Monthly Archives: March 2013

Mars MIssions Close to Home

One of the most ambitious projects that could take place in the 21st century is a manned mission to Mars. But how does someone go about preparing for a trip like that? With lots of practice.

One example is the MARS-500 experiment, a joint mission between Russia, China, and the European Space Agency that ended in 2011. Six volunteers were locked in isolation for 520 days to simulate a complete round-trip mission to Mars and to study the pyschological effects of such a trip. They “landed” and returned safely.

Also, here are some pictures from other practice missions by the Mars Society (in the desert in Utah) and the Austrian Space Forum (in the northen Sahara).


Forging the Future with the Tip of the Pen

[Video via BOOOOOOOM!]

The use of technology is something that to a large extent distinguishes homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom and defines the development of human history. From rudimentary stone axes and knives in the pre-civilization era to smartphones and space shuttles in modern times, the evolution of our technology mirrors the development of our society and culture. But where are the proper boundaries between the use of new technology and the development of old skills? It’s not an easy question to answer. After all, old skills and tools were once new skills and tools – that is the nature of development. There is a difference, though, in that the pace of change now is faster than it has ever been, and it can be difficult to judge whether some new piece of technology makes our lives better or not. What technology constitutes a beneficial improvement depends on how you define improvement. In a constantly accelerating world, progress often means improvements in speed, cost, and efficiency. In this world, what place does the development of an outdated skill have?

Jake Weidmann is a master penman, a title that takes years to achieve and is held by only about a dozen people in the world. In an age of design software and font proliferation, the art of calligraphy has all but died out. How does Weidmann view the development of a archaic craft that is in almost every respect obsolete? In his words:

If we abdicate everything to the machines that we create then what we are doing is we’re creating a sterile world that is void of human influence. And so if we do that especially with something that is as deeply personal as handwriting is then I feel that we’re missing out a lot on each other. We’re missing out on that connection that we have with one another.

What purpose does this have? The purpose lies not so much in any finished product, but in the act of creation itself, and the practice of the craft is a personal pursuit.

i believe that we are all created in the image of God, in that we don’t only bear His image in the way that we think, the way that we act, the emotions that we have, but in our desire to create. i believe that the things that God impresses upon us, and that the things that we find we are passionate about, He was first passionate about. So i see this passion in me to create is the most intimate way that i know God.

Some more of Weidmann’s thoughts can be found in an interview here.

Because we live in a modern world of technology, the fact that I am doing everything by hand is almost a foreign concept. I get inquiries from other designers who ask me what programs I use to create my pieces, and especially my calligraphy. While I am flattered that people perceive my accuracy on level with a computer, I need to do a better job of explaining the “human factor” in my art. I am not a minimalist and I do not have a personal vendetta against technology, but I have found that the hand is still the greatest romancer of the eye. Though the average person would not be able to pick out the imperfections within a well-executed piece of art or calligraphy, the eye recognizes it as a result of the hand and is attracted to what they both have in common: the human element.

We live in a culture of the quick and easy and it has made us impatient and lazy. When you commit to something that takes work and see it through to the end, it will develop you as much as you develop it. Second, invest in art — I am not just suggesting my art, but any art that you like. We are a society that looks at everything and beholds nothing. Good art is something to behold and will bring you a sense of peace and stillness in a world in constant motion.

The continuing mission of Voyager

One of the most interesting outcomes of the space exploration push in the 60s and 70s was the Voyager program. In August 1977, Voyager 2 was launched on a mission to explore the solar system, followed shortly in September by Voyager 1 (yes, Voyager 2 was launched first, but it travels slower than 1, and has been surpassed). They’ve accomplished a lot, but as Paul Gilster notes at Centauri Dreams, they’re not yet done.

Voyager 1 completed its study of the solar system in 1980 and began its interstellar mission. Voyager 2 achieved this in 1989. At the moment, almost 36 years after their launch, the spacecraft are far out there (but not quite yet out of the solar system, depending on your definition). They’re still sending back scientific information, from such a large distance that it takes light from the Sun over 12 hours to reach them (out to Pluto takes about 5.5 hours). This makes them the farthest man-made objects ever sent out from Earth.

Their scientific missions virtually over, the spacecraft have adopted a new role as artifacts of human civilization, time capsules of everything we were when we launched them. In addition to the craft themselves, which have plenty of meaning (some thoughts on that from Matthew Battle), each of the Voyagers carries on it a Golden Record, a snapshot of our world, a collection of nature images and sounds, snippets of music from a variety of different cultures, greetings in 55 different languages.

planet montage


But space is immense. It will be 40000 years before Voyager 1 comes close to any other planetary system, and even then it will still be 1.6 light years away. There is virtually zero chance that these records will ever reach anything intelligent enough to decode and understand them. In all likelihood they will drift alone through the darkness of interstellar space for far longer than human civilization will be around. So why did we go through the trouble of making them and sending them out? This supposedly futile act has more to do with mankind than with any attempt to contact an extraterrestrial species. In Carl Sagan’s words, 

The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.

Much of the space race had to do with cross-cultural competition, nationalistic displays of military and technological prowess. The Voyager Records are an attempt to acknowledge to ourselves our own impermanence, to rally around the messages of hope and goodwill. Gilster sums it up well,

I think any future archaeologist, human or otherwise, would read into the Voyager spacecraft the desire of a species to transcend itself, hopeful of finding a bridge to other intelligence but pressing on regardless as a way of building meaning into the cosmos.

What is Extraordinary Voyages?

‘Extraordinary Voyages’ refers to the series of adventure tales written by the author Jules Verne, the man who may rightly be said to be the father of the science fiction genre. Verne (read a short biography here) is known for his predictive abilities and for his interlacing of fact and fiction in such novel and complex ways as to present fantastic ideas as foregone conclusions and far away places as right at our front door. His legacy and influence on those who followed him stretched into and through the 20th century.

In writing the Extraordinary Voyages, Jules Verne used imagination as a vehicle to carry people to the farthest known regions of knowledge and technological capabilities. Then he took them further. This was his great accomplishment, a creative leap that provided new possibilities and paved the way for future explorers to make his voyages a reality. A wide range of adventurers and scientists, from astronauts to polar explorers to other science fiction writers, have claimed Verne as one of their primary sources of inspiration. This is the reason for choosing the name for his body of work as the title of this blog. Imagination and a willingness to explore, traits that were embodied in all his stories, are central themes. Verne’s special role, that of a creator of possible realities, is tremendously important. Anything a person, or humanity as a whole, wants to become, they first have to be able to dream it. In the words of someone from a wonderful little shop known as the Imaginary Foundation.

Imagination is the factory that makes legends. It is the beginning of all achievement. To imagine is to perceive many potential futures, select the most delightful possibility, and then pull the present forward to meet it. Imagination has transported us from shivering in dark caves to triumphantly floating above our precious blue earth. It reminds us that reality is malleable and we are the architects of our own fate.

The first step to imagination is curiosity, the wonderings of a questioning mind. These wonderings have inevitable consequences. On the far side of curiosity and imagination lies discovery, that wonderful something, somewhere, that is waiting for us. And the bridge between curiosity and discovery is exploration, the searching and seeking that has permeated so much of human history. This is exploration on a very general level: the physical exploration of the world through travel and movement, the exploration of the workings of the universe through scientific discovery, and more personal exploration through reading and reflection. The fundamental link between all these things, the essential meaning of exploration, is the search for a better understanding of our world, our selves, and the connection between the two.

The Origin of Life

Last night I attended a lecture by the astrophysicist Paul Davies entitled ‘The Origin of Life’. Davies, professor at Arizona State University and chair of the SETI Post-Detection task group (you know someone’s legit if they have an asteroid named after them), discussed the “where, when, and how” of the origin of life on earth, and ways we might begin to answer the question of whether there is life on other planets.

His discussion of the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of life’s origin was pretty vague (a ‘warm pool’ several billion years ago), this shouldn’t be too surprising, since knowledge of that important event is itself pretty vague. His focus was really on the ‘how’, especially in relation to the question: is life special? That is, is it singular event or a cosmic imperative?

An important question that arises in the search for extraterrestial life is: how will we know it when we see it? If a meteorite landing on earth contained traces of life, how would we know? In Davies’ words, “If it looks too much like life we know, we say it’s contaminated. If it doesn’t look enough like life we know, we say it isn’t alive.” He talked a little bit about the role of information theory in determining the rise of complex lifeforms, and how life might better be understood and identified from an information processing point of view, rather than from a chemical one. Life has a way of taking information from its surroundings (environmental conditions, energy sources) and using it to react or produce something. Perhaps we can identify life by looking at these information processing pathways.

Davies’ final remarks were about the search for alternate life on earth. If life is common and will readily occur under the right conditions, then it is likely that it has arisen multiple times here on our own planet. If this is the case, then we should be able to find evidence for organisms (almost certainly microscopic) from an alternate ‘tree of life’ unlike any we’ve seen before (perhaps identified on the basis of amino acid chirality). But we first have to look.

Book Report: Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut

Cover of "Player Piano"

Cover of Player Piano

I’ve just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952 when Vonnegut was a sprightly young 30 years old, and I thought I’d give some of my thoughts, along with a couple of quotes gleaned from the pages.

The essential story-line follows the trials and tribulations of Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager in a heavily automated post WWII America, a time when the country is run by engineers and managers and machines have all but supplanted the regular Joes and Josephines from their jobs. In this book, Vonnegut is exploring the meaning of work in our lives, and what a vital role it plays in giving us meaning and purpose.

“Go to the library sometime and take a look at magazines and newspapers clear back as far as World War II. Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production – know-how, not people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines. And the hell of it was that it was pretty much true. Even then, half the people or more didn’t understand much about the things they were making. They were participating in the economy all right, but not in a way that was very satisfying to the ego.”

In the book, Dr. Proteus is the director of the Ilium Works, a collection of automated machines responsible for much of the upkeep of daily life: plumbing, electricity, etc. The country is stratified based on IQ tests performed in high school, and those not intelligent enough to attend college and achieve doctorates have two choices for the future: enlist in the army, or join the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the “Reeks and Wrecks”), a construction crew responsible for all the low skilled manual labor that needs to be done. These two groups, the highly educated engineers/managers and their poorly educated countrymen, inhabit two entirely different social spheres.

As the novel progresses, Proteus has a growing unease with his place in society and the privileges that are afforded him on the basis of his IQ, and he begins to encounter more and more the detrimental effects of automation on society, from the restrictions it places on people wishing to pursue their individual goals, to the quashing of innovation and creativity in the face of an overwhelmingly rigid system. And above all, there is the sense that removing labor from the lives of people in some way dehumanizes them. There are fundamental connections between the work we do and the purpose we feel in our lives.

Though this book is about 60 years old, the issues it addresses are still very much relevant today, in particular this idea that automation (then it was machines, today we could add computers to the mix as well) are creating a U-shaped curve of available jobs, with peaks for low-skilled and high-skilled jobs and a hollowing out in the middle.

Without going into too much detail, the novel begins to take a turn when Proteus falls in with the Ghost Shirt Society, a collection of malcontents from both sides of the societal spectrum. Their aim is to overcome the trend of automation and restore work to what they view as it’s rightfully respected place.

“The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

‘Player Piano’ has some very strong ties to another book i have been reading through lately, ‘Small is Beautiful‘. This book, written by E.F. Schumacher and published about 20 years after ‘Player Piano’, deals with many of the same issues, namely the value of work and the downsides of placing efficiency and economic growth as end goals. I’ll do a book report on ‘Small is Beautiful’ when I’m done with it, but for now I’ll share a couple of passages that seem highly relevant: 

“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

“What technology has enabled us to do: namely, to reduce the amount of time actually spent on production in its most elementary sense to such a tiny percentage of total social time that pales into insignificance, that it carries no real weight, let alone prestige.”

Human knowledge belongs to the world

In the movie Antitrust, the main character, a programmer named Milo, battles against the CEO of an enormous software company who is bent on world domination and is not afraid to employ brutal tactics to steal code that he needs to accomplish this goal. In the end, Milo finally defeats his plan by releasing all the code online, making it freely available, and therefore no longer able to be exploited by any single entity. To underscore this act, he tags on to this release the simple statement ‘Human knowledge belongs to the world.’ With the growing size and spread of the internet, this idea of cheap and easily accessible information has spread to many different realms, one very important one being education. Last night I had the opportunity to go to a panel discussion about online learning opportunities (like MOOCs – massively open online courses) and how they might change the face of education.

The panel’s main speaker was Anya Kamenetz, author of the books ‘Generation Debt’ and ‘DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education’ (as well as a free guide to DIY online education available here: Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential). She had some interesting things to say about education.

In the US, there is a dichotomy that has arisen between the fact that information is free and available (via the internet) and the fact that higher education definitely isn’t. The cost of the University of Wisconsin can range from $6000 per semester for an in-state resident to more $13000 for a nonresident, and for somewhere like Harvard it rockets up to $30000-$40000 . This is a problem in a country that prides itself on being democratic and egalitarian, since there are many people who just can’t afford those fees. As Kamenetz put it, ‘college is no longer the engine for social mobility.’

So what are the alternatives? There are a few big players in online education: edX, Coursera, Khan Academy, P2PU. There are other types of education resources as well, different from coursework: Enstitute (where students apprentice with a start-up company), LearningCounts (where people can get course credit for material they already know), or online platforms where users can build portfolios of their work that potential employers might see, doing away with the need for a degree in the first place (like GitHub for programmers or Behance for creative types).

One question that came up last night was: what role will educators play in this scheme? While the answer to that isn’t entirely clear (mostly we’ll have to wait and see how things develop) it’s clear that there is still a need in this system for tutors, mentors, and guides. For one thing, people crave personal interactions, and a lot of good discussions and connections can come out of meeting face to face with someone that can’t occur in a large impersonal system. Additionally, the fact that there is so much information, from the online courses mentioned above to encyclopedias such as Wikipedia to simple information searches through Google, means that it can be overwhelming for a student who doesn’t know where to start or even what their goals might be. In this case, a teacher acts as a guide, to point the way and warn against potential pitfalls.