Sunday, June 28, 2009

ApolloCon 2009

Kim Kofmel, ApolloCon chair, doesn't do formal wear. At her husband's suggestion to dress up for the opening ceremony, she upgraded her trademark hat to a gold-embroidered one. Kim reminded us that the year 2009 is the 40th anniversary of Lunar landing. She is old enough to have watched it on a very small black and white television. As a small child, she was nevertheless aware that this is something that never happened before, but will happen more. Even now she still believes it will happen more.

This being Houston, every other fan at this convention appears to have a connection to NASA. The most prominent example was, of course, ApolloCon special guest, astronaut Stanley Love. The rest of the congoers have never escaped Earth's gravity, but some of them are friends with astronauts, and they have second-hand stories from space to tell. According to one such person, astronauts in space can't really see billions of stars (contrary to popular imagination). The reason is "too much light", she said. Why didn't they dim the cabin lights, somebody in the audience quipped. It's not the lights inside the space station that obscure the stars, the woman explained. It's the Earth light. Also, astronauts get used to lack of gravity surprisingly fast; when her friend the astronaut brushed her hair the first few times after coming back to Earth, she was surprised that the brush fell on the floor when she let go of it. The expectation that the brush will float developed after spending as little as two weeks in space.

Rocket Science or Rocket Fantasy

The "Rocket Science or Rocket Fantasy" panel blurb said: "Why yes, it IS rocket science... Maybe. Panelists discuss the accuracy of rocket science as represented in sf books, TV and movies." Inaccuracy in portrayal of space flight in movies and books often comes from wanting to glamorize it to fit a Hollywood plot formula. So for example, in a typical movie Columbia shuttle would not have broken up. After discovering that pieces of insulating foam had broken off the shuttle, a Hollywood version of NASA would not have concluded that there's not much anyone can do about it. In a movie, astronauts would have performed a spacewalk, patched up the shuttle and returned safely to Earth. The latter is rocket fantasy, the former is rocket science.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 can be found in my photo gallery.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Symptoms of getting older

The other day I heard an excerpt from a play on the radio that went something like this. An older person says to a young one: "I was 56 when you were born, and nothing you say can possibly be new to me; any debate you might start is something I've already had, probably verbatim, with someone else decades back". I could only nod and smile. This, more than anything else, is my main symptom of getting older. Not physical decrepitude -- I'm lucky to have no health problems (knock on wood), and I have more energy now than I had at 18 (I credit exercise and time management) -- but this endless deja vu. For that reason I stopped reading most discussion groups I used to subscribe to, especially those of political or philosophical nature, such as freethinker / atheist groups. Like the character of the above-mentioned play, I already know pretty much every argument people trot out. The most popular discussion questions on freethinker groups are liberalism vs. conservatism; what degree of regulation and state interference in economic and social matters is appropriate; abortion; animal rights -- all those "third rail" topics that get people riled up. Oddly enough, precise definitions of atheist and agnostic (and other, subtler shades of nonbelief) can also be a heated topic in freethought communities. I've been on a number of discussion groups, and the arguments are always the same. Not that I would expect them to be different: I realize there's only a limited number of arguments. But this also means I have long ago stopped participating in debates, especially after I concluded that no amount of debating ever convinced opposing sides to budge from their positions. :-)

I never thought that age works that way on people, but as I get older, I become more neophiliac. The more I hear or read, the less of what I read or hear seems new to me; the more I look for something that's truly different. I find myself puzzled by the prevailing notion that only teenagers and twentysomethings are drawn to radically different forms of art. To me, it's the opposite. So much of pop-culture and music teens and young adults are drawn to seems like regurgitation of artistic memes of decades ago. I realize it's new to them; for me, on the other hand, it takes long and hard looking to find something I haven't heard before.

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