Tuesday, March 30, 2004

finding a good location

I would think geothermal activity would be something not to get too close to, given the potential for the planet wiping out the colony on short notice if it's having a bad day. And since we're talking about a young planet, geologically speaking, there's bound to be a fair amount of volcanic activity and even tectonic shifting. That's why I figure there's just one Pangaea type of continent.

I agree the minerals and ores would be important, which means of course that we would need some sort of prefab equipment for boring and for processing what we find. Again, such a camp probably should be located a safe distance from the colony because of the nature of the work.

If the materials are readily enough available, I would suggest building a number of habitats, so that ecosystems of savannah, tropical and other life can be established early on. That would be a structural engineering feat, though, since we would need a lot of space to get the ecosystem established properly, something close to a thousand square miles per ecosystem.

And no concrete bases, either. They found at Biosphere 2 that concrete takes decades to cure, and in a closed system it gradually causes the air to go anoxic. Perhaps we would grind the top 10 feet of soil into small rocks and rock dust -- more prefab equipment -- and secure the supports into the rock beneath somehow, then dome the entire enclosure. Probably should do the rock grinding anyway, just so we can start creating alien soil.

And of course that means we'll need compost or some earthly soil to help establish the soil on our alien world, which will be bereft of life. So we'll need to pack a ton of that -- several tons, actually. Maybe a cubic mile? That should allow us to create an inch or two of top soil over a lot of surface area, and two to three inches of top soil in our farming areas.

If concrete becomes necessary for the bases, we'll need a way to correct the oxygen problem, since the plants won't be able to support the ecosystem and cure the concrete at the same time. Maybe we could supply each ecosystem with a mechanical air converter, or with a supply of liquid oxygen that can be released when levels in the air start to get too low.

I think it really would be necessary to do more than wait for the algae to convert the atmosphere for us.

colonizing space amid alien life

Would you take part in colonizing another world? It's meant as a serious sci-fi question.

I myself would love to, and probably if it were to come when I was in my early 20s, I would jump at the chance. Now that I'm 33, married and have two children -- and all that that entails -- reality almost certainly would prevent me from leaving, since that would mean uprooting all of us from all our friends, family and loved ones. The separation would be too irrevocable, and I don't think I'd be able to content myself just with lightspeed communication, given the number of years that would pass between communiques.

And since superluminal travel is out of the question, well, like I said, I couldn't see myself doing such a thing at this point in my life, though I would always think wistfully of our distant kin.

My initial thought would be a world where there is no other life, but the question of intelligent life on other worlds is an interesting one.

Someone -- I think it was Beethoven Brucker -- mentioned a story where a Christian missionary tried to bring the gospel to an alien race, who had no understanding of the Christian concept of sin. The evangelism didn't go very well. The aliens were utterly freaked out, and ended up crucifying the missionary, thereby introducing their own fall.

Ray Bradbury has done two stories on the subject. In one, "The Man," he has a crew of astronauts landing on a world where Christ has just been and just departed. I don't remember much else about it. I think it was included in "The October Country." His second one was in "The Martian Chronicles," and showed a missionary trying and utterly failing to interest the Martians in his religion since it was something they had no use for.

Some time ago I toyed with the idea of a story around space travelers encountering intelligent life on other worlds, only to discover that the intelligent life in question is human, having been there since humanity was scattered after the Tower of Babel. Still might be a story worth developing at some time.

In any event, I think the question of bringing sin to other planets is a moot one. I don't think there is life elsewhere, and if we talk about a barren planet, I don't think the planet will suffer much for being awakened by life. If there is life elsewhere, I rather imagine it's fallen too. If not, true, we would bring our own sin to it, but think of what we could learn of grace by mingling with an unfallen people.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

oxygenating atmosphere on acheron

The idea of using algae to assist in creating the appropriate atmosphere has occurred to me, but my concern there would be that it will take millions of years to reach the point that the atmosphere is breathable if algae are the only or even primary means of changing the atmosphere. You would need to seed the ocean and other major bodies of water, obviously, but it's going to take forever for them to reproduce enough to make a major difference, especially since a lot of the oxygen they produce is just going to be absorbed by the water anyway. It's only after the water reaches the saturation point with oxygen that it's really going to start entering the atmosphere.

Aquatic plants also would need to be down below the surface far enough to block out the ultraviolet light until an ozone layer had developed. Most likely the initial colonies of marine life will be in something like Sea World, with an eye toward eventually releasing the animals into the wild once the food chain has reached the point that it can support the larger animals. But with an ocean of the size we're talking about, I imagine we're talking about thousands of years without a major concerted effort.

I'm thinking some sort of apparatus would be needed that could be mounted on the continent's rocky surface, or rather embedded in the surface. I'm also imagining that if it's going to make any sort of progress in changing the atmosphere, it's going to move a tremendous volume of air in a very short period, kicking up whirlwinds everywhere, and probably igniting the gases in the current atmosphere as the oxygen is let loose.

Obviously not something our colonists will want to live right next to.

Probably they would be in a dome-covered hometown, maybe five square miles or so, so they can establish a farming ecology until they can open the dome or build other dome-covered habitats. But you're going to need a lot more than five square miles to establish a healthy, self-sustaining ecology.

As to the tigon question, my understanding is that tigons are one of the results of crossing tigers and lions. (The other being a liger.)

But am I correct in thinking that cheetahs, leopards and panthers also are capable of interbreeding with lions and tigers? I remember hearing a while ago that ecologists were distressed to discover that the Florida panther had gone extinct -- not by being hunted to death, but by interbreeding with other great cats so that the Florida panther genome no longer existed.

I remember talking the point with my high school biology teacher. If the basis for calling two animals different species is based solely on their appearance or the differing habitats they prefer, then they're not really separate species. They're just different breeds or populations of the same species, with perhaps different grooming or mating habits or a different social structure, but that's it. It's just sloppy taxonomy to insist on classifying them separately.

sci-fi and fantasy

Sci-fi can encourage a materialistic worldview whereas fantasy can encourage a greater awareness of the spiritual world because it's true. Yeah, some sci-fi horror stuff purports to deal with the supernatural, but it does it all through technobabble about other dimensions and superstring theory. In other words, it essentially says, "It can all be explained scientifically." Fantasy says, "There are supernatural worlds out there that we'll never understand by reason alone."

chthulhu sightings

In the Classic Trek episode "What are Little Girls Made Of?" the Enterprise visits a planet with Roc, an android who has been tending the machines for so long even he has forgotten how long.

Roc occasionally makes reference to the Old Ones, all supposedly dead. The design of the sets and costuming also was supposed to resemble some Lovecraft settings. Oh, and Roger Korby -- the antagonist of the episode -- has a plan to replace humanity with machines, basically killing all the humans in the process.

The rather forgettable Lawrence Fishburne sci-fi movie "Event Horizon" also has some obvious Lovecraft influences as well. The ship's hyperdrive -- it employs an artificially created black hole -- opens a portal to a dimension of infinite evil that drives everyone into a suicidal/homicidal madness.

I also recently found another Cthulhu tribute that I'm surprised I never noticed before. It's in Larry Niven's "World of Ptavvs," in which Kzanol is released from billions of years in stasis.

Why does this matter? Well, Kzanol is a thrint, a race of telepathic beings who ruled the galaxy billions of years ago. A race -- or group of races, more likely -- called the tnuctipun eventually found a way to throw off the thrints' telepathic dominion and started a huge war that led to the extinction of the thrintun race. Kzanol missed this entire war because he was in a stasis field at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

During the billions of years he has been asleep, his entire race has gone extinct, taking with it all intelligent life in the galaxy. In the meantime, intelligent life has evolved from the yeast farms the thrintun had seeded on planets such as Earth and the Kzin homeworld.

The humans have discovered Kzanol's stasis field and find a way to open it. His psychic blast drives thousands of people insane. Others suffer tremendous nightmares. And the race begins among Kzanol, the Belters, the Earth and a human telepath who thinks he is Kzanol to recover a psychic amplifier that will allow Kzanol to rule the entire earth telepathically.

He's also a rather ugly creature with one eye, and with tentacles around his mouth. Since humans evolved from the food yeast the thrintun grew on the planet, he finds us quite tasty.

Hmm. A member of a very old race, asleep under the ocean for billions of years, his waking drives men mad and heralds the possible end of human civilization, and he's even got the appearance.

I can't believe I never noticed it before.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

end the culture war

The best way to end a culture way is to stop shooting bullets.

Members of the media aren't the enemy of the pro-life mission. I'm pro-life, and always have been. I've attended the March for Life a few times, I've attended peaceful demonstrations, and I've written a number of articles and columns that present my pro-life views directly, tacitly or subtly. No one's ever protested that or tried to run me out of the business.

While I've known a few jackasses, most journalists aren't anything like that. We have our blind spots and our shortcomings, and yeah, sometimes we have our own agendas that help determine what stories we report and how we report them. We're human.

Talk to me levelly and fairly, treat me with respect, and chances are I'll be willing to admit to some of my failings, and I'll even try to correct them. A friend of mine did that with my views on the Second Amendment and how I report on firearms. I'm looking for a chance to do a story on guns as a sport, so I can present a side of the story that often gets overlooked because of the deaths that often stem from irresponsible gun owernship.

That sort of skill at dealing with people is something I think many of the most outspoken pro-lifers lack. Yeah, maybe it's not fair that a good many journalists are pro-choice. What can I say? Life stinks. I wish more of my colleagues valued life the way I do. They don't.

There is a pronounced tendency in the church, particularly among Christians who are outspoken politically, to deal with the media with a massive chip on our shoulders. Such attitudes do little to engender understanding or sympathy for any cause. There are groups I've dealt with that shoot themselves in the foot regularly because they view the media with distrust every time, and regularly use the media's forums to reinforce the negative relationship. Self-righteous condescension doesn't win many converts.

The way to get journalists to change their attitude toward abortion and toward pro-lifers isn't to scream about bias and deliberate efforts to discriminate or suppress the truth. If someone does that to me, I shut them out, even if I agree with them on the important issue. I don't have time or patience for vitriol. The message is in the delivery as much as the content.

PETA makes the news as often as it does because their actions are patently ridiculous, and they're usually stunned by the negative reactions they get. In that sense they're like many pro-lifers: as a group that mingles among itself, it just can't understand how anybody can possess the same facts and not leap to the same sense of moral outrage.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

a shift in the tone

A friend of mine has pointed out that no one he knows from Pittsburgh understands how to ask questions. When we do ask something, the pitch of the last word, instead of being slightly elevated, comes out either flat or as part of a sing-son series of words, so that it sounds as though the Pittsburgher has left a sentence unfinished.

Illustrated with punctuation marks, this means the Pittsburgh native says things like, "Do you want to see the movie." Or "Haven't I seen you before."

Vince went on to make a remark about Pittsburghers' insistence on using the word "pop" to refer to soft drinks. (He also noted that Midwesterners usually pronounce it as "pawp.") At was at this point that Vince suddenly and unexpectedly was ejected from my vehicle.

As I later told him, any true Pittsburgher will defend to the death our use of the word "pop" since that is the correct common noun to use in reference to soft drinks.

Friday, March 12, 2004

kerry for aristide

John Kerry says in The New York Daily News that he would have dispatched the armed forces to keep Aristide in power.

It sounds like Kerry is just using this as an excuse to disagree with Bush, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he wants to see Haiti's fledgling democratic government endure. I still disagree with him.

There were more questions about Aristide's election than about Bush's. Whether we believe the Supreme Court gave him the election or think Gore should have won because of popular vote is to some degree irrelevant. He won the general election through the processes our nation has set up, and probably with no more corruption in his camp than was in Gore's. You can't say the same about Ti Tid's election. The reports of fraud were so bad there that many governments refused to recognize him as the legitimate winner and pulled their aid for the nation. The questions surrounding his election were one of the stated reasons for the insurgency.

Committing to keeping Aristide in power would be a costly move in terms of manpower, and probably in lives as well. True, our forces are better equipped and better trained than the Haitian military (although many of them graduated from West Point). But that hasn't exactly helped in Iraq, has it?

By the time the Marines removed Ti Tid from the national palace, the insurgents already had captured most of the nation's big cities. Cap Haitien, Gonaives, Jeremie and so on were all under their control. Aristide had Port-au-Prince, but that's about it. His biggest supporters, the people from the slums of Cite Soleil and Carrefour and other such places, were and are in those places (except where they've been executed), and they've demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and determination to fight, even after his departure. Failing to remove Aristide would have put these two positions in a position where they would have been fighting in close quarters, and would have left our troops in the crossfire.

And to be honest, having encountered some pretty appalling racism in our Marines stationed in Haiti, I can't say I would expect them to handle that situation with a lot of finesse. I can see a lot of unnecessary casualties in Haiti coming from a prolonged occupation of the type that Kerry is describing, with a comeasurate increase in anti-American sentiment.

Besides, with the American military backing his presidency, do you really think Ti Tid would *lose* the next election?

It's a difficult problem no matter how you slice it, but I think Bush did the best thing in this situation.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

haiti's unrest

Haiti's having an election.

Aristide's been claiming that he was abducted by the U.S. Marines. I've no idea what to make of that. I wouldn't put it past Bush to tell the troops to go in and get Ti Tid out of Port-au-Prince whether he wants to go or not, but the truth is that Haiti has about zero value to us politically, tradewise or in any other category that really matters to our presidents, Democratic or Republican.

If Bush did order the Marines to remove him, it probably was for chiefly two reasons. One, he didn't want the situation to become all-out civil war with people being massacred in the streets. That sort of intervention would appeal to him on a humanitarian level, and politically, since he probably would (deservedly) get beaten up by the Democrats and media commentators for allowing the situation to reach that point when he could have prevented it. Two, it just doesn't pay to have a situation as messy as Haiti was about to become right on doorstep, geopolitically speaking.

But in the long haul, the Bush administration probably is about as committed to Haiti as other U.S. administrations have been since Haiti won its independence in 1804. Haiti has no oil, nor gold, nor other natural resources that should make it matter to us. Its economy is dreadful, which makes it a lousy prospect for trade, and it's not being ruled by a communist dictator, so we've never had any substantial political interest in the island or human rights abuses there. (Carter was the exception. He was appalled by Duvalier's record, and refused to support his corrupt government with aid money that would just be stolen.)

Haiti has been the bastard stepchild of American politics since the beginning. There was an entire regiment of volunteer Haitians who fought for American independence from Britan, and some of those volunteers went on to fight for their own independence from France. When they won in 1804, we decided it would be a bad idea to recognize Haiti as an independent state because we had slaves of our own, and didn't want to give them any ideas. It wasn't until 1865, after the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation that we recognized Haiti as an independent republic, and even so, we've never really done much for the country.

After Aristide was ousted by the first coup, in 1991, the previous Bush administration slapped the coutnry with a trade embargo that made a difficult life positively hell for the common Haitian. (You think the lack of success with trade sanctions on Iraq is something new? Economic sanctions never dissuade dictators from being tinpot bullies, and they never empower the people to rise up against their better equipped and wealthier rulers.)

Unfortunately, we've never really committed as a nation to helping the Haitian people. Boat people from Cuba are granted asylum automatically. Boat people from Haiti don't even get a hearing; they're repatriated automatically. Great solution. Bush had the military doing this even in the days right before we removed Ti Tid. If that's his brand of compassionate conservatism, I'm glad to be a bleeding heart liberal.

What's going on right now in Haiti is part of the cyclical Haitian way of life. When people have had enough of one government, they overthrow it. When they've decided that someone is keeping them down, they rise up and dechouke that person, whether he was keeping them down or not. I've heard it described this way: In America, if you have something I want, I try to go out and get one of my own. If I'm a criminal, I just steal yours. In Haiti, the more common solution is to destroy yours so that you don't have one either. So they regularly destroy their own infrastructure to keep everyone else from getting ahead. Hotels, homes, bakeries, you name it.

Democracy can't really take root there because democracy assumes certain values, mores, and education that just aren't there yet. Illiteracy estimates range from 60 percent to 80 percent; the nation officially is 10 percent Protestant and 90 percent Catholic, but if you add on "and 100 percent voodoo" you start to get a better sense of the spiritual yoke they're under.

The gospel is what that nation needs, but -- like everywhere else, I suppose -- there's a warped view of what the church is about. If you want to get rich, the answer is to become a minister. In many ways, because of the way missions is done from the United States, the Haitian church has fallen into a real serious enslavement to Mammon. I've talked to pastors who see nothing wrong with leaving their wives and children and going to the United States to serve God here. (And get lots of money, naturally.)

I don't have much faith in the current situation. Guy Philippe is connected with FRAPH, a group well-known in Haiti for political executions. A paramilitary group, it includes many former military memebers and, not surprisingly, a lot of former Tonton Macoutes. (The Tonton Macoutes took their name from the Haitian bogeyman, and were Duvalier's brute squad.) Not surprisingly, after saying all they wanted was for Aristide to leave, the insurgents now are refusing to disarm. How much do you want to bet Philippe is going to be a bid for power, either directly or covertly, as the new government takes shape?

Yet things go on. After the tense days and weeks before Aristide was removed -- and after the looting, killings and riots after he was removed -- things pretty much went back to normal, from what I'm told by friends who are still there. When you live at the subsistence level, you can't afford to stay inside for days on end. People go out and do their business, stay in at night, and life proceeds as it did before.

If you want, pray for Steve and Ruth Hershey. They're friends of mine who are down there right now, still teaching at Cradle of Life Christian School. They live in school housing with their two children. There's also Laura Busshey, who I never worked with personally but knew through STEM Ministries. She was attacked in her home by looters the day Aristide left. (Ruth, painfully, was on the phone with her at the time.) I don't how badly she was hurt, just that she was attacked. I suspect she might have been raped, but really don't know.

I also have other friends who are back in the States at the moment, named Phil and Lonnie Murphy. Phil was Stateside anyway to attend a missions conference, and Lonnie and their son David were coming to Florida to visit his sister Michelle at college. Their missions board convinced them to stay. Knowing Phil, the board probably had to work hard to do that. He and Lonnie have stayed in Haiti through at least four coups and one U.S. invasion. Both their children were born there, and they themselves probably will be there for another five to 10 years, si Bondie vlé.

Phil and Lonnie run an orphanage in the mountains north of Port-au-Prince. They used to live in downtown Port, but moved the orphanage about eight years ago so they could expand it to the next phase. In addition to raising about 20 Haitian children and teaching them valuable skills like budgeting, the value of hard work, and so on, the Murphys also are engaged in community building. They've been teaching not just the kids but their neighbors some useful agricultural techniques, from simple stuff like composting to more advanced stuff like permaculture. Their goal is to get the orphange to the point that the grown-up kids can take over for them and eventually run the place on their own.

Phil and Lonnie are really neat people. I can honestly say they had a bigger impact on me in Haiti than anyone else. They're the only American missionaries I know who are invited to participate in the lives of their Haitian neighbors, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. You know, if anyone wants to support them, I offer the Murphys my unqualified endorsement and would be happy to share their support information.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

mission: acheron

The scenario: You're preparing a ship that will travel at relativistic speeds to another star system with the express purpose of terraforming and colonizing another world. (We'll call it Acheron.) Figure it has lunar mass similar to ours to create a breathably thin atmosphere, gravity that is about 1.1 times Earth's gravity, and a single giant continent, with water covering about 65 percent of the world. Here's the catch: There is no life on this planet, which has a reducing (rather than oxydizing) atmosphere. Going on the old earth model, it's what our planet was two or three billion years ago. The land mass has cooled and solidified from the incessant rain, but the atmosphere at the moment is incapable of supporting terran life.

Obviously, that's your goal.

You have a crew of four dozen colonists, each trained in a scientific discipline that will be helpful to colonization or terraforming, and each possessing other abilities and interests that will allow useful diversions like entertainment. In cryogenic storage, you are taking the embryos of every known animal species1 so you can establish and maintain balanced ecosystems, you are taking seeds from every known plant species,2 as well as representatives of the Earth's other taxanomical kingdoms, as well as various other bits of equipment and machinery you will need.3

What equipment will you take? What sort of timetable do you project for each stage of the project? When will people be able to live on the planet? How do you see the colony developing?

One nice thing I see: very little in the way of transmittable disease. Since all the animals are being shipped as embryos, there will be no cases of avian flu or other such illnesses being passed up the food chain. The human colony also should be free of most extant human illnesses, since colonists presumably would be healthy when they depart. What illnesses do surface would be due more to genetics, nutrition and environmental contaminants, rather than viruses or bacteria. The first generation of animals probably will be somewhat retarded mentally, being as they'll be incubated and will lack the benefits of a placenta or the equivelant in their phylum, but even that will sort itself out in a generation or two.

1 For purposes of simplification and to reduce costs, a species will be considered any two animals that can breed and produce offspring capable of breeding. Therefore, the "dogs" will be a genetic mix of all Earth's interbreedable dog species, including wolves, coyotes, dingoes, jackals and Canis familiaris. Similarly, tigons -- not lions and tigers -- are the great cat represented. (I think other great cats like leopards and cheetahs also may be interbreedable here, but I'm not sure.)* The scientific assumption behind this is that habitat and natural selection are what led to the species divergence here on Earth, and that process will duplicate itself elsewhere. As for pedigree among domesticated animals, don't count on it. The wider the variety genetically, the healthier the herd.

2 Again, some consolidation is likely. I'm not as familiar with the taxonomy of Plantae, but I imagine some of the same geographical biases in species designation have come into play there as well.

3 Machinery obviously will be more advanced than anything we now have at the dawn of the 21st century, but should be theoretically achievable. I'd accept giant machines capable of producing chemical changes in the air to produce oxygen, for example, but not warp drive, transporters or replicators. I'm talking sci-fi here, not science fantasy.

* Does anyone know of any other such combinations? This is actually an interesting point for me, because I think it's relevant for discussions of Noah's ark. If tigers and lions are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring -- as they are -- I would argue that they better are classified as breeds of the same species, rather than as separate species. Keeping that sort of thing in mind, it quickly becomes obvious that the task of getting the animals on the Ark wasn't quite as impossible as some skeptics claim.