Oct. 29, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Sharing your scares: You don't have to live in a drafty English castle or a Victorian mansion in South Dakota to have a spooky experience — or to enjoy one vicariously. Philosophers and scientists have always puzzled over what it is that makes ghost stories so attractive. For me, it's that eerie frisson you feel when you see or hear something truly chilling — kind of like hot sauce for the psyche.

What follows is a selection of tales submitted by Cosmic Log correspondents, submitted in response to a call for entries. Does it matter whether the tales are true or false? That's an issue for investigators of the paranormal, ranging from the Amazing Kreskin to the Amazing Randi. Regard these stories merely as psychological experiments, aimed at finding out whether the force of the frisson is with you this Halloween:

Kyle Bruce: "You'll have to excuse the secondhand knowledge on this one. I actually was present at the time, but way too young to remember. This story was related to my family by my father about an occurrence that happened to him and his brother.

"When they were younger, my father was helping his brother renovate a one-story house for his family. (I was in another room asleep, or so I was told) They were working in the living room of the house on a ceiling fixture. He was standing on a ladder in the middle of the room and removing a fan in order to install one of those new, light fixtures/fans.

"After he removed the fan, there was a hole in the ceiling about 24 inches wide that should have led up to the attic. My uncle, curious to see what was up there, got out his flashlight and poked his head through the hole. He then climbed down from the ladder, packed up all his stuff, and made my dad take me and him back to my grandmother's house.

"He didn't tell my dad what he saw until they were about 20 miles down the road. He said that where there should have been fairly small attic, there was an exact replica of the living room they were standing in, right down to the wall fixtures, dresser drawers in the corner, same wallpapering and exact same colored carpet. The only difference was where the light fixture should have been in the replica room, there was another empty hole into blackness directly above his head. He didn't end up moving into that house and sold it a few weeks later."

Patrick Bishop: "There rises a ridge between Caldwell, N.J., and the next town, fair Verona.  Atop it there once stood a facility which at various epochs served as a hospital, sanatorium for TB sufferers, and (reputedly) an insane asylum.  It has been long abandoned and almost everything razed to the ground.

"Early last spring, I decided to hike up to the place and see what might still be standing.  I took along my trusty Logitec Clicksmart 510 camera — one of the ones that one can use as a Webcam, still camera or video camera (for about a minute’s worth of video).

"I found the entire facility bulldozed away except for one low, yellow brick building which lay off to one side of the old road, grown up with weeds.  A boarded-up window had been kicked in, and the door was forced.  When I peered inside, I caught glimpses of pipes, valves and scaffolding — as if the building had something to do with the hospital’s physical plant.

"Too terrified of tetanus to do more than stick my head in through the door, I snapped a couple of pictures of what was supposed to be the hole in the roof in the corner opposite the door.  I took a couple of pictures with and without the flash — always wise when fooling with a digital camera.  There was no hint of anything unusual going on in the building at the time (neither goose nor other bumps, for instance), but when I downloaded the pictures to my PC, one taken with the flash so surprised me I actually uttered a phrase which need not be repeated here. The more one looks at it, the more one seems to see.

"There really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

"Here’s a link to the spooky picture, and another link to a picture showing the exterior of the little building."

Dave Schuermann: "My wife and I were in Orlando Florida visiting Universal Studios City Streets as tourist. We ate at Margaritaville, went to the NASCAR Cafe, NBA City, all the places a tourist is expected to go. We went to Bob Marley's Cafe to purchase a T-shirt (my wife and I both are Bob freaks), and outside the cafe is a statue of Bob Marley.

"My wife stood by the statue, and I took a couple of shots with standard 35mm film, same roll we had used before visiting the statue and after. When we got the film developed, all the pictures before and after those shots of her and the statue were fine, but the two shots of her and the statue have a hazy entity showing up, and if you look close you can make out what appears to be Bob Marley's face and dreadlocks (he's smiling!).

"We have taken several other rolls of film in the camera and never have had the image show up again. The pictures were in the middle of the roll (36 exposure), so the possibility of a light leak is slim to none. We are convinced it is the ghost of Bob Marley hanging out at his statue! We did not see anything while there, only after getting the film developed. I looked at the negatives to see if they appeared damaged and could not see anything out of the ordinary (such as water spots or scratches) in any of the frames.

"That is our ghost story. ... We enjoy it, at least!"

Oct. 29, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Space race update: The Canadian-based da Vinci Project won't be launching its WildFire rocket before its initial launch license runs out on Nov. 1, team leader Brian Feeney said today. In fact, the rocket, designed for piloted suborbital spaceflight, isn't quite finished yet, he told me.

Feeney said the da Vinci / GoldenPalace.com space effort was making a fresh round of arrangements for insurance and a government license for later this year.

"We're definitely targeting something that's to happen this year," Feeney said. "We're looking at total completion of the rocket and everything sometime in November."

Once the rocket is ready, it has to be trucked out from Toronto to the launch site in Kindersley, Saskatchewan — which is about a four-day trip. Then it will take a week or more to set up the launch facilities and "practice, practice, practice," Feeney said. The flight plan calls for the Wildfire to be lofted up to an altitude of more than 70,000 feet (21 to 24 kilometers) on a balloon, then launched with Feeney aboard.

A couple of months ago, Feeney was locked in a race with the team behind SpaceShipOne for the $10 million X Prize. He had hoped to get Wildfire off the ground in early October, but postponed the launch due to rocket construction snags. SpaceShipOne easily won the X Prize on Oct. 4, and Feeney said his team was following a more deliberate pace now that someone else has taken the $10 million.

"Without that specific pressure, we're taking every care to make sure we have the ... safest and most successful mission possible," he said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, House and Senate committee staff members are still discussing the fate of proposed legislation for private spaceflight. David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee, said there were "still significant differences over to what extent the FAA should be able to review the vehicles for safety."

Proposals and counterproposals are being traded, and it's not clear whether a deal will be struck in time for a post-election lame-duck session, but Goldston said "everyone very much wants to get a final deal on the bill."

"Usually the hardest thing is to get everyone to agree that it's worth trying," Goldston observed, "and we do have agreement on that."

Oct. 29, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Caltech: 'Galactic Ghoul' rears its spooky head
NASA: 'World Wind' is a hot download
The Economist: The conquest of complexity
PBS: 'Animals Behaving Badly'

Oct. 28, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Make your own moon: This week the international Cassini probe provided the best look yet at what lies beneath a shroud of smog on Titan, Saturn's biggest and most mysterious moon. Now it's your turn: Create your own artistic vision of a Titanic landscape, and you could win a trip to the European Space Agency's mission control in Germany when Titan has its next star turn.

Image: Descent to Titan
Craig Attebery / NASA
This artist's conception shows the Huygens probe descending toward the surface of Titan. The Planetary Society's "Imagining Titan" contest invites you to provide your own artistic vision.
The trip would come courtesy of the Planetary Society, a California-based space advocacy group that has just kicked off its "Imagining Titan" contest. Between now and Nov. 28, artists aged 10 and up can send in their renditions, online or on paper. A judging panel will select 24 prize-winners, and the artist behind the very best entry will be flown to the ESA's Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, to be on hand when the European-built Huygens probe descends through Titan's atmosphere.

Huygens hitchhiked a seven-year-long ride to the Saturnian system aboard the Cassini spacecraft, and is scheduled to be released toward Titan on Christmas. The final descent is due to take place Jan. 14.

What will the probe see on the way down? Will it splash down into a hydrocarbon sea, or land on Titanic ice? No one knows for sure yet, and that's a big part of the fun. Two "Special Prizes" will be awarded for the artwork that most closely resembles what Huygens will actually see.

For inspiration, you can take a look at the Planetary Society's Huygens gallery, which draws upon artwork from ESA and NASA, as well as real-life pictures from Cassini's flyby. But don't just trace someone else's Titan — let your imagination take wing.

Besides the Darmstadt trip, the Planetary Society is offering certificates, mission patches, posters, pins and other goodies as prizes. Be sure to check the full details for contest eligibility and submission requirements. Winners will be notified privately in December, and the Planetary Society will publish the full list of top artists by Jan. 10.

Oct. 28, 2004 | 9:45 p.m. ET
Scientific subjects for the water cooler:
The Guardian: Can science survive the election?
Slate: Who got to name the tiny humans?
Discovery.com: Every day was Halloween in Venice
The Independent: Why life speeds up as you age

Oct. 27, 2004 | 9:10 p.m. ET
Supernova ‘Survivor’: It's a survivor story worthy of reality TV or a prime-time newsmagazine — that is, if supernovas had TV networks. Two stars once had a happy life together, but one of them blew itself to smithereens, in a fireworks display visible on Earth 432 years ago. The other star was knocked outward by the supernova blast, but managed to survive to this day, keeping a well-hidden secret: that it actually contributed to its companion's blow-up.

Celebrity adds to the story's appeal. The tale relates to the supernova spotted on Nov. 11, 1572, by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe — a cosmic blast that changed the way the Western world thought about the heavens.

"This was at the end of the Dark Ages in Europe, and these observations were an important piece of evidence that the heavens were not immutable," Alex Filippenko, an astronomy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a research report released today.

Filippenko is part of an international team led by Pilar Ruiz-Lapuente of the University of Barcelona. As reported in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, Ruiz-Lapuente and her colleagues spotted the survivor star in imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery represents the first direct evidence for a long-held theory about supernovas.

The blast that Brahe saw is known as a Type IA supernova — an explosion that follows such a standard pattern that it's used to measure the expansion rate of the universe. Astronomers believe such blasts are sparked when material from one star spills onto a nearby companion star, like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Image: Tycho's Supernova
NASA / ESA / CXO / Univ. of Barcelona
The image on the left is a wide-field, false-color view of Tycho's Supernova Remnant, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The central square represents the area covered by the image on the right, which was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Tycho G appears to be a sunlike companion star that was blasted away by the supernova explosion.

When Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 3 was focused on Brahe's Supernova Remnant in 1999 and 2003, astronomers spotted a star like the sun — only billions of years older — hurtling from the scene of the blast. "The suspect star is moving away at breakneck speed and is at the same distance as the supernova remnant," Filippenko said.

Further observations, made using telescopes in the Canary Islands and Hawaii, convinced the researchers that the speeding star, designated Tycho G, was the long-sought supernova survivor.

"There was no previous evidence pointing to any specific kind of companion star out of the many that had been proposed," Ruiz-Lapuente said. "Here we have identified a clear path: The feeding star is similar to our sun, slightly more aged."

From Brahe's day to the present, supernovas have been linked to such cosmic questions as the age of the universe , the origins of life's building blocks — and even the rise of humanity . Now astronomers are unraveling the origins of supernovas as well. For more, check out the photos and background available through the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite and the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes.

Oct. 27, 2004 | 9:10 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Sunspots most active in 8,000 years
Scientific American: Music and the brain
Science News: Reworking intuition
Florida Today: Scrapped space plane to be reborn

Oct. 26, 2004 | 8:10 p.m. ET
The greening of rocketry: SpaceShipOne used an innovative "rubber-and-laughing-gas" hybrid rocket engine in its history-making spaceflights — primarily because of the safety associated with the fuel (hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene, or HTPB, a common ingredient in tire rubber) and the oxidizer (nitrous oxide, which is the "laughing gas" once widely used as an anesthetic).

Unlike most conventional rocket fuels, the chemicals can be transported without fear of explosion, and if something had gone wrong in flight, SpaceShipOne's pilots could have shut down the engine merely by closing the valve on the nitrous oxide supply.

But how do such engines score on the environmental scale? That's the question that was on the mind of Cosmic Log reader Mark Sean.

"I've opened inquiries at both the EPA and the OAR [the Environmental Protection Agency and its Office of Air and Radiation], but have not gotten any substantial response, either confirming or denying the safety of burning HTPB's and nitrous oxide," Sean wrote.

Environmental clearance was one of the elements required for SpaceShipOne to get its launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. In the rocket industry, the HTPB/nitrous oxide system is considered a relatively benign way to launch a spacecraft. For specifics, I turned to the aRocket discussion list — and one of the experts who responded to my inquiry was Korey Kline, propulsion designer and director of research and development for Florida-based Environmental Aeroscience Corp.

EAC was one of the two companies in the engine competition for SpaceShipOne, and although California-based SpaceDev won out, Kline's company still played a supporting role in the rocket plane's success — and Kline is a big proponent of hybrid engines that use nitrous oxide, or N2O.

"The N2O hybrids have relatively clean exhaust products, second only to LOX [liquid oxygen]/hydrogen!" Kline wrote. "The oxidizer-to-fuel ratio is typically 6 to 1, so the bulk of the exhaust gases are superheated nitrogen from the N2O.  As you know, the air we breathe is typically 78 percent inert nitrogen."

Even when small amounts of metals are added to the HTPB-based fuel, the exhaust contains less carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide than traditional liquid oxygen/kerosene propellants, Kline said. The only other substantial chemicals in Kline's list of exhaust products are hydrogen and water — plus aluminum oxide, for the metallized fuel.

Other rocket enthusiasts concurred with Kline's assessment. "Even if SpaceShipTwo became downright popular, the exhaust products are a tiny fraction of what a single NASA shuttle launch produces," Jerry Irvine observed.

SpaceShipOneBill Claybaugh, a former business adviser at NASA, noted that nitrous oxide "is a greenhouse gas more than 300 times more 'efficient' than CO2 — leakage and spillage of the oxidizer is probably the greatest environmental effect."

However, he added, the total environmental damage done by suborbital tourist flights would still be "close to unmeasurable" when compared with other industrial greenhouse-gas sources.

Looking ahead, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and his team intend to stick with hybrid rocket engines for Virgin Galactic's future fleet of SpaceShipTwo planes. During a presentation at this month's Space Frontier Conference, Rutan hinted that EAC might be back in the running to provide the SpaceShipTwo engines. Meanwhile, SpaceDev wants to extend its hybrid rocket technology to a spaceship project it calls the "Dream Chaser. " So you can expect to see a lot more not-so-alien hybrids on the road to outer space.

Oct. 26, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: First silicon laser pulses with life
Scientific American: A science-minded voter's guide
Wired: E-voting vendors hand over software
Archaeology: The alchemist's lab (via Daily Grail)

Oct. 25, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Share your scares: As if the presidential campaign weren't scary enough, this week is also prime time for ghosts, goblins and other things that go bump in the night. There's something deep within us that loves a harmless scare — for an example of the appeal, you need look no further than "The Grudge," this week's top movie on the box-office list.

Research has suggested that we instinctively seek out scary stories to prepare ourselves for truly terrifying real-life experiences, and there's a special satisfaction to be had when we find out that what seemed so scary was really just a creaky floorboard or a trick of the light.

For this Halloween, I'd like you to share your ghost stories around the Cosmic Log campfire: Have you experienced something unsettling that turned out to be purely baffling ... or pure bunkum? Send in your tale, and I'll publish a selection on Friday.

If you need inspiration, you can turn to these past Cosmic Log entries on out-of-body experiences, on UFO encounters, and on how to unravel ghost stories. There are also plenty of Web resources on the paranormal, ranging from Paraseek and the Fortean Times to the Skeptiseum and the Skeptic Magazine News Page.

Oct. 25, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
X Prize party for the public: There's good news for rocket fans who can't afford the $275 or more for a seat at the X Prize award banquet, scheduled for Nov. 6: The trophy and the oversized $10 million check will be handed to SpaceShipOne's team that morning, during a public rally at St. Louis University High School's athletic field, next to the St. Louis Science Center.

Center spokeswoman Dorothy Hutchinson-Gross says SpaceShipOne creator Burt Rutan will accept the check. The whole team, including billionaire backer Paul Allen and space pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, will be in attendance. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who is commissioning a fleet of SpaceShipTwos for future suborbital tourist flights, will also be at the ceremony, Hutchinson-Gross says.

The rally begins at 9:30 a.m. CT Nov. 6, with the check presentation at 10:30 a.m. After the ceremony, Rutan, Melvill, Binnie and other Scaled Composites team members will be available at the science center until about 3:30 p.m. for chats, autographs and photos, Hutchinson-Gross says. The day finishes up with the 6 p.m. black-tie-optional banquet.

Oct. 25, 2004 | 7:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
NASA Watch: Backdoor insight into Kerry space policy?
The Guardian: Europe leads space race to find E.T.
National Geographic: Coffee-laced log burns cleaner
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Quantum physics for Red Sox Nation

Oct. 22, 2004 | 3:20 p.m. ET
Cast your sci-fi ballot: After weeks of preparation, it's finally election day. ... No, not that Election Day, but the start of the voting period in our "Red, White and Bluetopia" contest for political science-fiction.

Over the past week, we've published entries from six finalists who have sketched out positive visions associated with the Republicans, the Democrats and "neither of the above." Between now and the day before the Nov. 2 presidential election, you can cast a ballot for your favorite entry using our unscientific Live Vote.

This is structured like a primary election, so two winners will be selected for prizes: the top vote-getter, and the highest-rated tale in a different color category. Thus, the two finishers could be Republican Red and Democratic Blue, or one of those plus a neutral White, but not two of the same color.

Each of the two winners will receive a $20 Amazon.com gift certificate that can be spent on a "Fahrenheit 9/11" DVD, a copy of the book "Unfit for Command," a Ralph Nader T-shirt or whatever else they want.

You can find all the entries below, in backward chronological order, or you can consult this hot-linked recap as a refresher:

Entry 1 (Redtopia): "The Keys to Success," by Robert Cornell, looks back at the early 21st century from history class in 2042.

Entry 2 (Redtopia): "The View From the Top," by Tom Hill, looks down on Earth from a Constellation-class starship 2.9 million kilometers away.

Entry 3 (Bluetopia): "Giving Away the World's Most Valuable Technology," by Stephen Kraus, looks ahead to the AE Prize and the fuel-cell era.

Entry 4 (Bluetopia): "Business Triumphant," by Rob Preece, looks provocatively at the economic power that could be unleashed by a "right-D" state of mind.

Entry 5 (Whitetopia):"Rainbow-topia," by Ross Mulker, looks at the State of the Union during a time when elections have been replaced by a lottery.

Entry 6 (Whitetopia): "First Marshall Package Arrives on Earth," by Michael Huang, looks at a time when we just might need some Red Planet relief.

The winners will be determined at noon ET Nov. 1. After that cutoff, winners will have to provide contact information for transferring the gift certificates. If you have any follow-up ideas about how politics can move beyond party lines in the future, feel free to drop me a line and I'll provide a sampling of the feedback in the run-up to the election. And get ready for a couple of new reader-participation exercises next week, having to do with paranormal experiences and high-tech toys.

Oct. 22, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: Girl power in evolution
'Nova' on PBS: 'The Missing Link'
NASA: Blinding flashes in outer space
Wired.com: Chips coming to a brain near you

Oct. 21, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Election science alert: The editor-in-chief of America's most prestigious scientific journal is adding his voice to the chorus of concern over paperless electronic-voting systems. In an online editorial (PDF file), Donald Kennedy of the journal Science sums up the emerging scientific view on the reliability of such systems.

'"The consensus view, with which a few will disagree, is that for traceability, electronic machines should provide for a voter-verifiable audit trail in which the computerized system prints a paper ballot that is read and verified by the voter," Kennedy writes. "Such paper confirmation can be given to the voters privately, as well as retained by officials for later verification."

Kennedy notes that few of the e-voting machines out there for the 2004 election have such a "paper trail" capability — and then he sketches out some worrisome scenarios for the November elections. What happens, for example, if a Bush victory depends on a razor-thin win in Ohio, and it turns out that the paperless-vote totals disagree with the exit polls?

"Thus, the aftermath of a savagely partisan U.S. election turns into a field day for conspiracy theorists, and trust in government takes another hit," Kennedy says.

Such concerns have been rumbling among activists and computer-security experts for months, but they sound more authoritative when they come from the scientific establishment. The early problems reported in Florida only add to the sense of unease.

Kennedy doesn't offer up any instant prescription for e-voting headaches — although he notes that the concerns already raised by computer scientists have led election officials and e-voting vendors to beef up security. Other observers have noted that the e-voting debate has added to the push toward on-paper absentee voting.

Get yourself up to speed by clicking through "Making Your Vote Count," our special report on the voting process, and our Learn how voting systems work, from paper ballots to e-voting. interactive. Then follow along with us as we watch for polling-place glitches and showdowns on Election Day and beyond.

Oct. 21, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
X Prize party news: The invitations are going out for the X Prize award gala, scheduled Nov. 6 at the St. Louis Science Center. We initially reported that the soiree, during which SpaceShipOne's team is to get its $10 million check, would be a $500-a-plate affair. However, the online reservation form (PDF form) sets out a more complex fee schedule.

If you take a tight-fisted approach to aviation history, you can opt for "Ground Control" seating at $275 a ticket. The "Starship" option, at $800 per couple, will get you closer to the stage, and the "White Knight" package is even more exclusive, at $1,500 per couple. As previously reported, you can call 314-286-4633 for more information. The registration deadline is Nov. 1, and the St. Louis Science Center reports that it's already receiving plenty of faxed-in forms.

Meanwhile, one-time X Prize contenders are quietly working on their own launch preparations. The leader of the Canadian da Vinci Project team, Brian Feeney, told me today that "we're still moving toward a launch" from the prairies of Saskatchewan — but liftoff could conceivably come later than Nov. 1, when the team's existing launch license expires.

Feeney pointed out that the license is determined by the term of the project's launch insurance. If the da Vinci / GoldenPalace.com space effort needed more time, the insurance and the license could be put back into force for a later time frame, he said.

"Having climbed so many hurdles in this project, that doesn't even fall into the hurdle category," Feeney told me.

In the meantime, the "Cape Kindersley" office in Saskatchewan will be closed down until local authorities are notified about the timing of the da Vinci Launch, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix's Web site reports. (Scroll down to the last item.)

And on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, the Space Transport Corp. is still working toward another test launch of its Rubicon rocket, following up on August's blow-up . But on its Web site, Space Transport says the test will likely be "a private affair" in late October or early November, with the results posted afterward.

Oct. 21, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
The Guardian: What lies beneath
Defense Tech: Pentagon 'hearts' NASCAR
NASA: Saturn's rough around the edges
Archaeology Magazine: Cooking ancient recipes

Oct. 20, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Politics beyond party lines: Do you think you could do a better job than the major political parties when it comes to charting a course for the long-term future? In our "Red, White and Bluetopia" contest, some Cosmic Log readers gave it a try, coming up with science-fiction mini-stories that followed a road not likely to be taken by the Republicans or Democrats.

This "none-of-the-above" category is known as Whitetopia — that is, a political utopia that avoids Republican Red as well as Democratic Blue policies. The Whitetopia category yielded the most entries, and six semifinal entries were reviewed to come up with the two finalists published below.

Starting Friday, you'll be able to vote for your favorite entries in Red, White or Blue. The biggest vote-getters in the top two categories, as of noon ET Nov. 1, will win $20 gift certificates. Do you have your own idea for taking politics beyond party lines? Send a quick note — no more than, say, 100 words — and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

Entry 5 (Whitetopia):
"Rainbow-topia," by Ross Murker:
Actually, things have been going very well since the election revolts of 2008: No more expense of campaigning, conventions, elections, no more mudslinging, no more political advertising clogging our entertainment media — just a simple lottery draw from among citizens who meet the criteria: They're over 35, they were born in the United States, they have served at least four years in an active U.S. armed forces branch, and they're willing to serve a standard two-year term as president.

Taxes have been much easier to bear since they did away with the thousands of pages of tax codes and brought the issue down to its simplest form: 18 cents of every dollar earned, collected from every tax entity, whether citizen, trust, or corporation, no matter where on the globe the dollars were earned, as long as the tax entity resides, maintains citizenship or licensure, or even does the majority of its business, within U.S. borders. All those exceptions were so wasteful. It's a great feeling knowing everyone gets truly equal treatment under the laws.

Speaking of equal treatment, have you seen the overhaul of the punishment statutes? It seems that murderers will now actually spend more time in prison than drug dealers, and child rapists will no longer have special protection inside prisons. Oh, and the bankruptcy rewrite was long overdue — no more "scaling" of what's allowed to be kept based on the fictional wealth one had previously. Equal treatment under the laws indeed — how refreshing!

Scaling fines to address severity of various crimes was a nice change, with all those automakers paying per-ton fines for the pollution their products generated before the switch to bio. So was the rewrite in product liability law: The use of a product finally and properly determines where liability resides, rather than which side can afford the best lawyers.

Personal responsibility is on the upswing, although that wave of vigilantism that swept the country a while back was probably somewhat overdone. Admit it, though: Wasn't it fun seeing the crack-dealers begging for admission to the jails so the crowds wouldn't get them? Would've been the highest-rated TV ever if it wasn't such a huge public participation set of events...

It's great that younger people are also free and being taught wherever their vouchers and interests lead them. Basic literacy is still taught in public schools, but once that test is satisfactorily passed, it's up to the student, parents and whatever guides they trust. The increase in job and overall satisfaction has been truly wonderful to see.

Yes, I'd say we're much better off, as a family, a community and a country — I just wonder why it took us so long to realize that "We, the People" refers to, well, us!

Thank you, fellow citizens of the United States of America, for these few moments of your time. As always, if you have any suggestions, ideas or concerns, you may address them to me at President@whitehouse.gov. I'm Ross Murker, your president. Our nation and the state of our Union still stands strong. Good night.

Entry 6 (Whitetopia):
"First Marshall Package Arrives on Earth,"
by Michael Huang:
Thursday, December 23 — The first aid package sent under the New Marshall Plan has arrived in the United States of America. The 60-metric-ton package — containing food, life support systems and agricultural, industrial and communications equipment — landed successfully in California. The package was launched nine months ago from Mars City Spaceport.

The New Marshall Plan, announced last year by President Kennan, will deliver humanitarian and economic aid to Earth nations recovering from the Third World War. It is modeled on the American-funded reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War.

Oct. 20, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Virtual newsstand on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Auras may be generated in the brain
Discover Magazine: Bring back the Buddha
National Geographic: Was Darwin wrong?
Scientific American: Heartbeat poetry

Oct. 19, 2004 | 7:30 p.m. ET
Dispatches from Bluetopia: What would America look like under the visions put forward by the presidential campaigns? We've heard a lot about the nightmare scenarios for Sen. John Kerry, as described by President Bush ... and vice versa. But there's been relatively little about the best-case scenarios for the long-range future, other than Bush's hopes for space exploration and Kerry's hopes for stem-cell research .

This week's "Red, White and Bluetopia" contest is aimed at correcting that, by giving proponents of Republican Red and Democratic Blue policies an opportunity to extrapolate those policies into the sci-fi future. On Monday, we started with the two Red finalists. Today we present the Blue finalists, and on Wednesday we'll publish the two White ("neither of the above") finalists. You'll be able to vote for your favorites starting Friday, with the winners announced on election eve.

Entry 3 (Bluetopia):
"Giving Away the World’s Most Valuable Technology,"
by Stephen Kraus
Although John Kerry’s surprising easy victory in the 2004 was driven in large part by unrest in Iraq, it was also driven by a shrewd maneuver engineered by a latecomer to the campaign: Ragin’ Cajun James Carville.  Carville’s brainstorm:  Create a simple, 10-point, voter-friendly platform — the “Blueprint for the Future,” styled after the “Contract with America,” which ushered in the short-lived Gingrich revolution of the early ’90s.  Where Al Gore had failed to make the case that he could represent the people in his “people versus the powerful” paradigm, Kerry was successful in positioning himself as the “candidate of the future” while painting Bush as symbol of the past.

It turned out that Kerry’s Pillar No. 4 would be the first tipping point of the 21st century: “Make the United States the world leader in alternative energy technologies.”  On the stump, he found the eloquence that had previously eluded him:

“Four decades ago, John F. Kennedy challenged this nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the decade was out.  Today, I challenge the best and brightest of this nation to land us in a new era of world leadership, and to prove that our technological prowess knows no bounds.  We lead the world in every form of technology except one.  When I become president, we will lead the world in every form of technology, bar none.  I challenge some American to step forward, to be the next Henry Ford, the next Thomas Edison.”

Of course, this high-road talk was very different from John Edwards’ constant campaign refrain about “George Bush and his buddies from Enron” wanting to keep our nation dependent on the archaic technology of fossil fuels, and destroy the environment in the process.  Regardless of their stylistic differences, the Kerry-Edwards Blueprint for the Future caught the imagination of America, and swept both into office.

Kerry’s clean-energy initiative didn’t have the budget of the Apollo program.  But borrowing a page from the X Prize, which ushered in the era of commercial space flight, the government created a multibillion-dollar alternative energy (AE) prize subsidized in part by Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Oprah Winfrey and Sam Walton’s offspring.  The result was an influx of mildly crazy entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. They engineered a breakthrough in fuel-cell technology that revolutionized how energy is created, transmitted and stored throughout the world.  Suddenly, energy was clean and virtually free.

Certainly Kerry deserves much of the credit for inspiring the AE Prize.  But its worldwide impact resulted from a crucial decision by President Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Thomas Friedman, who captured the White House when Kerry was unable to run for re-election due to injuries arising from a freak windsurfing accident. Their brainstorm: Give the fuel-cell technology away.

Clinton's strategy was inspired in part by the success of open-source operating systems such as Linux : Given away free, they opened up other lines of business, such as consulting, for companies with the appropriate expertise.  Although the United States gave the basic fuel-cell technology away, solving energy crises throughout the world, Detroit made the best fuel-cell cars, Boeing made the best fuel-cell planes, and so on. Just as digital technology led to more documents and thus more paper being used, rather than the “paperless office” which never emerged, the markets for these devices using fuel cells exploded, leading an economic renaissance domestically.

Abroad, ripple effects were felt as well. Oil-based monarchies such as Saudi Arabia fell, giving way to the beachheads for democracy and equality in the Middle East that Iraq never became.  President Clinton sent her husband Bill to the Middle East, where he was able capitalize on the new optimism to broker the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord he so narrowly missed as president.  Carbon dioxide levels decreased, the greenhouse effect subsided, and the ensuing enthusiasm for preserving the environment led to a boom in conservation and education efforts throughout the world.

The foreign-policy inconsistencies and the perceived arrogance that hampered America’s image abroad gave way to a new image for America, one more consistent with her self-image: a leader, a beacon of democracy, a liberator of humanity, architect of the 21st century.

Entry 4 (Bluetopia):
"Business Triumphant," by Rob Preece:
Scott Anglewood switched mode to audio on his latest eBook so he could keep his eyes on the road. Not that he needed to: His new Lincoln drove itself. Still, he liked to override when he saw a chance to pick up some time — and time was money.

He was late again. Lisa wouldn't be happy, but she had her own business designing foods for the latest concept restaurants. She'd understand.

He did override when he saw the legless man begging on the side of the road.

"Spare me 20 bucks?"  The Lincoln's air conditioning automatically picked up when it sensed the odor seeping through the open window.

Scott thrust out his business card.  "My company makes cyber-prosthetics.  You can refit yourself and be as good as new.  Get a job or whatever.  No reason you should have to panhandle."

"Yeah, sure.  And how am I going to pay for that?"

"Take out a loan.  You're worth it.  Once you're on your feet, you'll be able to pay it back in no time."

"You think that's pretty funny, don't you, rich guy?  Back on my feet — very funny.  But legs or no, I got no job. Who's going to hire me?"

Scott was losing sympathy fast.  "Then start your own company.  Like I did."  Pretty much everyone he knew had started their own companies. America didn't have a lot of jobs working for someone else any more.  You had to use your creativity to create something new, not use your muscles to re-create billions of the same old thing.  The Chinese and Indians were too good at the mass production stuff.

"I lost my legs fighting for my country. I think maybe my country owes me something for that."

"Contact the VA office. Or universal health care. They'll pay for your legs if you can't.  I've got to go."

"But how about a few twenties?"

"Sorry, I've got no change."

Lisa was waiting for him, looking gorgeous as always, in a one-time dress that uncovered parts of her body while he watched, flashing back to opacity just when his eyes started to focus on whatever was revealed.

"I thought those were old-fashioned."

"Everything old is new again.  You know that."  She ran a hand across his smooth cheek.  "Looks like you finally went in for a permashave.  It'll make things more comfortable when we smooch."

All of a sudden, Scott was in a hurry.  The Chamber of Commerce meeting was important, of course.  He got lots of business from the networking he did there — and Lisa got even more.  But a night alone with Lisa was worth sacrificing a few bucks.  Unfortunately, though, Lisa liked to draw out the suspense, make him wait, impatiently, until she decided she was ready.

"Come on.  I got a new car, I'll drive."

She had one of the new solar jobs, practically weightless and actually environmentally positive, according to the sales material. Scott preferred the weight of a steel and plastic vehicle and good old-fashioned fuel-cell technology to power it.  Still, Lisa was more into style than he was, and hers was the more impressive conveyance.  It would get them noticed at the COC meeting, let Lisa brag about the styles she was bringing to the dinner table.

He figured the COC meeting was practically the same as the ones his father would have gone to — if his father hadn't been a union man rather than an entrepreneur.  A fast-talking inspirational speaker wasted a few minutes, then they got into politics.

"We need a more business-friendly government," Scott observed to the woman on his right — a woman whose right eye was one of his products, a special that let her zoom in, eliminating the need for a microscope, telescope or any other sort of scope.

"Business has never been better," Martha reminded him.

"Yeah, but taxes stink." Nobody ever liked paying taxes, although the high income of the all-entrepreneurial economy made the burden bearable.

"Oh, Scott.  You are so right-D.  Don't you think Scott is a right-D, Amy?"

Of course Amy would think so.  She thought anyone who didn't mind taking occasional bucks from the government to deliver health care products was right-D.  She also disliked Scott because she'd had a crush on Lisa going back for eons — even after she'd hooked up with Martha.

"Maybe so," he said.  "But just because they're wrong about some things doesn't mean they're wrong about everything."

"Hey, break it up, you guys.  Josh here has finally had his breakthrough.  You really want to hear about it."

Josh had been on the verge of a breakthrough since 2005, so Scott wasn't holding his breath.  On the other hand, letting Martha and Amy gang up on him wasn't a great plan.  "What do you have, Josh?  Finally cure cancer?"

Josh gave that the half-laugh it deserved.  "Diabetes. One of the 3,000 stem-cell lines that went public domain last year did the job.  Poof — no more insulin, no more needles, no more people losing their feet and sight."

Scott joined in the applause.  Josh would be rich.  Well, he'd paid his dues, even worked for Scott for a while until he built up the funding he needed for his own lab.

The rest of the COC meeting was same-old.  Scott got a few business leads — one from an Egyptian, and another from a Frenchman of all things. Lisa persuaded a major Chinese restaurant chain to trial-market one of her dinner plans.

Traffic was light as they returned home, Lisa's solar job barely grinding along at 70 because she'd parked it in the shade that afternoon and the batteries were running down.

"You really are a right-D," she murmured to him as she switched the car onto full auto and cuddled up next to him.  "You don't really think things would be better if the hard-R's hadn't imploded back in ’04, do you?  I mean, they preached the same low-tax pro-business line you talk."

He shuddered.  Before he'd decided on robotic prosthetics, he'd studied economics.  "Come on, Lisa.  Without some sort of health care system, we could never have had the explosion in entrepreneurship that created the new economy. Plus, they wanted to drive the gays out of the country — half our best ideas came from them. Besides, I'm a scientist.  And a 5 percent tax rate isn't really killing us."

Lisa nodded.  "They said that letting gays get married would mean an end to marriage, and look at us. We've been dating for years and no ring."

Scott grinned.  "I'm going to take that as a proposal.  And the answer is yes."

Oct. 18, 2004 | 8:40 p.m. ET
Dispatches from Redtopia: The presidential campaign is in full mudslinging mode as the candidates reach the two-week countdown. With so much negative campaigning, it seems almost like a science-fiction concept to contemplate the positive long-term visions for Republicans, Democrats and others. So we're only too happy to oblige with the "Red, White and Bluetopia" political science-fiction contest.

A couple of weeks ago we solicited science-fiction plot treatments that were inspired by the positive political visions of "Red" and "Blue" America, as well as "White" entries that hewed to neither party line. Over the next three days, we'll roll out six finalists, selected from the entries received: two each for "Red," "White" and "Blue." If you have any feedback on the entries, send it in and I'll pass a selection along on Thursday. Beginning Friday, you can cast your ballot for your favorite science-fiction tale.

The top vote-getter as of noon ET Nov. 1, the day before Election Day, will receive a $20 Amazon.com gift certificate, as will the highest finisher of a different color.

We'll start with the two Red entries. Thanks to all who entered, and may the best visionary win:

Entry 1 (Redtopia):
"The Keys to Success," by Robert Cornell:
Steven sat at his terminal, as his freshman history class was about to start. He found history particularly compelling these days, as they had just started studies of the early 21st century. Study of this era caused Steven to think about how many things in 2042 he and his friends took for granted — and how incredible it was that Americans endured so much back then.

It was so easy to take for granted that, these days, no one has 25 percent of their income — or any of their earnings — stolen from their paychecks by the government. And yet, those at the turn of century had been tolerating that very thing for so long!

It was easy to take for granted that, these days, nobody — no "institution" — cared about racial or ethnic demographics. And yet, in those days, "race" was actually used to allocate admissions to the very university that Steven was attending!

It was easy to take for granted that the democratic principle of equal representation had taken hold in every nation on the planet — that tyranny, oppression, persecution and religious jihad had evaporated from the Middle East and everywhere else. It amazed Steven that once there were actually Americans who opposed fighting for the very freedoms everyone enjoyed and took for granted these days!

Steven was excited that today they would be examining the root causes behind the revolutionary changes he and his friends now took for granted.

Chapter One: "Democracy, Liberty, Capitalism and the Republican Party — the Keys to Success."

He savored every word.

Entry 2 (Redtopia):
"The View From the Top," by Tom Hill
The camera view is filled with a somewhat cluttered-looking spacecraft interior. In the middle, a thirtyish woman hovers. "Greetings to the people of Earth! This is Elizabeth Short, commander of the Endurance. We asked for a live downlink today because it is the halfway point in our journey to check out this craft for the length of a return trip from Mars. We've been on this journey for just under two and a half months, and today, for the first time since we left our refueling station, we are moving back toward our home. We wanted to take this time to share something special with you.

"As everyone knows, this is the second trial run of a Constellation-class spacecraft to shake it down for a long mission. These ships, and the others like them, have served us well as lunar ferries, but it's time to stretch their capabilities a little more. We've added a lot of supplies in a logistics module, and a lot of equipment to keep us in clean air, clean water and warmth for 200 days, allowing us to complete one long orbit around Earth and collect the prize. The first try to certify these craft for the trip was cut short by a carbon dioxide filter that..."

Her glance moves past the camera for a moment.

"Folks, my cameraman just reminded me that you didn't tune in tonight to revisit recent space events. Today, as our craft hovers over our home planet at almost 2.9 million kilometers, we're going to turn our ship so we get to look back on Earth. Normally, this is something we don't do because takes a lot of the sun off our solar panels, but for this special occasion, it's the right thing."

The camera pans over her shoulder, through the window visible behind and out into the depths of space. After focusing on a bluish dot, the view zooms in, and the dot resolves into two thin crescents, lit from the right side. The larger one has the land, sea and cloud patterns familiar to all those who live on Earth, while the smaller one looks familiar in color but not in pattern, as the moon is closer to Endurance, and people are receiving their first live views of the far side of the moon.

As the planet resolves itself and becomes larger, the camera operator's jerkiness becomes more apparent, until he mounts his eye to the world in place. Then the view is motionless, and the hyper-sensitive camera provides some of the best views possible of Earth from a distance of nearly 3 million kilometers.

There is a moment of silence, and then the commander's voice comes over the link again. "Like our time on this mission, or even on our home planet, the time we can spend looking back in this way is fleeting. As we look upon this cradle of humanity, we on the Endurance are reminded of the amazing things that humankind can accomplish when they set their minds to a goal.

"No matter what your religious preference, even if it is 'none of the above,' this image has to invoke a powerful emotion within you. We are four people, in a small bubble of gases a long long way from home. Yet we are connected to all of you on the surface, and we look forward to seeing you again soon.

"I'm going to be quiet now, and let the scene speak for itself, after taking this last moment to wish everyone below a very Merry Christmas."

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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