Banjo invades Opera!

I open Porgy and Bess tonight at Seattle Opera, where my wife, Ellen (GLaDOS) has sung many times.  But I’ll be in the orchestra pit playing the banjo!  The Seattle Opera blog has written a nice article about me.  You can see it here:

They interviewed me and I talk a little about Ellen’s work at the Seattle Opera, which I thought GLaDOS fans might find interesting.  They also let me plug Dancing With Eternity, which was nice of them.  Anyway, I’ll be pickin’ at the Opera tonight!

Oh, yes, and for those of you who have been confused by about pre-ordering Dancing With Eternity, the page is now letting you pre-order!  Yay.



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Anime Midwest!

Ellen and I are attending our first FanCon: Anime Midwest, just outside of Chicago.  The fans are really great.  Wonderful costumes and incredible youthful energy.  It just does my heart good to see the computer games we are a part of helping to create this vibrant community.

It has been a lot of fun for us and for the fans.  We performed GLaDOS’ two big hits, Want You Gone and Still Alive.  Ellen sang and I accompanied her on the banjo.  The banjo just seemed to be the right, hi-tech, 21st century instrument for the job.

We had the heavy responsibility of judging costumes and performances at the masquerade ball.  Very tough decisions as everyone was great!


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We need to make space travel irritating.

In the 50s, space travel was all possibilities. Most people just thought going to the moon was impossible. There’s something romantic about doing the impossible. Now we know that going to the moon is just expensive. That’s not nearly as romantic, but what an incredible leap forward: to go from impossible to expensive. Unfortunately for us humans, the job before us now is to go from expensive to reasonable. There’s no romance at all in being reasonable, but if we are to colonize space that is precisely what we need to be. Anyone can look at a $30 million dollar price tag for getting one person to the ISS for a week and conclude that large scale human migration off the planet isn’t in the cards right now. It isn’t. Multi-staged, disposable, chemical-fueled rockets were never going to get the job done for establishing a true space-faring civilization. That infrastructure, a true low cost freeway to space, looks as impossible to us now as going to the moon did in the 50s.

But we went to the moon.

Routine access to space isn’t going to look like a few people sitting on top of a skyscraper full of explosive propellants. It’s going to look very different. It’s probably going to look boring. That’s when we’ll know we’ve succeeded. When we’ve changed space travel from impossible to expensive to reasonable and finally to irritating we’ll know we’re a space-faring people.

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Democracies vs. Large Projects (like colonizing Mars ‘n’ stuff)

Is it possible for a society as complex and varied as America is to accomplish great things?  Or will every great idea be nibbled to death by all the various people who find fault with it?

The problem with democracies where everyone has a voice is that everyone has a voice. The people who want to colonize Mars have a voice and the people who want to protect Snail Darters have a voice. This, of course, causes acrimony and dissension. Trying for consensus can bring paralysis. This was a discussion held between nations in the early 20th century. The dictatorships, Germany, Italy and the U.S.S.R. held that the democracies were weak and lazy, that you needed strong leaders to get anything accomplished. The conversation ended in a contest that two of the dictatorships lost because they attacked the third dictatorship who then allied itself with the democracies. Can large, controversial projects be completed faster in totalitarian societies? Look at what China is accomplishing right now. Eliminate dissent and you certainly streamline the process. Do I wish the United States government would model itself after the Chinese model? Or the Soviet? Or the Fascists or the Nazis? As Winston Churchill once said: Democracy is the worst possible form of government, until you look at all the other forms of government.

I would love to colonize and terraform Mars and do many other things in space and I think we will because it is a good idea and people act on good ideas sooner or later. As we speak, even with the future of NASA in disarray the the future of the solvency of great nations in doubt, lots of people are working on this problem and how to get it solved. How do we make getting into orbit lots, LOTS cheaper? How do we protect people from ionizing cosmic radiation and solar storms outside the van Allen belts? How do we turn pee into a delicious, refreshing drink over and over again? How do we turn poop into yummy food? How do we live inside a can for long periods of time without getting on each other’s nerves?

We’ve had a few shocks concerning space travel over the last half century. There aren’t any Martians or Venusians to trade with or defend ourselves against. There aren’t steamy jungles on Venus or canals on Mars. Professor Oddball and the two teenage geniuses who think he’s cool can’t put together a rocket ship to go fight Nazis on the moon. Everything is a lot more expensive than we hoped it would be. But we’ll come back. We’ll figure it out. And we’ll leave the Snail Darter his little home while we do it.

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Scientific progress in times of war

Okay, I’m having a cool conversation in the linkedin Sci-Fi group about technology and colonizing other planets ‘n’ stuff.  I was stating my notion that space travel and weapons design and manufacture share many of the same skill sets and you could shift funding from the latter to the former with minimum dislocation of jobs. One person replied thus: Like it or not, humanity makes more scientific progress in times of war, not peace.

As those of you who know me even a little bit probably won’t be surprised in hearing, I took issue with this statement.  I looked up some stats from the U.S. patent office and this is what I found:

U. S. Design Patents (inventions) issued by year:
In the year 1916 – 43,892
In the year 1917 – 40,927 (America enters WW I)
In the year 1918 – 38,450 (the Allies win WW I)
In the year 1919 – 36,795

In the year 1939 – 43,073
In the year 1940 – 42,237
In the year 1941 – 41,108 (America enters WW II)
In the year 1942 – 38,449
In the year 1943 – 31,054
In the year 1944 – 28,053
In the year 1945 – 25,694 (the Allies win WW II)
IN the year 1946 – 21,805

As you can see, during both of the largest wars America was ever involved in the number of design patents awarded falls rather precipitously in every year of fighting and even falls in the year after each war is over.  In fact in WW II, which was disastrously larger and more destructive than WW I, the decline is much steeper.  If WW I or WW II drove scientific progress it certainly isn’t reflected in the number of design patents awarded.

Feel free to share this info with anyone who makes the argument that war propels us to greater scientific achievement.

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Operas, banjos and FanCons

An interesting summer is shaping up as I continue to await the release of Dancing with Eternity. Ellen and I have been invited to be guests at the Midwest Anime FanCon outside of Chicago at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles this July 15 – 17.  We look forward to meeting lots of Portal and Team Fortress 2 fans and seeing a Cubs game at Wrigley field!  Then in August I will be playing banjo in the pit orchestra of Porgy and Bess for Seattle Opera, my first pit band gig in years.  Who sez show biz ain’t a strange industry?

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Publishing, theater and computer games

It’s been an odd and exhilarating few weeks.  First, my nephew lives in Tokyo and we all worried about the earthquake there and all the people affected.  Then the release date of Dancing With Eternity got moved back to June, then to September because more people are getting interested in it and BIG STUFF is happening.  Then Portal 2 (for those of you who can follow the math – that’s the sequel to Portal), the computer game that my wife, Ellen McLain stars in, was released.  Meanwhile I was doing voice work on the new Lord of the Rings game coming out this Christmas: LOTR: The War in the North, and opening as Sir John Falstaff in a nice production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Seattle Shakespeare Company.  And recording several episodes of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  If I had wanted to be this busy I would have gotten a real job.

In any case, I apologize to my numerous blog readers for not putting more multi-dimensionally witty stuff up here for you to waste your time reading.  I know I have a responsibility now, like a person who puts up a bird feeder, to continue to supply you with sparkling fodder to fill the aching gaps in your otherwise drab, featureless intellectual hejiras.  It’s not that I don’t take this responsibility seriously, it’s just that I don’t take it all THAT seriously.

But the overriding theme in all of this frivolity and dissolution is that creative things are happening in the world in the face of horrible dangers and unsolved problems.  I continue to be blown away by the ideas and dreams of my younger relatives and colleagues.  The human race is going places.  We’re not done yet.  The universe is our oyster which we with optimism, faith, hope and creativity will open.  And if we don’t it’s our own damn fault.

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Human beings

Human beings don’t do things well, we do things well enough.  Whenever we do something better than it absolutely has to be done we call it art.

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Life on Planet Earth

As my nephew in Tokyo struggles to make wise, prudent decisions facing a real catastrophe it is hard for me to consider anything else at all.  We are heroes in so many small ways.  We cope with pain, fear and doubt on so many levels and we keep functioning.  My heart and hopes go out to everyone in Japan and particularly to the residents of the affected areas and the rescue and aid workers there.

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Time to get down to cases!

Okay, here I go. Imagine these steps being taken in our quest to make a larger home for Earth based life:

1. A permanent manned presence at the lunar poles.

2. Mining capabilities at the lunar poles with solar powered mass accelerators to launch material into space.

3. Manufacturing capabilities in low Earth orbit (snuggly inside the van Allen radiation belts).

4. O’Neill space colonies at the Lagrange points of Earth (outside the van Allen belts but big enough to give you protection from radiation) manufacturing space-based solar power stations to beam power to Earth.

5. (Not necessarily in this order) A manned expedition to Mars.

6. The construction of a space elevator made of carbon nanotubes creating relatively cheap, clean access to geosynchronous orbit.

7. The creation of a fleet (5 to 10 maybe? 20? 30?) O’Neill space colonies placed in elliptical orbits around the sun with the perihelion (the closest spot on the orbit to the sun) being at the orbit of Earth and the aphelion (the spot farthest from the sun) being at the orbit of Mars. The more of these that there are, the better the chances of having one of them in the right position to take you to Mars or take you from Mars back to Earth. Short range shuttles could take passengers from the top of the space elevator to the space colony so that the space colony would never have to slow down or land on Earth or Mars.

8. A colony on Mars with it’s own space elevator.

9. A self-sustaining colony on Mars.

10. A terraformed Mars.

You would have a system in place where it would be relatively cheap, comfortable and safe to travel back and forth from Mars to Earth. It might take several months, but you’d have fresh food, gravity, protection from radiation. You’d have a multi-planet civilization. This means people who can communicate with one another, interact with one another, trade with one another.

Why try to terraform the moon? There isn’t enough gravity to hold an atmosphere and there’s far less water than there is on Mars AND you have a 28-day long ‘day’. There’s lots of stuff to do on the moon that will make life a lot richer for everyone, but living outside there is going to be a REAL challenge.

As for sending people on generation ships to take 10 to 50,000 year voyages to planets around other stars that will probably take some kind of terraforming when we get there but will never be in communication with us, to me that’s not creating a larger human family, that’s creating orphans.

Creating an interstellar civilization means making a whole lot more ‘what ifs’ including some fundamental breakthroughs in physics. But, who knows? I’m optimistic!

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