Saturnine storms and the second space race

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2011

T’ain’t just us Earthlings experiencing erratic weather, y’know; check out this rather vast storm on Saturn, courtesy the Cassini probe. Audio is also available.

Storm on Saturn - image courtesy NASATomorrow, if all goes to plan, the Space Shuttle will launch for its very last mission before retirement (to fates as yet undecided – museum piece or rich man’s megabauble?) Cue inevitable soul-searching all over the place; here’s The Economist sounding the death knell for outer space.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

Well, space cadet is as space cadet does, right? Here’s a response from Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams:

As commercial space efforts move forward, a broader defense of a human future in space has to take the long-term view. Given the dangers that beset our planet, from ecological issues to economic turmoil and the potential for war, can we frame a solution that offers a rational backup plan for humanity? Planetary self-defense also involves the need for the tools to alter the trajectory of any object with the potential to strike the Earth with deadly force, and that means expanding, not contracting, our space-borne assets. Such work is not purely technical. It also teaches the invaluable lesson of multi-generational responsibility and holds out the promise of frontiers. Such challenges have enriched our early history and provide us a clear path off our planet.

We’re also a curious species, and it’s hard to see us pulling back from the challenge of answering the crucial question of whether we are alone in the galaxy. There is a huge gap, asThe Economist points out, between where we stand with space technology today and where we fantasized being as we looked forward from the Apollo days. But a case can be made for steady and incremental research that gives us new propulsion options and broadens our knowledge of how life emerges even as it protects our future. A future that includes gradual expansion into space-based habitats and the exploitation of our system’s abundant resources is an alternative to The Economist’s vision, and it’s one the public needs to hear. The infrastructure that it would build will demand the tools and the skills to move ever deeper into our system and beyond.

An editorial piece at New Scientist is similarly – if cautiously – optimistic about a NASA renaissance rather than a recession; there’s certainly lots of can-do rhetoric from them, not to mention hungry competition from up-and-coming nations with cash to spend and ambitions to fulfil. But given that the new proposed NASA budget will axe projects like the James Webb orbital telescope – Hubble’s successor, basically – I’m not sure how much mileage there is in brave words and stoic chest-thumping. Hell, some folk are even wondering whether the Space Shuttle program itself wasn’t a massive and very costly mistake [beware irritating interstitial ad; via Chairman Bruce]:

The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon’s final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice.

[…]

Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.  Important factors in the decision to move forward with the shuttle were the desire to preserve Apollo-era NASA and contractor jobs, and the political impact of program approval on the 1972 presidential election. Similar pressures are influential today. If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.

And if we’ve learned anything from life in general, it’s that expecting politicians to think further ahead than the next election is a doomed enterprise. For my money, I think space exploration still has a future, but – in the West at least, and particularly the US – that future will be increasingly dominated by private enterprise.

This is a nicely resonant topic for me, as it happens. I spent last weekend in London for the Science Fiction Foundation‘s Masterclass, and one of the topics we tackled was the representation of space exploration in contemporary science fiction texts. The inescapable conclusion (for me, at least) is that space sf is dominated by a sense of nostalgia, but also – especially in what you might refer to as “heartland” sf venues like Analog and Asimov’s, whose readership were around to be inspired by the hollow rhetoric of the Apollo program – there’s a void at its heart.

Old-school space advocates have a tendency to talk about space in terms of glory, accomplishment and a sort of noble and patriotic heroism, a taming of the wild rolling plains… indeed, that whole “final frontier” riff probably sounds even sweeter, after ten misguided years of failed attempts to plant the stars’n’bars on other more mundane frontiers – as far as we know, space has no uppity natives to object to your delivery of democracy and neoliberal corporatist economics, which gives it a blank-slate patina that you can’t get anywhere else.

But therein lies the problem, and – or so I suspect – the reason why the American Dream (Extraterrestrial Edition) has faltered: beyond that noble rhetoric, the Apollo program was an ambitious (and successful) pissing contest with Russia. All the other motivations and ideals were grafted on after the fact, and they’ve all fallen away like burned-out heat-shielding. America still wants to be doing stuff in space, but it doesn’t really know why; the narrative has collapsed, and that’s why there’s no money for it.

Meanwhile, out in the BRIC, growing economies are looking for trophies, boasting rights and… well, new frontiers. The torch wasn’t passed; it’s been snatched by the trailing pack, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. I suspect it’ll turn out that pioneer bravery and Competent Persons will have their own renaissance, and turn out not to be something exclusively American in character after all… but ambition always comes at a price.

There’ll be more stories to tell about space, I feel sure. But I’ll bet my boots that an increasing proportion of ’em won’t be written in English. 🙂

 


Climate propaganda not profitable

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

Ars Technica takes on a climate change denial shibboleth which I’ve always felt was more than adequately dealt with by Occam’s Razor. You know, the one that goes “of course the climate scientists are going to say things are getting worse; how else are they going to ride the government-money gravy train?” Perhaps I’m just lucky to have known enough scientists to make me aware of the fact that climate science – or indeed any science career – isn’t a route to fame, fortune and power (you’d be better off looking in the corridor labelled “politics” for those fringe benefits, AMIRITEZ?), but for everyone else, here’s the skinny:

Since it doesn’t have a lot of commercial appeal, most of the people working in the area, and the vast majority of those publishing the scientific literature, work in academic departments or at government agencies. Penn State, home of noted climatologists Richard Alley and Michael Mann, has a strong geosciences department and, conveniently, makes the department’s salary information available. It’s easy to check, and find that the average tenured professor earned about $120,000 last year, and a new hire a bit less than $70,000.

That’s a pretty healthy salary by many standards, but it’s hardly a racket. Penn State appears to be on the low end of similar institutions, and is outdone by two other institutions in its own state (based on this report). But, more significantly for the question at hand, we can see that Earth Sciences faculty aren’t paid especially well. Sure, they do much better than the Arts faculty, but they’re somewhere in the middle of the pack, and get stomped on by professors in the Business and IT departments.

This is all, of course, ignoring what someone who can do the sort of data analysis or modeling of complex systems that climatologists perform might make if they went to Wall Street.

“Ah, but what about the grant money, huh?”

Funding has gone up a bit over the last couple of years, and some stimulus money went into related programs. But, in general, the trend has been a downward one for 15 years; it’s not an area you’d want to go into if you were looking for a rich source of grant money. If you were, you would target medical research, for which the NIH had a $31 billion budget plus another $10 billion in stimulus money.

There’s more details there for them as wants ’em. Of course, if you’re already convinced that climate science is a liberal plot to make oil barons feel bad, you’ll probably not struggle to conclude that someone slipped Ars an envelope full of grubby grant dollars for their part in propping up the conspiracy… in which case I can only hope that believing so makes it easier for you to sleep at night, because that’s about the greatest utility that such a belief could possibly have.

Speaking of propaganda, here’s a site all about analysing and understanding the messages with which we are bombarded by governments, corporations and special interest groups [via BoingBoing]. Watch for the fnords, folks.


We interrupt this mission to Mars for a word from our sponsors…

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Via Slashdot, here’s a paper at the Journal Of Cosmology (who need to hire a web designer, like, yesterday) that suggests such well-worn corporate PR strategies as sponsorship, “naming rights” and other licensing angles as a great way to finance a manned mission to Mars.

Sound familiar? So it should – Jason Stoddard did something very similar when he made a Mars mission into a reality TV challenge in his story-that-became-a-novel “Winning Mars” (free online versions are available; the book is in the production pipeline at Prime Books at the moment).

In a way, it’s a sad indictment of the post-modern nation state that the only viable funding methods for space exploration are corporate; a mars mission would be a terrible waste of taxes that could be used for more important matters, right?

  • The predicted cost of going to Mars: ~$145 Billion.
  • The cost of the Iraq war thus far: ~$739 Billion. [via MyElvesAreDifferent]

The Hollywood Stock Exchange, and bands with shareholders

Paul Raven @ 26-02-2010

If investment bankers can gamble on the success of big-money projects, why can’t the rest of us? Well, of course, we can – but those sort of big-money projects aren’t the sort of thing that get us normal folk excited, nor the sort of thing we understand (or think we understand) sufficiently to throw our money after.

But if you scratch a film buff, underneath you’ll find someone who thinks they can predict how well a movie will do once it gets released… and Hollywood reckons that’s an as-yet untapped source of funding for big-budget blockbusters. Hence HSX, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, is set to re-launch in April of this year as a real-money commodity exchange [via SlashDot]:

Since 1998, HSX has allowed just-for-fun traders to buy and sell valueless shares in Hollywood films based on forecasts of what the pics will ring up. Once launched, a new HSX site will list current and imminent movie releases with their projected four-week domestic grosses and allow exchange users to take long or short positions on the films.

A formal announcement about rules and guidelines for HSX users is expected closer to the launch. The exchange hopes to lure hobbyist investors as well as industry professionals, though the latter will be prohibited from improper insider activity.

For instance, distribution execs with access to early boxoffice data will be barred from making trades on the exchange after a film has opened. But film financiers will be allowed to invest in HSX an amount equal to a minority percentage of their total investment in a movie.

(Oh, man, you just know there’s gonna be some spectacular gaming of this system at some point, assuming it lasts long enough for gaming it to be worthwhile. It’s just too tempting, especially for such a historically desperate and greedy industry.)

Investors wishing to participate in the exchange will buy “contracts” priced at one one-millionth of a film’s projected boxoffice, with films to be listed on the exchange from the time productions are announced in the industry trade papers. Trading will begin six months before a movie’s anticipated wide release.

I make no claims to financial expertise of any kind, but I think I’d still assume that the safest way to gamble on the future of Hollywood properties would be to invest in something else entirely…

But a thought occurred to me while reading about HSX, namely that something like a stock purchasing model might act as a sort of bolt-on or extension to the crowdfunding models for creatives that we were discussing the other week. Say you’re in a band, you’ve done a few national tours, self-released an album, got some buzz going. How do you take things to the next step?

Systems like the newly-in-administration SellaBand are all well and good, but there’s still an intermediary middle-man involved, and the investment is conditional as well as project-specific; so why not just float your band (or your two-person animation studio, or yourself as a writer, or your guerrilla puppetry theatre mob or whatever) like a public company, offering shares to potential investors in exchange for their influence and input on what the band does? Product replaces dividends, tours and appearances are booked according to geographical distribution of fans, etc etc… it’s a bit like Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans idea, I guess, but much more formalised, with legally-binding obligations in both directions.

I’m pretty sure someone could knock up a software suite for managing all the paperwork necessary in order to make this happen, though I’ll confess that my knowledge of buisness law is sufficiently lacking that I have no idea whether or not it is legal (let alone practical, given the lack of a trusted and reliable micropayments platform and the morass if international business law). Can anyone in the audience shed a light on some of the details?

And more to the point, would anyone like to buy shares in Futurismic? We may not be profitable, but we’ve got a warehouse full of kudos… 😉


Profitable post-web publishing: is patronage the answer?

Paul Raven @ 07-09-2009

OK, it may be a little cruel to ask you to do the thinking on a Monday morning (especially as you Statesiders are probably still recovering from Labour Day weekend), but I think it’s high time this one was thrown open to the floor – and by “this one” I mean, of course, the perennial question of how to make fiction publishing a viable business in the internet age.

The trouble is, there’s no shortage of potential business models to choose from. For example, Tor.com is ad-supported, but has the advantage of being associated with a strong publishing brand in its chosen genre; meanwhile, Strange Horizons is a not-for-profit that relies on donations, but even they’ve found it tough to bring in the necessary funds without the welcome publicity and assistance of notables such as John Scalzi. Both of those are purely web-based publications; print brings its own logistical and economic difficulties to the proceedings, as the decline of the “Big Three” and the shuttering of many smaller magazines demonstrates all too clearly.

I’m increasingly coming to believe that visibility is half of the battle, which is why I was intrigued by Cory Doctorow’s latest Locus column, in which – after demolishing many of the standard objection raised against the methodologies of his own success as a novelist – he mentions his “With A Little Help” project, which intends to investigate whether public donations are sufficient to support the writing and publication of a novel, and what degree of work is needed to equal the promotional support of a traditional publisher for such a project.

The results will be interesting regardless, but Doctorow has the advantage of a ready-made audience – one that he has worked hard to build rather than simply blundered into, I might add. But the question remains more open for lesser-known authors… and for fiction magazines, be they dead-tree or digital. The Scalzi/Strange Horizons avalanche shows that people will donate to support short fiction publishing online, but how much of that generosity is due to SH being a not-for-profit organisation? How much is due to them paying professional fees for their stories? How many of the Scalzi donors will donate again if they’re not encouraged by Scalzi or a similar figure?

Only time will answer those questions. But what is becoming obvious is that patronage is crucial to supporting niche publishing – be it direct financial patronage from readers, or the patronage of a vocally supportive figurehead (the patronage of publicity, if you will), or the patronage of an animal further up the publishing foodchain. Underpinning all these is the need to cultivate a supportive audience – turning a percentage of your free readers into donors or buyers, in other words.

What should be equally obvious is that I don’t know how to do it – which is why I think Doctorow’s experiment will be fascinating to watch, as well as projects like Robin Sloan’s New Liberal Arts essay anthology (and his subsequent ongoing novella project), World of Warcraft: the Magazine and a whole raft of wild ideas currently sculling their way out of the boondocks of the independent music scene.

But hey – you guys are readers, right? So, tell me: leaving aside dead-tree or digital books bought in the traditional manner, where do you pay to read fiction, if anywhere? What does it take to get you to pay, and what amount seems reasonable to you for what you’re getting – if anything?

Do you object to advertising on the sites where you read fiction, or are they acceptable so long as you’re not paying for the privilege of seeing them? Would you pay a small premium for an ad-free version of a webzine, or are the mechanics of a paywall off-putting enough to keep you away from a publication you might otherwise click through to regularly?

Yeah, lots of questions, and they’ve all been asked before… but I don’t think I’ve ever collected them all in one post here at Futurismic, and I’d be interested to read your answers – not just for the benefit of this here site, but for the nascent industry of web fiction publishing as a whole. And if there are business models I’ve missed out that you’ve either seen in operation or heard proposed elsewhere, please pipe up and let us know about ’em!


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