Monday, April 30, 2012

Sand and Other Adventures, Part 2

Another email from Lexi in Jordan, this one typed on a borrowed laptop, rather than a phone:

In addition to staggering around on donkeys and camels and getting supremely sunburned, I've been enjoying AMAZING food and extreme hospitality. Everyone here is very friendly (though not always the best kind of friendly), and eager to invite strangers in for tea/coffee. They don't hesitate to talk to people (though there is obviously sort of an odd dynamic between men and women, because men have to initiate conversation). On the flip side of that, I try to avoid eye contact with men in the streets and often have to choose between being extremely rude (ignoring or glaring) and smiling back at what I gauge to be well-meaning friendliness. Aside from that, I feel very comfortable here. It feels like a place I could, maybe, actually live and work someday (Mom, don't glare at me).

We've gone to see some pretty amazing ruins. Everything just looks ancient. The hills here look like crumbly mountains, layers of sandstone and rock strangely inlaid with the occasional patch of grass. They have "camel crossing" signs instead of deer crossings.
I've had some fun encounters with strangers, including the Bedouin camel owners who told me that they've seen pictures of their camels on Facebook (apparently they have a generator in those caves), and a middle-aged man selling scarves who showed me how to tie a hijab by demonstrating on himself (he was very amused as he wrapped the scarf around his head and indicated where to pin it; "Very good, right?"), and the time I wanted to buy some traditional Jordanian spices. (Forgetting just how little spices weigh, I bought half a kilo (!) and ended up with a truly enormous bag. No wonder the guy behind the counter gave me the look of, "You clearly have no idea what you're asking for." Yay for being an ignorant foreigner...)

I think that when I return home I will be very amused by the driving in Boston. While truly awful in comparison with the rest of the states, those of you from outside the U.S. know that it's nothing compared to the rest of the world. People swerve all over the lanes, go backwards down the breakdown lanes (and sometimes the streets), and they often forget to put up signs to indicate speed bumps in the road (go from 100 km/h to 30 in about three seconds and see how you feel).

I still haven't picked up much more Arabic than "thank you," but that's all right.

That's all for now.
And that's all for now from me, too. 


Friday, April 27, 2012

A Post from Jordan

We got an email from Lexi, which she apparently typed on a borrowed cellphone! Here's some of what she reported:

I'm in Jordan!!!! It's day three and a half. I have hiked through Petra, survived driving illegally (there are speed bumps all over the highways here), had a ton of amazing food, met fantastic people, and visited some amazing things. For the sake of my thumbs, all I'll comment on here is Petra.

As you might imagine if you've ever seen Indiana Jones, it's breathtaking. We begin by walking through an enormous gorge called the Siq. It winds irregularly through the mountains, huge rock faces rearing up on either side. Everything is a burnt sandy color, except for the trees that sprout up here and there between the boulders. Some of the cliffs are rounded, some jagged, but they all have huge chunks gouged out of them, as though by some enormous animal. I feel tiny, walking past huge caves and the occasional (and gigantic) ruined temple entrance. Everything feels old, caked in a smorgasbord of mixed histories and religions. It speaks of something very enduring and rough, but striking in its beauty. (God is my favorite artist.)

On the way up, we rode donkeys. Much easier than riding a horse. But it turns out riding a donkey is extremely scary going downhill. Donkeys really like to walk near the edges of cliffs. On the way out, we also rode camels, a very weird experience. I wish I could babble all about the Bedouin, but I don't have space here. I spent too long describing rocks, so this is what you get for now. And for those of you worried about my safety or who made me promise to be very careful, let me say that I have attracted as little attention as I could, not been called at in any serious way, and only had one or two very small adventures in my driving. I have worn make-up (some of you will be proud of me and others of you very confused by that), tried every exciting dish that was put in front of me, and learned one word of Arabic, which I use constantly: shukran (thank you). I miss you and hope you're all having a wonderful start to spring!
It makes me want to be there!


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mine the Asteroids!

The gold rush has officially begun: the mining of the asteroids. Science fiction writers have been predicting it for decades.* Now some seriously hard-hitting billionaires and technical people are joining forces to make it happen, through a privately funded initiative called Planetary Resources, Inc. Investors include filmmaker and explorer James Cameron (yes, he who just dove the Mariana Trench), the founders of the X-Prize Foundation, Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot, Jr., and others. Technical people include—well, for example, the chief engineer is Chris Lewicki, who was Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions.

They're seriously planning to robotically explore and mine near-Earth asteroids, seeking precious metals, such as platinum-family metals, and water (very precious in space, very expensive to lift into orbit). From the Planetary Resources website:

"Initial space resource development will focus on water-rich asteroids. Water is the essence of life and exists in plentiful supply on asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space provides hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding and even manufacturing capabilities. Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel."

Here's a summary of a recent report suggesting that the technology to do this is available or nearly so. 

I think this is one of the most exciting developments in space exploration since the Apollo lunar landings. For more details, visit the Planetary Resources website. For a highly readable but expert analysis, read Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog post: Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it.

I'm not an investment speculator, but if they were selling shares, I'd be in for a share today.

*My own short story, Dog Star, is based on the premise that we'll be actively mining near-Earth asteroids; also, on the smarts of border collies.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On the Banks of the River Jordan

Well, that's poetic license, because I'm not sure if she'll actually see the Jordan River—but my older daughter Lexi took off this afternoon for ten days in Jordan, traveling with some other folk from our church. They’ll be staying with families there, and hoping to meet and pray with some Muslim groups, and generally open some lines of conversation. I don't know as many details as I would like, because, well, she's twenty-two. She doesn't exactly withhold information; she just doesn't stop moving long enough to fill us in on everything. (I suspect other parents will know what I mean.) She's traveling with one of the pastors of our church, a woman who has been to the Middle East several times, so that gives us some reassurance.

She was excited and nervous when she left. Allysen and I are awed, proud, and—yeah—a little nervous.

It runs in her blood. When she was fourteen, she traveled to Armenia with a local exchange group. Since then, she's been to Mexico and Nicaragua. She gets it from her mom.

Edit: Got a text msg: "Safely in Amman." Probably the last we'll hear for a little while. 


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Once More, Into the Sunset

Discovery takes wing one last time, for the Smithsonian.

Discovery flies into the sunset

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cooler than Cool

That's the sight of the space shuttle Discovery on a back of a 747, flying past the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the American flag on its way to its new home in the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.




Two of the best collections of photos are here, on Yahoo News, and  here, on Mercury News.

It's hard not to feel some sadness at the passing of an era. Those lumbering beasts of the sky served us for three decades. Three decades. How amazing is that?

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Taxes are done!

Thank God.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

NASA Cuts: What Is Obama Thinking?

Congress is right now considering future budgets for the funding of our space program, and it's got me extremely worried. The Obama administration has proposed deep cuts, especially for planetary sciences. This is crazy, stupid, and short-sighted, and I call upon Congress to turn this thing around—please! Let's continue funding our world-class space program, especially for space and planetary sciences, which since the Apollo days have been the capstone of American scientific exploration. The U.S. has already pulled out of one important international planetary mission, based just on the proposed budget. It would be a travesty to cancel other cutting-edge space missions.

It's practically a given most of the American public thinks we spend a lot more on the space program than we actually do. In fact, NASA's budget has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the Defense Department's. Even at the height of the relatively extravagant days of the Apollo Moon landing program, the space program only accounted for a few percent of the federal budget. Since then it's been sharply cut back. And now they want to cut it back even further. This despite the fact that every dollar spent on space helps to stimulate the economy, maintain our leadership in science and technology, inspire young scientists and engineers—and that's in addition to advancing our knowledge of the universe, and laying the groundwork for a future spacefaring civilization.

The Obama budget would put the brakes on all of this. And when you put the brakes on a programs like this, you don't just slow things down, you cause enormous disruption to long-range endeavors and put highly trained people out of work, people whom you might not be able to get back a few years down the road. I'm an Obama supporter, but this may be his administration's single most misguided action.

To voice your support of space exploration, contact your Congress critter. One way you can do that is by signing on with the message from the Planetary Society, which you can dispatch to your representatives here.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sit. Shake.

Photographer Carli Davidson catches a hilarious series of dogs in mid-shake. And I don't mean shaking hands.

See the whole series (full-screen recommended) 

What would we do without the internet (and friends with too much time on their hands) to show us these things?

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Monday, April 09, 2012

Starship Enterprise Pizza Cutter

I'm not making this up. Here's an ad I saw on for the latest in kitchen cutlery.

Only $30! (Save $10!)

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Happy Easter and Passover!

In my time zone Easter is almost over, but it's not too late to wish everyone a blessed Easter and Passover. Go thou in peace.

—saith Captain Jack and Moonlight


Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney

I'm not a regular New York Times reader, but this came my way and is too good not to share. In case you're not sure if it's accurate, let me say this: Mitt Romney was my governor. I know Mitt Romney. And if this doesn't fit you, you're not Mitt Romney. It's by David Javerbaum, former head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I hope this isn't behind a paywall. Just in case, here's an excerpt:

Complementarity. In much the same way that light is both a particle and a wave, Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative, depending on the situation... It is not that he is one or the other; it is not that he is one and then the other. He is both at the same time....

Uncertainty. Frustrating as it may be, the rules of quantum campaigning dictate that no human being can ever simultaneously know both what Mitt Romney’s current position is and where that position will be at some future date. This is known as the “principle uncertainty principle.”

Entanglement. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a proton, neutron or Mormon: the act of observing cannot be separated from the outcome of the observation. By asking Mitt Romney how he feels about an issue, you unavoidably affect how he feels about it. More precisely, Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker....

Duality. Many conservatives believe the existence of Mitt Romney allows for the possibility of the spontaneous creation of an “anti-Romney”... that leaps into existence and annihilates Mitt Romney. (However, the science behind this is somewhat suspect, as it is financed by Rick Santorum, for whom science itself is suspect.)
Read the whole thing, if you can. It's funny, and more than a little true.

Edit: On reflection, I think maybe I was being a little mean here. To Mitt Romney the political persona, well—yeah, all that's true. But to Mitt Romney the man...sorry, guy. I don't really know you. For all I know, you're a great guy. I hope you had a nice Easter weekend. 

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