Thursday, November 27, 2014


I rise this morning to celebrate THINKSgiving.

I offer my thoughts (my “thinks”) to the agricultural scientists and transportation engineers who have made food so abundant and available that, as a percentage, fewer people now go hungry than at any time in history.

I offer my thinks to the medical researchers, medical technologists, and chemical engineers who create new medicines and techniques to make our lives longer, our pain less, and our babies less likely to die in infancy.

I give thinks to the construction engineers, textile engineers, and manufacturing engineers who make it possible for us to be housed and clothed in a fashion that would make kings of only a hundred years ago weep with envy.

I offer my thinks to the computer scientists and telecommunications engineers enable us to keep in touch with friends and family around the globe.

I encourage all of you today to take a moment and give your thinks to the rational thinkers who have used their thinks to make your lives richer, longer, more comfortable.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

"I grew up in the future"

I just recently finished listening to the audiobook of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. (I highly recommend both the novel series and the audiobook series, BTW). And I have just started listening to the audiobook of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

In the latter, the main character is relating his autobiography, and the book invokes the image of The Chronicler setting out a blank piece of paper to begin capturing the narration. This image sent my mind off on a tangent of how I would choose to start narrating my biography (if there were ever reason to bother capturing it at all).

In the former, a society of rather sociopathic mages have a "grey name" (or an image or sigil) that they can and do use commonly because it gives other mages no power over them, and they have a "red name" which is kept secret. One of the mages is called Seamstress (with an accompanying mental sigil of a painfully pricking needle). What, I wondered, would my grey name be?

These two questions make a nice confluence with one another. When I think about my self, the mental image I had of myself from my earliest remembering, I was always yearning to travel in space and visit other planets. From my youngest years in the Gemini and Apollo eras, through the 70s when I was captivated by Gerard K. O'Niell's visions of orbiting space colonies and waited eagerly for the launching of the Space Shuttle, I imagined myself going "out there", beyond Earth. Even in my mature adult years, when it was clear I would probably never escape Earth's gravity, my inner mental image abjured that defeat and clung tenaciously to being clad in a pressure suit and floating in the black. So I imagine my grey name would be something evoking that space-travelling adventurer. Nothing so ostentatious as Peter Quill's "Star Lord" in Guardians of the Galaxy. Just something simple, like "Spaceman".

And my autobiography would begin with, "I grew up in the future."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mars One will not be Utopia

I just managed to watch about 20 minutes of the pilot episode of the "reality" (and I use the quotation marks advisedly) TV show Utopia. That was all I could manage to stomach. And it was everything I hope the Mars One documentary shows will not be. Seeing it, and knowing that this is what so many people mentally picture when the Mars One selection process is described as "Big Brother in space", I can understand why they believe we are doomed to fail.

But I am confident that this will not be what Mars One will turn out to be. Reality TV show producers are looking for individuals who will be in conflict, who will generate drama from the tension and dissension they create. Mars One will be looking for people who can work together from the get-go, whose unity in supporting the mission will provide the common ground required to quickly put aside the sort of conflicts that the Utopia producers appear to revel in. In a typical reality show, the contestants are just that: contestants in a competition, trying to win money. And the producers have relatively little money riding on the show itself. Reality shows' inexpensive production costs are one reason they are so attractive to studios. But Mars One's candidates aren't competing for money. It is my hope that, in one sense, they're not competing at all but are instead merely trying to find the most skilled, viable combination of people to put forward for the settlement of Mars. And the Mars One team will responsible for billions of dollars of investment. They are not going to risk that kind of money on a bunch of hyped-up attention-seekers squabbling over who gets to go into the airlock first.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression Lies

Robin Williams passed away yesterday.  I am not one to be overly emotional about the passing of celebrities, or even those close to me.  (My mother passed away last week from Alzheimers', and my emotions are still a bit more muffled than I anticipated.)  But Williams' notable struggles with substance abuse and depression are generating a lot of thought-provoking articles from those who knew him well and those who only saw him on the screen.

A short piece in the The Guardian by Simon Jenkins particularly struck a chord with me:
Physical illness is something the medical profession understands. It knows what to do when the human body malfunctions and what not to do. Mental illness, if illness is the right word, seems lost in some dark age. Otherwise healthy people with every reason to be happy are found wrestling with private demons. Therapists wander the scene like surgeons on a medieval battlefield, at a loss for what to do. [emphasis mine]

For the longest time, I was That Person: the one who felt that depressed people just weren't trying hard enough; that if they chose to, they could lift themselves out of their funk and get on with having a better life.  I thought that lots of them were just attention-seekers, or were using their supposed depression as an excuse for [insert bad thing here].  And so unbeknownst to me, I was adding to the problem.  Because I wasn't aware of people around me who were struggling with depression (including, as it turned out, my own father), my attitude, mostly unspoken but probably made known one way or another, was increasing the stigma under which my depressed friends were struggling.

One way in which I now feel more like an adult (and indeed, more like a human[e] being) is having dropped that attitude.  My eyes were opened by many friends, acquaintances, and Internet personalities who have come forward to talk frankly about what it is like living with depression.  Thank you all, for your courageous efforts to educate clods like me.

This new awareness and perspective on my part is why I added the emphasis to Jenkins' quote above: "if illness is the right word".  Is it?  I'm not sure.  It strikes me as implying that mental illness is something that can be remedied.  But as Williams' death makes sadly clear, that is not necessarily the case even when one has the money, time, support, and resources he had available.  But is there a more suitable term?  Mental "condition" sounds too vague; "malfunction" sounds too mechanical; "dysfunction" seems inaccurate (e.g., my dad worked, played, worshiped, and served his whole life while carrying that burden without seeming dysfunctional).  "Imbalance"?  "Handicap"?  I simply do not know what word might be better suited than "illness" because they all bring with them some associated semantic baggage.

But I do know why even a recovering That Person such as myself struggles with how to treat our depressed friends.  If someone we know has a broken leg, we can help them maneuver around.  If they have the flu, we can bring them food and make sure they drink fluids.  We know to do these things because our friend's condition is visible and will last a known length of time.  The things they need at that time are relatively obvious.  But a friend living with depression may not give any visible clues that The Black Dog is shadowing them that day/week/month.  They may not say anything about what they need because the depression is lying to them, telling them that nothing can be done and nothing will ever get better.  This makes it difficult for us on the outside to help.  We feel impotent, stymied.  That feeling on our part can makes us hesitant to reach out.  Which makes us feel like jerks.  Double whammy for us, and leaves our friends even more isolated.

So it is my hope that the courage of Allie Brosh, Wil Wheaton, Jenny Lawson, and others is changing social attitudes, and that will have a feedback loop that makes it at least a little bit easier for those who battle depression to let us know what we can do to help and support them.  Because we do want to help.  Always remember, my friends: depression lies.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

45 Years Later...

Today is the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the Moon and Armstrong & Aldrin's moonwalk. Interestingly, my personal memories of watching the event on TV are a bit fuzzy , because I was woken by my Dad to watch it (it being well after my 8:00 bedtime).  Being such a big space fanatic as I was at the time, I don't know how it came about that I didn't lobby long and loudly to be allowed to stay up until the landing happened.
In school, we watched all the launchings and spashdowns on TV. My friends and I would pretend we were the astronauts during those moments. (One of my best friends was named Allen Bean, so Apollo 12 was a big deal for us.) During recess, the slide and the monkeybars became our lunar modules. I spent endless hours with my Major Matt Mason, Mattel's Man in Space action figure and accessories. The astronauts were my heroes and I couldn't wait to become one of them.
This lunar landing anniversary, a lot more media attention is being paid to Apollo 11, with more video and pictures popping up on popular websites than I can recall seeing in a long while. One evening this week, I was looking at some newly released still pictures from the Apollo missions that were not the usual subjects: a picture of the lunar module still nestled in the rocket fairing, taken from the command module as it maneuvered around to dock with and free the LEM; a picture of the lunar module as it ascended from the Moon, chasing the CM in order to dock so the crew could return home.
I got a distinct chill looking at these and similar pictures, this time. The men in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were doing things that had either never been done before or had only been done once, twice, or a handful of times before. Exiting the capsule for a spacewalk, tethered by just a cord? Maneuvering multi-ton craft in zero-gravity and docking with another craft? Making a soft landing of a space craft (not splashing down or making essentially a controlled crash)? Any of these things could have gone disastrously, leaving the crew drifting uncontrollably until they ran out of air, crashed, or burned up in the atmosphere.
The reason for my chill? Because, as a candidate in Mars One's astronaut program, I may one day get to attempt similar feats never before attempted by humans. Traveling beyond lunar orbit. Transiting across interplanetary space. Making a soft landing on another planet. All these will be firsts. All of them hold the potential for disaster.
I hope to display the same courage and grace under pressure that the astronaut heroes of my childhood had.

Monday, March 17, 2014

I won't attempt here to explain all the details of Mars One's plan to put permanent settlers on Mars.  But in summary, the audacious project will use technology that already exists or is in development to launch the first crew of four people to the Red Planet in 2024.  That's 10 years to iron out everything: getting to Mars, landing on Mars, and living on Mars.  And all of this is being coordinated by a private, non-profit organization that does not build any of the equipment itself.
Is this nuts?
I don't think so.  It is a longshot; a very big longshot.  Once you remove the engineering and costs associated with returning people to Earth, putting people on Mars becomes a much simpler and cheaper exercise.  The linchpin on which everything else hangs is money.  In my estimation, getting the funding will be the biggest hurdle to success.
Mars One is pursuing some very non-conventional avenues to help secure funding that, additionally, raise public awareness of the project and get people to feel engaged in it, a part of it.  A recent Indiegogo campaign raised $313K from over eight thousand funders.  Most controversial is the plan to raise funding by producing a show that follows the candidates throughout the testing and selection process, and follows the astronauts' lives on Mars.
Again, is this nuts?
Again, I don't think so.  I believe that people will have a great interest in the kinds of people who are willing to leave Earth forever.  I think they will be interested in the technology. And I think they will want an honest look at living off-planet, the kind that NASA-filtered media has not provided over the last 50 years.  Thoughts?

Pro tip...

So apparently the first thing one must do when creating a blog is to remember that you have created it, and that you need to write in it.  Blog posts don't write themselves.  Huh.  Who knew?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Living in the future!

     "It's great, living in the future."  I don't know how widespread this meme might be, but it is a relatively common observation among my friends.  This has become increasingly true as our smartphones pick up more and more capability: GPS, personal assistants, location awareness, voice dictation, etc.  Couple this with the sheer amount of information the Internet puts at our disposal, and you have a 1960s futurist's wet dream.  All we're missing are jet packs and space colonies.
     Which brings me to the point of this blog.  (A): I don't think we'll get jet packs because flying one of those would scary as hell.  (Stop and visualize it.  You're flying at least higher than most two-story houses.  Look down at your feet.  See what I mean?)  and (B): I'm trying to become a permanent settler on Mars.  Seriously.  
     If I can muster the discipline to post here regularly, this will blog will look at how life is getting more Jetsons-like all the time and how visionary groups like Mars One and SpaceX are pushing the envelope even more.