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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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From Mensa Halloweem to Windycon Science Fiction Convention

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Ant Colony Landscape
Ant Colony Landscape

This last Halloween weekend I had the opportunity to give two presentations at a Chicago regional Mensa convention dubbed Halloweem, held at the Westin in Wheeling IL. The two presentations I gave were

It was a very enjoyable experience for me, made all the better by the inquisitiveness of the audience. The only downside was that I over indulged in the convention’s great food offerings. Also speaking at the convention was Kent Nebergall. Kent and I are both members of the Chicago Society for Space Studies Speakers Bureau. Curiously neither of us were giving space exploration presentations at the convention.

Shortly I’ll be leaving for the Windycon Science Fiction Convention being held at Westin Lombard Yorktown Center in Lombard IL. While I won’t be giving any presentations this year, I will be participating in some panels. The panels are:

  • Space Seconds which is a panel covering space missions that were not the first of their kind, but the second.
  • Pluto Update is a panel addressing the findings of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
  • Autographing was to be an autographing session that I am forced to cancel as my book on algorithmic art is not yet available.
  • Why Social Media Sucks takes a look at the world of social media, both from a operational perspective as well as a communicational perspective.
  • Art Media is a panel that I’ll be moderating on how artists decide on their artistic media and the strengths and weaknesses of each media.

As noted above, I originally agreed to do an autograph session at a time when I thought that I would have print copies of my book The Beauty of Algorithmic Art available. However, in searching for a publishing platform I wound up discarding my original two finalists (Blurb and Lulu). I have investigated several additional vendors and am currently focusing on Bookbaby and IngramSpark.

In addition to participating in the panels identified above, I will also have several artworks in the convention’s art show.

This Post’s Illustration

While working on a program to implement an ant colony simulation, I discovered that I had a program that did a nice job of simulating natural media painting. The landscape image Ant Colony Landscape is the result of an initial test of a program where the ants sample an underlying photograph and paint their trail. I must point out that this output was generated during an early stage of the program’s development. Coding was done using the Processing framework. The motto of the story is that sometimes algorithms can take you to surprising destinations. For more information about ant colony optimization, see the Wikipedia entry on ant colony optimization algorithms.

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Makers Faire Milwaukee, Charon Wallpaper, and Art Workflow

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

Inside Makers Faire Milwaukee
Inside Makers Faire Milwaukee

A couple weeks ago I attended Makers Faire Milwaukee. I had meant to do a write up of my experience but I’ve had a case of writer’s block in figuring out just what I wanted to say. I was at Makers Faire for two reasons. First, I was conducting a workshop on Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing – a favorite of mine as it combines art with math with programming.

Second, wearing my NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador hat, I delivered a presentation on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. With respect to my Pluto talk, a number of the illustrations I use are either my own renders or my own interpretations of New Horizons imagery. For example, here is a free wallpaper version of my enhanced and colorized image of Charon that I’ve previously shared on social media.

Lastly I’ve been adding new fields to my art inventory spreadsheet that I hope to be able to use to help automate the production of gallery pages here on my web site. While I was at it, I decided to do a basic write-up of the data keeping portion of my art work flow. If this is of interest to you, then see My Art Workflow – The Management Bits.

With respect to my art, consider checking out my portfolios on the following art print on demand sites.

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Pluto New Horizons Program Update

Monday, August 31st, 2015

New Horizons mission to Pluto talk
The New Horizons Mission to Pluto

Last week I gave my Pluto – New Horizons presentation to a joint meeting of the Von Braun Astronomical Society and the Huntsville Alabama L5 chapter of the National Space Society. The event was held at the Von Braun Planetarium in Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville AL. In doing this particular presentation I was wearing my NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador hat. I have served as a Solar System Ambassador for a number of years and in that guise give talks about planetary science and the various NASA JPL robotic missions to the planets. In recent years the focus of my space-related outreach activities has been on the subjects of space commercialization and space development. For example, last November I gave a presentation on newSpace at the Gateway to Space conference in St. Louis while in October I served as a panelist for a space exploration symposium held at the Museum of Science and Industry. The subject of that panel was the economics of deep space exploration and was moderated by former NASA astronaut and ATK Flight Systems Group Vice President Charlie Precourt. And, of course, I speak frequently on the subject of digital art and related topics. You can see a list of these presentations on my art lectures and presentations page.

For the most part my presentations are relatively static due to the nature of their subject matter. The changes I do make are primarily to improve the quality of the content and flow of the presentation. My Pluto talk is quite another matter. The challenge I face going forward is that new data and images are going to be regularly released from now until October 2016. This means that the backstory I tell, which serves as a foundation for the science and spacecraft, is going to be continually cut. In fact I can foresee a time when all discussion of the history of planetary science and details about the New Horizons spacecraft will be removed from my presentation in order to make room for the newest images and science results. For my talk at the Von Braun Planetarium I removed about 15 percent of the backstory slides in order to add slides that addressed the newest images and data returned from the New Horizons encounter with Pluto. And the next time I give this talk – at Maker Faire Milwaukee – I’m going to have to cut more background in order to accommodate the new data being released in September.

In order to add some uniqueness to my presentation’s visuals, I created several custom 3D global views of both Pluto and Charon. As sources I used the global cylindrical projection maps of Pluto and Charon released by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I slightly enhanced the contrast and sharpness of the source images, colorized the images, and smoothed out individual image frame borders. I then did something I haven’t done in years – I fired up Bryce and used it to render my globes of Pluto and Charon. I used Bryce because it was the fastest and easiest way to produce simple 3D screen-sized renders.

3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto
3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto (cropped here)

Using custom views turned out to be particularly useful in, for example, highlighting the differences between the eastern and western lobes of Tombaugh Regio. The western lobe of Tombaugh Regio contains Sputnik Planum, which appears to be a reservoir of ices, principally nitrogen (N2), methane(CH4), and carbon monoxide(CO). Sputnik Planum appears to be the source of the ices that thinly veil the eastern lobe of Tombaugh Regio.

Global Map of Pluto
Global Map of Pluto

I also assembled my own annotated map of Pluto that includes feature names and a latitude/longitude grid. I find such maps quite useful in helping the audience understand where features are not just on Pluto/Charon but also in relationship to one another.

In closing, while our knowledge of Pluto and Charon is a work in progress being continually reshaped by the arrival of new data and images, so too is my Pluto talk a work in progress.

Reference Links

Upcoming Pluto Presentations

For Plutophiles(1), I am scheduled to give my Pluto talk two times in September. First up is an abbreviated version for a Rotary Club meeting. Next I will be giving the full talk at Maker Faire Milwaukee held the weekend of Sept. 25-26. In addition, I will also be teaching my class Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing.

Note 1: According to Wordspy, a plutophile is "a person who likes the dwarf planet Pluto, particularly one who objects to Pluto‚Äôs status as a dwarf planet". While the first half of this definition applies to me, the second half does not. I am one of those folks who supported the IAU’s (International Astronomical Union) decision to reclassify Pluto.

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Musecon Review

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Modified Spirograph program output from Musecon class
Modified Spirograph sample output from a modified Spirograph program

I spent this last weekend attending Musecon which was held at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca, IL. MuseCon is a three day convention for makers, artists, musicians, and other creatives that provides a wide range of creative programming. For my part, Musecon began Friday afternoon with the class I was teaching on how to use the Processing programming language to create a digital spirograph and a digital harmonograph (for more, see Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing).

The class went quite well and I was surprised by the number of students I had since my class was in the first block of programming – which was Friday at 1:30pm. I can’t complain about the scheduling of the class since I was the one who selected that time slot. Getting my programming done at the very start of the convention meant that I had a worry-free weekend to attend the other programs that interested me without having to carry around the electronic baggage needed for the class. This is the third year that I’ve had the opportunity to participate as a presenter in Musecon’s programming lineup and it was nice having completed my part within the first hours of the convention. If you want to read about what I did last year, check out Generative Art plus Instagram and Pinterest at Musecon.

I spent the rest of the weekend attending programming and chatting with folks I only see maybe once or twice a year. With respect to the programming I attended, my top three favorite programs were:

  • God’s Mechanics: The Religious Life of Techies
  • Physical Properties of Meteorites
  • Photography: Champagne lighting on a grape juice budget

This year the convention had as Guest of Honor Brother Guy Consolmagno. In addition to having his PhD in Planetary Science and having authored a number of excellent books, Brother Guy recently won the Carl Sagan Medal and is now President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

The program God’s Mechanics: The Religious Life of Techies was a presentation by Brother Guy about the subject of his book God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion – which is a fascinating look at how "techies" look at and think about religion and deal with the question of God’s existence.

Musecon Guest of Honor Brother Guy Consolmagno talking about Meteorites
Musecon Guest of Honor Brother Guy Consolmagno talking about Meteorites

My second favorite program was also a presentation by Brother Guy. Physical Properties of Meteorites was an interesting look at the history of meteorites in terms of human understanding of how the solar system works. Brother Guy also discussed some of his own research and its relevance to the larger field of study. Once upon a time my interest in meteorites was keener than it is today – particular since I served as an officer and director of the Planetary Studies Foundation, which at the time had one of the top meteorite collections in the world. The overwhelming bulk of that collection had been received as a donation from the DuPont family. It was in those years that I once had the opportunity to be on a panel about meteorites with Brother Guy at a science fiction convention – though I no longer recall which one it was.

Lastly my third favorite program of the weekend was Photography: Champagne lighting on a grape juice budget which was led by Richard France, Ken Beach, Bruce Medic – all of whom are really excellent photographers whose work I admire. The theme of their program was about taking a DIY (do it yourself) approach to coming up with alternative lighting and equipment solutions. Think in terms of retasking old items or using as substitutes items that could be purchased from your local hardware store.

In closing, Musecon 2015 was a totally enjoyable weekend and one I look forward to repeating in 2016.



God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense
of Religion

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