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2018 Capricon Science Fiction Convention

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

2018 Capricon Science Fiction Convention
2018 Capricon Science Fiction Convention

This weekend (Feb 15 thru 18) is the 38th annual Capricon Science Fiction Convention, an event I always look forward to. As usual, I’ll be participating in the convention’s programming as both a panelist and as a panel moderator. Even though Capricon is a convention about science fiction and fantasy, my participation will not be all that different than my participation in last weekend’s NIRCON, the annual convention of the Northern Illinois Rocketry Association, where I gave a presentation on the future of human space exploration.

Given that at Capricon panelists "apply" to be on specific panels, the list of panels that I am on will give you a good idea of the types of topics I am most interested in and most qualified to discuss and debate.

How Soon Artificial General Intelligence

My lead-off panel will be How Soon Artificial General Intelligence, moderated by Bill Thomasson. The panel description asks us to answer the questions of how soon AGI (artificial general intelligence) might become a reality and how will that development affect human society. The question of how long it will be before true artificial intelligence becomes a reality is anyone’s guess. I do not believe that anyone can with any degree of accuracy answer this question. As to the impact on human society, that is an easier – and quite interesting – subject to tackle. With respect to workplace automation, AGI could be considered as being automation on steroids. Some will view this as a threat to their livelihood while others will be beneficiaries of this development.

Capture Deflect Destroy

Next I’ll be serving as moderator for the panel Capture Deflect Destroy in which the panel discusses the options we have in dealing with an identified asteroid or comet that is on a collision course with Earth. As moderator I’ll be expanding the panel’s discussion to include asteroid mining as a use of these objects. What I see as relevant areas for our discussion are background on the environmental impact of collisions, asteroid/comet detection and tracking programs, the classification of asteroid/comet families (orbital and compositional), and of course the technologies associated with altering the orbits of these bodies.

Pirates of the Asteroids: Who Owns ET Resources?

From talking about asteroids as a threat to civilization, I’ll be segueing to the panel Pirates of the Asteroids: Who Owns ET Resources? which may well be the most interesting as we debate the question of ownership and the making of territorial claims in outer space. Despite the panel’s title, taken from the title of a science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, this is a very serious international space policy concern that must be addressed.

Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids book cover art
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Isaac Asimov plot summary on Wikipedia

The framework for this discussion is The Outer Space Treaty which prohibits nations from making territorial claims in space. It was this restriction, along with the outlawing of all military activity in space, that really caused the Space Race to cool off. Our panel will also be specifically addressing the twin questions of whether or not a private company can claim ownership of space objects and, more importantly, if those companies will retain full legal ownership of any mined ET resources that they return to Earth. For a Wikipedia description of recent United States legislation that touches on this issue, see Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015 in November 2015. You may also want to read about what the tiny European nation of Luxembourg has been up to at Luxembourg aims to Contribute to the Peaceful Exploration and Sustainable Utilization of Space Resources for the Benefit of Humankind. This panel is being moderated by Pat Sayre McCoy. Pat and co-panelist Jeffrey Liss are a couple of folks I always look forward to serving on panels with.

What Are Acceptable Risks in Space Exploration?

Continuing with the theme of space exploration is the panel What Are Acceptable Risks in Space Exploration? moderated by Dr Michael Unger. In this age of the emergence of commercial space exploration, this question is particularly relevant. In his book Disturbing the Universe, Freeman Dyson made an interesting observation on this subject as it pertains to cost:

“As soon as our government takes responsibility for such as project, any serious risk of failure or loss of life becomes politically unacceptable. The costs of Island One (Gerard O’Neill’s space colony proposal) become high for the same reason that the costs of the Apollo expeditions were high. The government can afford to waste money but it cannot afford to be responsible for a disaster.”

Supporting Dyson’s observation is the fact that within the realm of NASA and space projects we have multiple examples of commercially provided goods and services successfully delivered at a fraction of the cost of their NASA/government counterparts. While our panel’s description is oriented towards the risks associated explicitly with NASA programs, I hope that our scope extends beyond that to include commercial (private) alternatives.

Science Fiction Cover Art: A History to Modern Day

Having served on both computing (AI) and space exploration panels, my final Capricon panel will be on the subject of art. The panel Science Fiction Cover Art: A History to Modern Day (moderated by friend and physicist Bill Higgins) will talk about the past and future of science fiction art with a particular focus on the publishing industry. Over the years, styles of science fiction cover art have come and gone while production methods (medium) went largely unchanged. The advent of personal computers and software tools for the creation of digital art has had a dramatic impact in this arena – and this will be a central feature of our panel’s discussion.

The Rest of The Time

When not on a panel, I look forward to being an audience member for those panels that interest me. These panels tend to be either space, science, computing, or art business related. Some of the panels that have caught my eye and which I’d like to attend include:

  • The Singularity: Mechs or Shapers?
  • Photo Color Temperature: What it is, Why it Matters
  • Computing Before Computers
  • Exobiology for Dummies
  • SETI: To Lurk or To Post?
  • Marketing Your Book
  • Science For World Progress
  • I, For One, Welcome My New Robot Overlords

Clearly Capricon offers quite a diversity of programming. For complete details about all the programs being offered at Capricon, please see the Capricon Programming Guide.

Closings Thoughts From Bruce Sterling and Robert Heinlein

I’d like to leave you with a couple of closing thoughts. First, this observation from science fiction author Bruce Sterling:

Designers talk and think a lot like science fiction writers do, except in a much less melodramatic and histrionic way.

More importantly, I’d ask folks to give serious consideration to the words of science fiction great Robert Heinlein who in a speech at the 1961 World Science Fiction Convention made the following statement:

Remember this: once the human race is established on more than one planet and especially, in more than one solar system, there is no way now imaginable to kill off the human race.

 

The 38th annual Capricon Science Fiction Convention is being held at the Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling Illinois.

 

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Space Globalization for Astronomy Day 2016

Friday, May 13th, 2016

The Globalization of the Solar System Presentation
The Globalization of the Solar System Presentation

Saturday May 14 I will be speaking at an Astronomy Day event being held at Harper College in Palatine IL. The event is sponsored by Northwest Suburban Astronomers and the Harper College Department of Physical Sciences. This astronomy day event will consist of displays, presentations, hands-on activities for kids, and, weather permitting, telescopic observations of the night sky.

My part in the evening’s activities will be to give my presentation The Globalization of the Solar System which addresses the question of whether or not the economics of globalization can take place with human settlements spread across the solar system. I am speaking at Astronomy Day in my role as President of the Chicago Society for Space Studies, a non-profit promoting space exploration and space development via educational outreach. For more about my space exploration presentations, see Chicago Society for Space Studies Speakers Bureau – Jim Plaxco.

And yes, I have given art related presentations at past astronomy day events, at both this venue and others. My most popular such art talk is The Art of Astronomy which is a historical overview of the development of astronomical art. The take-away from this presentation is that astronomical art has relied more on technological advancement than any other traditional art form (clearly new media art, aka digital art, aka computer art, have all been entirely dependent on technological innovation).

In addition to my own presentation, the Harper College – Northwest Suburban Astronomers Astronomy Day event has the following program items:

  • Things that Go Boom in the Night
  • Craft Projects for Children
  • Einstein Destroys Vulcan!
  • Discovering Our Solar System
  • Pluto Revealed
  • Black Holes
  • T Coronae Borealis: A Recurring Nova
  • The Possibility of Life on Mars and Venus
  • Astro Trivia
  • Eclipse Mania: Observing the 2017 Total Solar
  • Cosmic Time

Astronomy Day activities begin at 5:30pm and are held in Building Z on the Harper College college. For complete details, see the Northwest Suburban Astronomers Astronomy Day page.

Astronomy Day 2016, Harper College, Palatine IL
Astronomy Day 2016, Harper College, Palatine IL

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Capricon Science Fiction Convention Review

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

Capricon Science Fiction Convention
Capricon Science Fiction Convention

I spent last weekend attending the Capricon Science Fiction Convention at the Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling IL. While I normally participate in the convention’s art show, this year I decided to opt out. I did of course participate in the con’s programming, doing one presentation and participating in three panels.

A few months back I suggested a presentation idea to Capricon’s programming staff. Titled The Globalization of the Solar System, I described it as a lecture about the possible economics of a human civilization that spans the solar system. Specifically I wanted to address the question of whether or not the globalization we’ve seen here on Earth will be possible with a human presence that is spread across the solar system. I had originally developed the idea as a submission for the International Space Development Conference but had a change of heart once I decided to attend the Eyeo Festival instead. So as a long shot I proposed it to the folks at Capricon. I was delighted when they accepted – surprised as well since globalization and economics are not your typical topics at a science fiction convention.

I was really pleased with the size of the audience my talk attracted (far more than attended all three of the panels I participated in). Between my prepared talking points and addressing the numerous questions I received while my talk was underway, I wound up speaking for a total of 88 minutes – well over the 75 minutes I was allotted but finishing with a few minutes to spare before the start of the next program.

I am next scheduled to give my Globalization of the Solar System talk in July at the Elgin Public Library and may or may not give it at the June meeting of the Chicago Society for Space Studies.

The panel I most enjoyed and was most disappointed with was the Science Literacy for ALL panel. Granted it was a Sunday panel held at noon but I still expected that we would have attracted a substantial audience. It was the lack of a much larger audience that was my source of disappointment. Subject wise, I found this panel to be truly enjoyable because of the way in which we panelists bounced so nicely off one another and the wide ranging topics we addressed. Joining me on this panel were Henry Spencer, a fellow space enthusiast who actually works in aerospace and with whom I’ve been on numerous panels in the past. Also on the panel was Dexter Fabi. Turns out Dex, whom I’ve also been on panels with in the past, was on all three panels I was on this year. Our other panelists were the moderator Alicia Choi, Patrick O’Connor, and Kelly Strait.

Another panel was The Importance of Visual Design in Movies and TV which took some interesting twists and turns as we explored how the look of a movie or TV show affected viewers perceptions of the story. We also discussed how science fiction design has impacted our perceptions of the look of the future. My copanelists were Dexter Fabi, Jan Gephardt, Karen Ann Hollingsworth, Daniel Levin, and Lucy Synk.

Lastly there was the panel Alien Landscapes on Earth. The focus of the panel was not just on discussing alien landscapes here on Earth, but also about how such landscapes influenced the art we made (all the panelists were artists). My co-panelists were Dexter Fabi, Sandra Levy (moderator), Samantha Haney Press, Lucy Synk, and Capricon Artist Guest of Honor Eric Wilkerson.

While as a con-goer I toured the art show, prowled the dealer’s room, attended other panels, and chatted with friends in the Green Room, the two high points of the convention for me were my talk and the science literacy panel.

Illustration: Capricon Particle String.

To illustrate this post I used a custom typography. Specifically I used a particle system that assembled itself using an image mask to define the area of the individual letters in the text string, in this case "Capricon". A random starting location was selected as well as a target location inside one of the letter areas. As the system ran, particles would do a random walk within a vector field from their initial location to their final destination. The screen shot was taken once all particles had more or less arrived at their final destination.

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Pluto, New Horizons Pluto-Palooza: Art and Talk

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Art version of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon
Artistic representation of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon

Next month I’ll be doing some talks on the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons, and the NASA New Horizons mission which will make its closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday, July 14 at 11:49:57 UTC. At that time it will pass Pluto at a distance of some 12,500 kilometers. In fact, New Horizons became the mission of closest approach to Pluto on December 2, 2011 – some three and a half years ago. The previous record holder was Voyager I, which got to within 1.58 billion kilometers of Pluto.

As a part of working on my presentation, I decided to create some original artwork. The result is the art used to illustrate this story. Titled Pluto and Charon, I tried to present a reasonably accurate depiction of the pair in terms of relative size in the artwork with respect to Charon’s orbital distance from Pluto. I took some small latitude with the overall coloring and albedos but as to surface features, well at this point that is anybody’s guess.

New Horizons Lorri Image of Pluto Taken June 11, 2015
New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) Image of Pluto Taken May 28, 2015

With respect to the surface features of Pluto, the image above is probably the best image to date of the dwarf planet. It was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) on May 28, 2015 when New Horizons was about 56 million kilometers from Pluto.

My artist’s print version of Pluto and Charon is 18 by 14 inches. By comparison, the version shown here would be about 2.8 by 1.9 inches if printed. I do plan on adding this digital painting to my web site but I’m not sure when exactly that will be as I have a number of other projects consuming my time. However, I have made this artwork available for purchase on Redbubble both as a print and as product artwork:

Dwarf Planet Pluto and its moon Charon on Redbubble

As to my Pluto/New Horizons presentation, I am currently slated to give my talk at the following venues:

When: Sunday, July 19, 2015 at 1:00pm
Where: Schaumburg Township District Library Adult Classroom
for the meeting of the Chicago Society for Space Studies
Address:130 South Roselle Road, Schaumburg, IL 60193
 
When: Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 6:30 pm
Where: Roden Branch, Chicago Public Library
Address: 6083 N. Northwest Highway, Chicago, IL 60631

I will also be appearing in Streator IL on July 5th with time and venue to be determined. The city is including Pluto in its Fourth of July celebration as Streator is the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer at Lowell Observatory who discovered Pluto in 1930. I am fortunate in that I had the opportunity to attend a lecture about Pluto by Mr. Tombaugh and to briefly meet him afterwards. Mr. Tombaugh passed away in 1997.

New Horizons References

The following New Horizons articles contain additional information about the Lorri image of Pluto used in this story:

The main web site for the mission is the New Horizons web site at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

In closing I offer the following quotation:

Most great discoveries in science are preceded by intuitions and followed by simple or crude methods, procedures, and use of inferior equipment. Often a succession of attempts take place in a progressive sequence, just barely missing the discovery. This was especially so in the case of the discovery of the ninth planet, Pluto.

Clyde Tombaugh in Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto

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Space Art, Lunar Bases, and Space in Chicago

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Lacus Somniorum, Moon
Lacus Somniorum, Moon

Did you ever see that movie Sybil with Sally Field as the multiple personality woman? That’s me. Only I’m not a woman and it’s not multiple personalities — it’s multiple interests. Two interests that are obvious to people who know me are digital art and space — both of the astronomical variety and the space exploration variety.

My multiple competing interests — not to mention my interests in photography (see Jim Plaxco Photography), a wide variety of computing topics, and an interest in economics (my B.S was in Economics) — serve to limit the amount of time I can devote to each individually. In fact I’d say that I frequently find myself the victim of thrashing — an old computer science term describing the sub-optimal performance of a computer when it spends too much time switching between tasks.

It is much the same with my art. I have an interest in a variety of artistic subjects as well as creating art using a variety of stylistic approaches. I really chafe at the traditional advice given to artists that they should pick one subject and one style and stick to it. Where is the intellectual and creative fun in that? I understand how the one subject-one style approach works well for branding but why limit your creative ventures just so you can be more marketable and identifiable? In the acting profession that’s known as being typecast.

One recent activity of mine that neatly joined my interests in art and space was serving as a judge in the National Space Society’s 2015 International Student Art Contest (see NSS 2015 International Student Art Contest). We finished judging the submitted art last Friday. It took us a good number of hours to go through the 85 submitted works of art. Our first task was to categorize the art and determine whether or not each submission met the contest guidelines. The rule that all submitted art must feature one or more people doing something in a space setting disqualified a number of submissions.

The thorniest issue was regarding that of realism and led to the most intense debate between the judges. Some wanted to establish higher standards for the quality of the art that would be accepted. I argued that since this art contest was marketed as a contest for students and had entries from sixth grade through college, it was not appropriate to expect a sixth grader to produce artwork of the same caliber as that of a college student. On the whole, my approach won out.

One of the stipulations for the art contest was that if the judges felt that none of the submitted art was worthy of being awarded a prize then none would be given. Fortunately I can say that we did award several prizes. However, because the contest results have not yet been announced I can say no more on this subject.

On another space note, I’ve also been spending more time than planned taking the Introduction to Aerospace Engineering: Astronautics and Human Spaceflight online class from EDX.ORG. The class is being taught by MIT Professor Jeffrey Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut who made the trip to space five times on NASA’s Space Shuttle (Hoffman was the first astronaut to log 1000 hours on the Shuttle). My motivation in taking this class was to refresh old knowledge and hopefully pick up some new knowledge.

In one of my roles as President of the Chicago Society for Space Studies, I do a variety of educational space development presentations so a good understanding of the various issues is critical. It was in this role that I spoke a couple weeks ago at Loyola University as a part of the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. The title of my presentation was From Camp Century to the Moon and in this presentation I emphasized the future commercial opportunities of lunar development (neatly combining my interests in space and economics). The “Camp Century” in the title of my talk is a reference to the nuclear powered "city" the U.S. Army built under the Greenland ice outwardly to do science and learn to live and work in arctic conditions — but secretly a part of Project Iceworm. I use Camp Century in my presentation due to the similarities it has to a lunar base. On a related note, my next space to-do is actually tonight when I’ll be doing a shortened version of this presentation for the Rotary Club of Arlington Heights IL. I’m willing to bet that having someone speak about the commercial development of the Moon is rather out of the ordinary for them. We’ll see.

The Illustration: Lacus Somniorum, Moon

The illustration for this post is a small section of a digital painting I did of the Moon. This particular art project of mine was inspired by a painting of the Moon done in 1875 by astronomer/artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (December 26, 1827–April 22, 1895) whose work I greatly admire. At some point I do plan on adding this work, as well as several other works of lunar art, to my Moon Art Gallery.

The region shown in the illustration is that of Lacus Somniorum (Latin for Lake of Dreams), an irregular plain near the Moon’s northeastern limb. Specifically it is at selenographic coordinates 38 degrees north and 29 degrees east. With a diameter of 384 kilometers, it is the largest "lacus" on the Moon.

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A Weekend of Art and Space at Capricon

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Capricon Science Fiction Convention
The Constellation Capricornus aka Capricorn, not Capricon

This weekend I’ll be attending the Capricon Science Fiction Convention which is being held at the Westin Chicago Northshore in Wheeling IL. I’ve attended quite a few Capricons over the years and have always had a good time. This year I’ll be pretty busy – giving one presentation and participating in five panels on art and space.

As a part of the convention, I’ll be giving my presentation Digital Art: Delights and Dilemmas in which I discuss the issues and challenges that digital artists face. I talk about hardware, platforms, software, storage, and accessories issues – not to mention that classic issue of "is it art?"

On the subject of art, I will be moderating the panel Great Artists of Science Fiction. The panel is described as follows:

Art has always been an integral part of science fiction. The decades have given us several masters – and today more artists than ever are producing amazing work. Who are the greatest artists of science fiction thus far? Who do we think will be on that list twenty years from now?

My co-panelists are Dexter Fabi, Alessandra Kelley, and Deb Kosiba. We are taking some liberties with the panel in that we will start out by discussing our favorite science fiction artists. So far our list of artists includes John Berkey, Chesley Bonestell, John Harris, Syd Mead, Frank R. Paul, Arthur Rackham, Albert Robida, Gene Szafran, and Michael Whelan.

Sticking with art, I will be participating in the Cover Snark panel whose description reads:

There have been some radiant, resplendent, and refined works of art gracing the covers of SF/F books. Then there are the ones we’re going to snark about today. Which covers make you ask “Whyyyyy?” Which covers might have been cool at the time but are now rubbishy?

For my part I’ve prepared a sequence of images that tracks the cover art used for Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children beginning with Leo Dillion’s illustration from 1958 and continuing through to a 2013 edition that simply used a NASA Hubble Space Telescope photograph for the cover art. Fortunately in researching the topic I came across an absolutely horrible example of cover art that really left me scratching my head. My fellow art critics on this bad art extravaganza are moderator Alessandra Kelley, Mallory Harrelson, Helen Montgomery, and Blake Packard.

Besides art, another favorite topic of mine is space exploration and development. On this subject I’ll be moderating the panel Re-starting the Manned Space Program. Joining me will be Chris Gerrib and Bill Higgins. Our mission: to explore what the next steps for human space exploration should be. We’ll be paying particular attention to the subject of new space and the potential for private/commercial space development to open the final frontier to the rest of us.

Looking a few years or decades down the road, another panel I will be moderating is A Lunar Life in which we explore what it would be like to be born, live, work, and retire on the Moon. My focus will be on commerce and the lunar economy because the Moon will never become a second home for humanity until such undertakings can pay their own way. Joining me will be Dale Cozort, Anne Elliot, Mark Huston, Jim Lund, Henry Spencer, and Dr. Michael Unger. With seven panelists, not only is this the largest panel I’ve ever been on, it’s the largest I’ve ever moderated! Will chaos and pandemonium reign?

Lastly, I’ll be a panelist on Rise Up! in which we’ll be talking about all things that fly (not counting birds). Moderated by Bill Higgins, my co-panelists are Emmy Jackson and Henry Spencer. If you want to hear about hot-air balloons, zeppelins, airplanes, jets, rockets, and space ships, then this is the panel for you.

The Illustration

The illustration above is a stylized rendition of a star map for the constellation Capricornus (not Capricon). Capricornus is Latin for "horned goat" and is generally represented as a sea-goat: a mythical creature with the fore body of a goat and the aft body of a fish. In a nod to this bizarre creature, the name of the Capricon convention’s newsletter is Goat Droppings.

See you at the con.

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