew of these space-going garbagemen. Called 'Half Section' because they are constantly under-funded and undermanned, they go out in an outmoded shuttle and haul off rogue satellites, old space station sections, abandoned experiments, and much more for recycling.

The crew includes Hachi, the series' main character, who is a young, cynical Japanese EVA specialist. Tanabe, the female lead, is another young Japanese national and the idealistic rookie on her first day in the first episode. The pilot is American Fee Carmichael, a brash, loud chain smoker. System specialist Yuri Mihairokov rounds out the space crew, a stoic, soft-spoken Russian. There's also a small office staff, and they all get their moments to shine throughout the 26-episode run, but the focus is definitively on the crew of the garbage scow shuttle called Toybox.

Planetes shines above most other on-screen SF, both live-action and anime, Japanese or American, in two areas: depth of character and scientific accuracy. The series' great strength lies within its characters' stories and their interactions. As the series progresses, they come across as real and compelling, with both noble moments as well as petty. In other words, they act very human, and the viewer very easily can get caught up in their daily lives.

The series also gives us the most realistic representation of future space travel I've ever seen, and given all the research I've done on space tech for over the last several years, that's saying a lot. There's not a single scientific or technological gaffe that I could spot in the series. It is hard science fiction the way it should be, and reminded me in some ways of Allen Steele's Near Space series of novels, which also contemplated a very similar type of future in space. This technological accuracy greatly adds to the series' verisimilitude.

This isn't to say Planetes is perfect, however. The series' greatest weakness is its female lead, Tanabe, who is annoying in the extreme. This is especially true in the first handful of episodes where, as the rookie, the viewer is introduced to Half Section through her POV. There is nothing wrong with portraying a character as idealistic or foolish or reckless, but she takes all three to such a degree that its hard to believe the other characters would keep her around, especially after she deliberately endangers the crew more than once. In fact, of all the characters, it takes her almost until the series' very end to find any real depth. Fortunately, after the first three episodes or so, the series begins focusing less on her and much more on the its larger cast, and quickly becomes much more watchable. Planetes also relies too much on unlikely coincidences to move its plot along at times.

But if you can get past these gaffes, you're definitely in for a science fiction treat. Episodes 10, 11, ands 12 are the series highlight, in my opinion. Episode 10, focusing on Yuri's past, has an intense emotional gut-punch. Episode 11 features a wannabe space explorer from a third world country's humble program, and though he starts out as a kind of comedic character, one can't help but be moved by his underdog determination by the end. Epsiode 12 focuses on Fee and her bad habit of smoking, but her obsession turns out to be an unlikely salvation for everyone in orbit in the wake of a terrorist attack. The last third of the series focuses on a sprawling eight-episode storyline involving an expedition to Jupiter that Hachi tries to qualify for while also trying to deal with a personal crisis. This is in addition to the mounting terrorist plot to stop it. Planetes also has something very rare among not only anime, but just about all TV series as well--a pitch-perfect ending.

The complete series of Planetes is available on DVD, which you can find HERE and other outlets that sell anime products. Select episodes are also available for viewing online.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

From New Scientist: Abandoned NASA Projects

The magazine New Scientist just put up a very interesting article on abandoned space projects.

Take note of when most of the projects were canceled; either in 1993 or 2001-2002--basically when a new political party took over the White House. I suspect that most of them weren't canceled because they were necessarily bad ideas or too costly (what space project doesn't have cost overruns?), but simply because the new administration wanted to kill the projects of the previous one out of politically-motivated spite.

As I've stated in previous entries here, we have to stop this political game of tit-for-tat every eight years with our space program if we ever want to accomplish any long range goals, such as returning to the Moon or going to Mars. Space is just to vast and difficult an undertaking for such short-term petty-minded tactics to get anywhere.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The 7 FORGIVABLE Sins Of Sci Fi

A lot has been made about the scientific inaccuracies and logical fallacies we often see in on screen science fiction. While no doubt some of it does stem from just plain ignorance or carelessness, a lot of it actually serves an important story telling purpose.

The first commandment of any form of entertainment is straightforward: You Must NOT Be Boring. This coupled with time constraints, limited budgets, and the need to tell a complete story driven by characters, has led to a number of shortcuts that creators of film and TV science fiction have to take. Its not that they, the writers, the FX crew, etc., are unaware of how scientifically accurate phenomena would actually work, its just that they have to put entertaining the audience and creating a compelling but easy-to-follow narrative first. And that often requires compromises.

This isn't to say that fans aren't right to complain about obviously stupid plot developments, or groan-inducing nonsense technobabble. Only that people should understand that science fiction is primarily about stories and characters first, and if some scientific accuracy has to be sacrificed to enhance either of those, so be it.

1. Cow Goes Moo, Duck Goes Quack, Space Goes Kaboom

In a dramatic presentation, music and sound effects are often used as dramatic punctuation, a tradition that goes back centuries to the earliest plays and operas. Its used so often because its proven itself very effective at evoking visceral responses from the audience. Should a filmmaker give up such a useful and versatile tool in a science fiction film simply because in real life, sound does not travel in space?

The answer is, it depends. Some very successful science fiction has used space silence as an effective dramatic device (2001, Firefly, Planetes). However, these works are almost always aimed at a more mature, thoughtful audience. For a more general audience work, especially an action-oriented one, such abrupt silences can serve to kill the dynamic flow of the story. So using sound in spaceshots, such as engine noises, weapon fire, explosions, etc, as well as background music, is forgivable if it all keeps the story or action flowing smoothly.

NOT FORGIVABLE: Humans breathing and talking in space without explanation (Superman IV, Power Rangers, for example). Even the most non-science-savvy of audiences nowadays know that people can't survive in space without spacesuits, much less go around talking in naked vacuum.

2. Enhance!

A sin scifi shares with many a modern crime show, this is where a computer enhances a visual image in some way that should either be impossible (how exactly do you enhance four fuzzy pixels into a complete mugshot?) or take many hours of tweaking and programming.

This is a necessity mostly born of time constraints. A typical scifi TV show only has an hour, not counting commercials, in which to tell its story. How much of that time do audiences really want to watch a computer operator clicking a mouse and typing at a keyboard to tweak an image into clarity? Even a montage of that would be fairly mind-numbing. So this is a quick little shortcut most scripts use to bypass what would be a scientifically accurate but very boring process to watch.

3. The Universal Up

In scifi TV shows and movies, most ships meet each other in the depths of space always oriented in the same "up" direction. Most combat, too, is usually depicted as two dimensional. Spaceships come at each other from ahead or behind, but rarely from below or from above.

This is mostly a visual shortcut, to avoid confusing the audience. Because make-believe spaceships come in a lot of unusual visual designs, they can be difficult to recognize from odd angles, especially during combat when they may be zipping quickly across the screen. This way the audience can more easily keep track of who's the good guy and who's the bad guy.

There have been exceptions to this, of course (particularly Return of the Jedi), but even then, with the fighters zooming about in three dimensions, the main fleets themselves were arrayed on a more or less flat plain in space as they exchanged shots.

4. And One Gravity For All

In science fiction, most locales are either one Earth-normal gravity, or zero gravity. There is no in between, even on the Moon or Mars or alien planets. Even the most low-tech future societies seem to easily develop magical artificial gravity.

The reason for this stems from the current limits of special effects and most movie/TV budgets. Simply put, all the actors and sets are on Earth, and there's no escaping that a full G is in effect there. Studios have gotten fairly adept over the years at visually fudging freefall with harnesses and other tricks, but these can get expensive, and are usually not used except for certain necessary scenes. In other words, faking anything other than Earth normal gravity can be a budget buster for most productions, so they usually use artificial gravity as a quick and easy end run around that.

5. Cosmic Wharrgarbl

Wouldn't it be convenient if every race, nation and civilization spoke the same language? In many science fiction universes, they do.

Yes, we know that the act of actually translating and learning to speak a completely new, alien language would be a long, complex, and arduously boring process to watch. Like with Enhance! this process is usually shortened dramatically, or even hand-waved away, to save on the audience's sanity and to get on with the story that will actually entertain them.

UNFORGIVABLE: Not providing even an arbitrary explanation for WHY everyone speaks the same language. If even my 8 year old nephew knows enough to question why everyone is speaking the same, then its not something audience members will just shrug away. Universal translators, babel fish, telepathy, a common trading language, etc., just pick one and move on. I'm looking at you, Stargate Atlantis. Earthers show up in a brand new galaxy that has been removed from human contact for 10,000 years and everyone can easily understand each other the first time they meet?

6. Ridged Forehead Syndrome

Aliens are one of the centerpiece concepts of science fiction. From everything we know about evolution, its easily a trillion to one odds that any alien lifeform will end up looking even remotely like us. So why do so many aliens in sci fi look like actors from Hollywood central casting with crinkly foreheads?

The simple answer is, of course, they are. Until fairly recently, expecting a special effect to act would be like asking the moon to dance a jig. If you wanted the aliens in your story to be actual characters instead of some barely-seen rubbery suit or glowy cloud, that meant you had to use human actors. And even Hollywood make-up masters could only make them so alien, especially with the budgets many productions had.

This has changed somewhat with modern computer animation (especially with incredibly convincing CGI characters like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies), but even so the process still remains very expensive. So ridged forehead aliens are still forgivable, as long as other measures are taken (language, mannerisms, culture, etc) to show that they're from a world other than earth. It is also forgivable if the presence of near-human aliens is plausibly explained away (such as in the Stargate universe, where many human populations were transplanted off Earth in ancient times to be used as slaves of the alien Gua'uld.)

UNFORGIVABLE: Having near-human/ridged forehead aliens in a sci fi production where the FX budget easily allows for better, less human alien characters. This is a sin especially perpetuated by japanese anime--being animation they aren't limited by FX budgets, and yet too often their aliens come in only two varieties--very human-looking or loathsome tentacle-beasts.

7. Outdated Special Effects

Now, we've all had a good laugh at one time or another at the Styrofoam rocks on the original Star Trek or the hokey muppet Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. But seeing people put down the entire movie or TV show because of such special effects is definitely a sci fi sin.

We all know the story we're watching isn't real. But we're willing to suspend our disbelief for the sake of being entertained. Its why we can enjoy animated movies even though everything in the film is at least several steps removed from reality; its why we can get into plays even though its obvious we're just watching people shuffle about and talk on a stage with obviously artificial sets. If the story is good enough, whether the FX scenes look realistic shouldn't matter so much as how well they serve the ongoing story and move it along.

The original King Kong is a brilliant example. Does the Kong of the movie even closely resemble or move like a realistic gorilla? No. But is the movie still very entertaining? Definitely yes. The FX are crude by today's standards, but still serve the story of the film and move events along very well.

So this sin is very forgivable IF the special effects crew did the best they could with the technology and budget they had at the time. How well the effects serve the story should always matter more than how realistic they look.

UNFORGIVABLE: using outdated special effects on more modern films; in fact, the bigger budget and more modern a movie is, the less forgivable this sin is. Also, using special effects so much that they dilute the story instead of enhancing it, as was the case of all three Star Wars prequel films.

Let me know if I've forgotten any!

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Moon Is Off The Table

According to THIS linked article in the Miami Herald, the presidential panel reviewing NASA's manned space flight program has concluded that sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020--or even by 2028--is simply not doable with the space agency's current budget. One of the panel's members, former astronaut Sally Ride, said that in order to accomplish more Apollo style landings, NASA would need at least another $50 billion, money that is very unlikely to be freed up anytime in the near future.

Given the recent financial meltdown, which wasn't anticipated when the manned space program was 're-envisioned' in 2004, this wasn't really much of a surprise. Also of no surprise is the public's desire to extend the ISS's operations beyond the Bush administration's deadline of 2016, which will take a great deal of money away from other manned space endeavors.

I talked about the "Deep Space Flight" option in an earlier Blog, and its just as worthy a goal as Returning to the Moon. But the bad part is we're once again shifting focus for what should be a long-term ongoing endeavor. It is somewhat like Christopher Columbus shifting direction every few hundred miles during his first voyage across the Atlantic. As I've said a number of times before, space is too vast and too dangerous to keep frivolously wasting our time and resources finagling about what direction we should go. If we want to get anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit, we need to pick a strategy and stick to it, no matter which political party is in power or what the financial situation is.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: 80s Microgames!

Ogre. Car Wars. Starfleet Battles. Warp War. Invasion of the Air Eaters.

If you were a strategy gamer in the 80s, you probably have fond memories of these and other microgames (also called pocket games.) They were first introduced in the late 70s, and lingered through the 90s in an ever shrinking niche market, but in the 1980s they hit the peak of their popularity.

At the time, videogames were primarily groups of colorful dots bouncing around on a CRT, and dodging gorilla-thrown barrels was about as complicated as gameplay got. If you wanted something more challenging and complex, you turned to tabletop strategy games like Advanced Squad Leader or Starship Troopers (yes, there was once a board game of it), but those could get pricey. Microgames emerged as an accessible and cheap alternative--often costing just $2 or $3, they could be learned fairly quickly, were fast paced and complex enough to allow a lot of different kinds of gameplay, and were small enough (often coming in a 4 x 7 inch package) to literally be carried around in one's pocket. What more could a scifi nerd want?

The games came with a rules booklet, a fold-out map often with a hex-grid on it to manage movement, and a cardboard sheet precut with unit counters. Dice were usually needed for play, but were only sometimes included, depending on the game. Some came in small boxes, others in clear mylar bags.

In middle school, me and my best friend at the time discovered these just as they were becoming popular, and played them regularly over the next few years. We eventually moved on to other distractions, like role-playing games, cars, and girls, but these games always left me with fond, fun memories.

The first, and arguably the best and most popular, of the microgames was OGRE, the last fully-expanded edition of which came out in 2000 from Steve Jackson Games. Heavily influenced by Keith Laumer's Bolo novels, the game centered around sentient AI super-tanks and the ragtag collection of military units, including hovercraft, missile tanks, and glassy-eyed suicidal infantry, that tried to stop them. Basically land-going battleships on treads, Ogres were the primary weapons in a 21st century dominated by warfare.

CAR WARS was another microgame that eventually went on to greater fame and fortune; the last major edition of the game was printed in 2002, but is still played by dedicated players. With a nod to the Mad Max film series, players take the role of a kitbashed armed vehicles in a post-apocalyptic world where 'autodueling' is society's most popular and dangerous sport. Half the fun of the game is tricking out your imaginary vehicle--which can include any type of car, motorcycle, truck, etc.--with machine guns, grenade launchers, armor, radar, and a huge laundry list of other neat combat options.

Also of significant note is STAR FLEET BATTLES, which simulated starship combat in the Star Trek universe, and which started out as a series of microgames from publisher Task Force Games. The game went through many editions and expansions, reaching its peak of popularity in the late 80s and mid 90s, spawning a few videogames as well.

But not every game had to be a monster success (at least in microgame terms) to be enjoyable. In fact, there were many lesser known titles that could provide hours of fun. I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to try all of them out, but of the ones I played personally, I can recommend:

WARP WAR: Inspired by the science fiction novels The Forever War by Joe Hadleman and The Mote In God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle, this game simulated a war between two interstellar cultures that spans centuries of time. To my knowledge, its was the first SF game of any type to incorporate technology upgrades into its game play, something that became integrated into almost every SF strategy videogame afterward, from Master of Orion to Starcraft to many others.

INVASION OF THE AIR EATERS: Aliens attack Earth, and they're trying to convert our atmosphere into one more suitable for themselves--one that is very poisonous to us poor homo sapiens. This game is fought over a hex-gridded map of Earth, and there's a 'ticking clock' of sorts, with an atmosphere gauge that shows how close to gasping, wheezing armageddon the human race is turn by turn. The Air Eaters start out with a very clear tactical advantage. However, those darned clever humans can learn from the aliens and advance their technology pretty quickly. Yet can they do it fast enough to turn the tide against the invaders?

HOT SPOT: Anyone who as a kid played 'the floor is molten lava!' would get a kick out of this game's premise. An oppressive government is extracting valuable minerals from a planet whose surface is mostly molten. You play rebels who try to seize these valuable mining platforms by moving in your military units on--get this--barely-controlled rafts of naked rock that float on the lava. And you have a ticking clock, as the 'rafts' melt down over time, squeezing your units onto an ever-smaller surface. Very unusual and fun concept.

Finally, don't let the title ATTACK OF THE MUTANTS fool you; its probably the very first Zombie Apocalypse game ever created. After a horrible nuclear attack, everyone in the area not vaporized has been transformed by all the radioactive goodness into green-skinned shambling horrors who hunger for human flesh. However, a trio of humans survive, along with a couple of cobbled together gunbots. Can they make it to safety before they're munched on?

And of course, there were a bunch of others. Many were simply good, and many others I never really got a chance to sample. Unfortunately, getting hold of these games nowadays can be difficult, as many of the original publishers are long since out of business, and those that do survive no longer actively support or print their microgames. Still, if you trawl hobby stores, online auctions sites, game cons, and other such outlets, you're bound to run into them occasionally. If so, snatch them up. They can give you a fun way to scratch your gaming itch for a few hours without having to stare endlessly at a glowing rectangle.

In closing, two sites with much more information on microgames are linked to below:

The Maverick's Classic Microgames Museum

The Microgame HQ

Sunday, August 2, 2009

NASA's Option 5: Deep Space Flight

My last Blog outlined what I thought at the time were the four most likely paths NASA's manned program could take in the coming decades. In brief, they were:

1. Return To The Moon
2. Flight To Mars
3. Space Stations/Orbital Infrastructure
4. Asteroid Exploration and Exploitation

However, according to THIS linked article from the New York Times a panel looking into exactly this issue has come up with a fifth intriguing possibility: deep space flights with no landings.

The panel is calling it by the rather PR-safe title of the "Flexible Path" option, one created as much out of budgetary realities as by the desire to push the US's space capabilities forward. The Space Station is very close to completion, and public opinion is making it very clear that it won't be abandoned anytime soon, as the previous administration had planned to do in a few short years.

However, keeping the ISS going will eat up a portion of the manned space program that wasn't otherwise anticipated, so in order to save money, the panel hit upon the idea of deep space flights for their own sake. Presumably, these flights will do close flybys of important destinations, such as the Moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids, but won't make any provisions for manned landings. The idea is to build up a deep space flight capabilities first as a framework for more ambitious missions to follow in the decades after.

Though this is obviously a compromise solution that will prove a disappointment to many if adopted, it does offer concrete benefits nonetheless. Developing both advanced long-range propulsion technology and the means to create long-enduring space-borne habitats are very important to any plan for expanding a human presence beyond the Earth-Moon system. This strategy would put an emphasis on both kinds of technology, and without having to concentrate on things like landers and planet/moon/asteroid outposts, both capabilities could be advanced faster. Experience with space habitat systems on board the ISS would actually prove very valuable in developing the systems needed for these deep-space flights.

Hopefully, whatever path the administration chooses--either the 'Flexible Path' option discussed here or one of the others discussed in the last Blog--the important thing is that they stick to it long enough to actually accomplish something of value out from it. Hopefully, at least for the sake of the manned space program, we can only hope political winds don't shift too much, or if they do, any new political faction that comes to power will realize the importance of sticking with a long-term plan for space exploration.