The End of the Universe

Today, I was watching "How the Universe Works" on Netflix. I watched an episode about galaxies and it ended with a rising crescendo of music and the narrator, Mike Rowe, solemnly telling us that galaxies will continue to be born, live, collide, drift apart, and eventually die. As dark energy overtakes the dark matter that holds the universe in its shape and keeps galaxies clustered together, galaxies will become farther and farther apart. A night sky will no longer have any stars. In the next episode, about stars, the astronomers and physicists on the show explained that since there is a finite amount of hydrogen in the universe, and hydrogen is the fuel of stars, eventually the stars will run out of fuel and no new stars will be born. The universe will quiet down, and die in its sleep. The universe is not infinite. It began. It is. It will end.

Something about the combination of the story and the music and Mike Rowe's narration made me have an emotional response to the stories of these unfathomably huge, distant cosmic objects. I have also been listening to Brian Greene's The 4 Percent Universe, which is very much about the evolution of cosmology itself as well as the dark matter it's explaining. These two things made me realize how much of a human lense we put on things that are so unfamiliar and strange to think about. It's like in our struggle to understand the workings of something as huge and exotic as the universe, we had to see the whole thing as an allegory. And the allegory we chose was the one most familiar to us: ourselves.

We talk about stars and galaxies and the universe itself as being born, living, and dying. Nebulas are star nurseries, galaxies are cities full of stars. I love thinking about cosmic things in terms of our own human experience, but it makes me kind of sad. I have this kind of vague yearning to go into space, to see these things first hand, and I know it's simply not possible. And knowing that one day the sun will die, that it will consume the Earth and disintegrate, that our galaxy will collide with Andromeda, that dark energy will destroy the universe makes me wonder how long humans will last. Earth itself is nothing more than a blip in cosmic time. Who knows how many previous stars have hosted civilizations? Who knows how many of those civilizations had come to realize, as we have, how utterly tiny parts we play on the story of the universe?

My most comforting thought is that things were, things are, and things will be. After some time, things will end. But now? Now is beautiful.


Cursive to Qwerty

Indiana is the latest in a slew of states that don't require schools to teach cursive anymore, but are requiring "keyboarding."

I may be getting old, but I think this shift from cursive to querty is a shame. 

I remember being both apprehensive and excited to learn cursive in third grade. Cursive was a big-kid thing, a teacher thing. Once you learned cursive, you were practically an adult! I loved tracing the lines, writing the sentences. It was like drawing, for me, except the lines actually went where I expected them to go! I loved it.

For a while.

Once we learned it, we were required to write in it all the time, and being forced to do something always dulls it a little in a kid's eye. When I entered high school, and the teachers couldn't care less how you wrote as long as they could read it, I felt this enormous sense of freedom! I could write how I pleased (and in any color ink I wanted!) Also, having migrated from Catholic school to public school, I could wear colors! Oh, high school. I felt wild and free.

When I started college at Columbia College, the sheer volume of time I spent writing quadrupled. Quintupled. Hex-uppled? Well, it increased. Two fiction classes a semester will have your forearms muscular and your tendons screaming for relief. It was then that I reverted back to cursive. The strain on my hand was much less! I didn't have to pick up my pen after every letter. Instead of smearing my print letters together, I glided effortlessly along the loops of the cursive letters. I found myself pressing more lightly on the paper. And when I went to type up my work, by golly, I could actually read it! It was easier and faster to write, and I've written almost everything (except for short phrases and labels) in cursive since.

So maybe it's a little sentimental that I chafe at this twist towards the cold, precise "keyboarding" and away from my easy-going, flowy, tactile cursive.

Another thing: it's not cursive itself that I feel is so essential. Its the act of sitting down to a task that requires patience and attention to detail that I think is important. I realize that's hard for kids. Life is hard. Learning to do hard things is a part of life.

Also, I think "keyboarding," which I call typing, is something a person is going to learn anyway--like how to use an idiom or time a joke.  I didn't learn to type in a class. I learned to type in an IM. I DID learn to write in cursive in a class, and I write in cursive 99% of the time now. It's more legible, faster, more even, and prettier than my print.

I both write and type a lot. I think that both forms of communication are important. But hitting a keystroke to make a letter doesn't require the same amount of attention. It's easier. Teaching a kid to type doesn't add any value. They'll learn to type any way. All you need to do is teach them where to position their fingers, and they will learn by IMing friends, typing into search bars, typing out papers, updating Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, as a general observation about handwriting and typing, however a person chooses to communicate: Do everyone a favor and spend an extra millisecond in your busy, ultra-important, super cool life to make sure your handwriting is legible, your words are written out, and you are using punctuation to your advantage. no 1 wants 2 rd wat u say when u right lyke this cuz iz hard 2 rd n stuff esp wen u dont use punctuation   And no one wants to decode your handwriting.  So have a care.

And maybe if we did spend a little more time on slowing down and paying attention to detail in lower grades, the general public would have a better time expressing themselves.


The Map

I know a lot of you on #mywana have been talking about the map I made and stuff---so I thought I'd post it here so you all can see it.

Click the picture to see full size--it is quite big, so I could go into detail.
My characters don't go everywhere on this map, and there's a continent to the north that plays a HUGE part, and that's not on here at all. But I'm a firm believer in the fact that you should know everything about your world, and that is why when writing fantasy on a world that doesn't exist, a map is important.

In my WIP, there are lots of natural disasters. Their world is coming apart at the seams, quite literally. So I felt like I had to know where the fault lines were, where the impact areas would be, etc. Also, my character is on a Quest, so he travels quite a bit. This helps me know how he gets there, and what is there when he gets there.

In fact, making the map itself helped me find out more about my places. I discovered, while making my map, a new country I hadn't even known was there. I knew there was SPACE between Elira and Rohola, but not what was there. Well, if you're making a map, you have to put something there. Turns out--Lora. And Lora is important to the economy of the area, if not directly to the story.

And Meglir? Meglir became important because I needed a place for my antagonist to drop off a bunch of stolen treasure--and where better than the place where they trade in precious metals? And it had to be on the way from Rohola to Lakayazmo.  So trade, and the geographical locations of where people are trading from impact the story.

And these are the kind of world-building things I work out while mapping. Maps are important to me, and to my story. I didn't want the story to take the characters off into a place that I didn't already invent--a map is a way for me to keep track of who is where and what that place is like.

If there's interest in how I made it, technically (photoshop, etc) I might be able to do a post on that in future. @ me on twitter (@jajaamanda) or post a comment here, if you'd like to know what I did. I'm not a pro, so all of my techniques are pretty basic: layers, brushes, text, etc. 


10 Things I Learned from Pretty Little Liars

Everything I Need to Know in Life, I Learned From Pretty Little Liars.

This post concerns everything up to the episode that aired on 6/28/11.
Scroll down to the next red text to pass the spoilers.

 So, after watching tonight's episode of Pretty Little Liars, and being thoroughly nerved out every time Spencer looked out a window, I have come up with a list of 10 things I learned from watching the girls deal with their stalker, A.

1. Lock your doors—even though we've seen that A is sneaky enough to find a way in, there's no harm in creating one more barrier between you and the creepiness.
2. Never ever look out a window when all you can see is your reflection. A is probably standing right on the other side of the window. How would you know? You can only see yourself.
3. If you need to be alone anywhere for any length of time, get a dog. A big, mean one. With teeth. And a spikey collar. You can name it Brutus.
4. Not everyone is out to get you. I promise. Some people you can trust. Like Ezra. And your fellow Liars. Like Jack Sparrow says: “You can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest.” Still....
4.5 Don't trust anyone.
5. Watch what you say. And when you say it. And who you say it to. Actually. Probably better if you don't say anything at all. About anything. Ever. Anything you say can and will be used against you in everything you do, every day.
6. Even though life's not fair, it's still worth it to do the right thing. Like apologizing to Lucas. And trying to make up with Melissa. Forgiving Ezra. Tearing up the faux scholarship letter.
7. Don't give in to A's demands! Every time a Liar decides they just HAVE to do what A wants, I cringe. Remember Hanna and the cupcakes? And the breaking of Sean's heart?
8. Keep asking questions, even if people doubt you. (What is Jason doing back in that old house and who else was in there?) But....
8.5 Don't jump to conclusions. (Ian never did admit to killing Allison, and Spencer should be careful what she says since A wiped Emily's drive and planted the fake-bloodied trophy.)
9. If A gifts you with evidence, don't yap about it, and don't let it leave your SIGHT until you get to the police.
10. Always... always (this is very important) have perfect hair and the latest clothes. If you are going to be harassed, you had better look damn good while doing it. :D
I would just have said “stop lying” at number one and have done with it, but then we'd have no show and my Tuesdays would just suck. Also...I can understand why the Liars lie. They're doing their best with a difficult situation in which it seems like they have no friends.

Truth is hard. And when you have secrets like the Liars do: when you feel ashamed, when you fear other people's opinions of you, it's even harder. No one wants to get in trouble. In that moment when someone is about to find you out, if you are skilled at lying, it can seem like an easy way to escape the blame. Allison was a heedless liar, and she taught the other Liars well. She also tangled them up in her lies, and that is a sticky web to try and free yourself from, especially with A hanging around the edges: A, who knows all of the dark, dirty truths. 

The following is spoiler free, to my knowledge.

Pretty Little Liars with a Big Ugly Problem: Stalking 

That list was partly in jest, and partly—not. Stalking is serious business and should be treated as such. It is a crime and can be really harmful, as we see on the show! Stalking is kind of an iffy situation because harassment is really subjective, but law cannot be subjective. The definition of stalking is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person fear,” according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, but that's not a legal definition. And the legal definition is different depending on what state, district, or tribe has jurisdiction. So a person might have what they consider a stalker—a person who causes them fear—but go to the police only to find that the definition does not fit. Most of the laws don't cover new technology, and we've seen A send e-mails, use flash drives, and send text messages. And in some places, it's not stalking unless a person specifically threatens to harm you.

The Parents' suggestion that the Liars see a therapist was well-meant, but since the Liars aren't admitting that they're being stalked, The Parents don't realize that stalking is the problem, and not grief. Victims of stalking are more likely to be depressed, to miss work, and live in fear like the Liars. And the Liars still have to finish their homework at the end of the night! Stalking is no joke, and I was absolutely enraged that A ruined the therapist for them as a safe haven.

There is tons of great information at Stalking Awareness Month. If A's behavior on Pretty Little Liars sounds a little too familiar, you can find out what the laws are in your state, get help about how to handle stalking, and even get buttons and magnets to promote awareness. Stalking Awareness Month is January, but victims of stalking deal with it every single day of their lives, sometimes for years.

Take away the entertainment aspect of Pretty Little Liars, and it's a pretty grim subject. But that's one of the things I love about the show. It is absolutely fearless showing these girls deal with (and sometimes exacerbate) tough problems. Each girl has her own issues and secrets, and it's part of what makes Pretty Little Liars so engrossing.



So, after being anti-iPhone for a long time, (mainly because we weren't about to jump ship from Verizon) my husband finally hopped onto the bandwagon and got one of those trendy little rectangles.

Very Simple Augmented Reality.
And, it's funny, you know. We really did think our BlackBerry Storms were so cool. But our Storms could only hold a measly five apps or so, and all those cool apps you hear about? Yeah. They're not usually available for BlackBerry.

But now, the app store is so chock full of cool STUFF that it's really hard to tear our eyes away. Not least of which are the plethora of augmented reality apps. These apps are so cool, they're kind of freaky. Your iPhone knows, and it knows you know it knows, and it is not intimidated.

Okay, so since augmented reality is a kind of klunky term for a really slick concept, let's define it, shall we? Mirriam Webster (m-w.com, my go to for all my word-defining needs) defines “augment” as “to make greater, more numerous, larger, or more intense.” So augmented reality is taking reality and adding to it. At present, it's a mainly visual augmentation. You have a camera (a webcam or your iPhone or Android camera) and it sees the world and ads images on top of that. It's your very own at-home (or wherever you are) CGI.

I think BusinessInsider.com said it well: “Think of an augmented reality app as a lens through which you can see the world. One lens might be restaurants near you, and another might be pointing out exactly how far away the pin is on a golf course.” They also have a good list for apps if you're in the market.

AR tattoo.
Some AR (since it's so flipping long) programs require you to print an image out: they are programed to respond to that image. My firstexperience with AR was like this, and I'm glad its still on the web so I can share it with you. It's from GE's SmartGrid campaign. Hold up the target, and out pops an illustration of solar or wind energy (you can pick which one you want to do: I like the windmills best.) I like this one because I could easily draw the target image (I didn't actually need to print it) and when the 3D image is visible, you can also interact with it. Blow on the windmills, and they go around. Tip it down and you can see the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mobile AR apps, however, use other cues as to what to respond to. iPhones tend to use a combination of the camera, the gyroscope, and the GPS to add digital images on top of the “real” image the camera sees. In London and Chicago (at least!) you can get an app that knows which train station you are at, when your next train is coming, and what direction you should walk in for a burrito. All you have to do is turn your app on, and point your camera down the track. Your GPS knows where you are and the time of day, and it superimposes the information on your screen so the image you see is the real world—with more information displayed. Look at a restaurant, and Yelp can give you reviews, right on your iPhone screen. Walk down the street, or move your head and that image is stationary in “space.”

Another cool thing you can do is create AR with your Kinect. I am not nearly computery enough to do it (nor do I have 2 Kinects) but there are a couple videos on YouTube, including one where a computer savvy dude puts a 3D character from Doom on his desk.  He speaks really quietly, so you'll have to turn up your volume, and the other images in the room are wobbly because of the “shadows” the cameras cast: the parts of the room the cameras can't see. But this is pretty fantastic. The idea that once you know the principles, you can create just about anything you can imagine...it makes me pretty excited.

This also makes me curious about the future. You're probably thinking it too: true virtual reality is just one step up from augmented reality. Today: we're putting wind farms in our hands, interacting with them. Tomorrow, we put glasses on that constantly feed information about the world around us straight into our eyeballs. Next week, our bodies are only there to support the brain, wired to experience a “better” reality.

I shudder to think.

ToyStory Mania in Hollywood Studios. (Go early & get a fast pass.)
Okay, lets bring it back from the apocalypse. Say we don't give our lives over completely to virtual reality. Lets take a baby step (a really tiny step) to the kinds of games they have at Disney World. Toy Story Mania is probably one of the most popular rides in the whole (Disney) World. You ride in a car and play a series of 3D carnival games. You put on 3D glasses and have little guns that lob balls of paint or softballs or rings at targets. You pull a cord to shoot a ball or toss a ring. You have to aim. It looks, for all the world, as if these paint balls and rings are shooting out of your little cannon and into the scene before you. In some of the games, the carnival things attack back. Shoot a ring around a rocket and it comes shooting at you, along with puffs of air that elicit yelps and screams from the riders. As of right now, Disney is the only place (besides a real paint-and-plastic carnival) that has games quite this interactive. But 3D TVs are moving up from ridiculous extravagance to household norm pretty quickly, just like flat, wide-screen HD TVs did. (I can't imagine buying a big old tube set. I bet it would come with a free VCR.) And Kinect? You don't even need a controller. It sees you. Not only does it see you, it interprets the things you do and reacts accordingly, accurately!

You add Kinect and a 3D TV together, and Disney World's gotta up its game. The kids who go there in five years are NOT going to be impressed with Toy Story Mania. (I'm sure it will still be there, though. I mean, hell, Carousel of Progress is still there, and they are showing kids playing virtual reality in the 80s.)

But it could be beautiful. Imagine watching a movie with all the interactive technology Disney uses . You step into Lothlorien and smell the flowers. You step into Potions and feel the humid air. Surround sound easily lets you hear the chatter in the Great Hall. You wear a pedometer like device so you can walk around Hogwarts. Jets of air let you know when an orc's arrow hits you. You can smell the sweeter air that leads you out of the mines of Moria.

On the other hand, I was listening to @Pottercast's episode on @Pottermore, and in jest (I think) John Noe mentioned something about it being such an interactive reading experience that it would be like virtual reality. I immediately thought, “Wow, that is something that you would get addicted to and have to go into therapy to try and quit.” Wouldn't that level of escapism be detrimental to a person's mental health? I know when I have a bad day, I crave the thickest fantasy possible. I want to dive into Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Kushiel's Legacy. I want to get completely lost in another world. If it were possible for me to hop into virtual reality...It would be so easy to forget the real world. Or, can you imagine if World of Warcraft were virtual reality? It's already an addictive problem for some people. Who would ever leave?

But we're not quite there yet, and I think AR apps are kind of fabulous. They can be useful and fun all at once. My husband has one that puts a little robot dude on a piece of paper that you print that looks like the moon. You can bug him with your finger, and if you spin him enough, his head flies off! I think the application AR has for information distribution, gameplay and even fun little nothings like the little robot. In the UK, at the Natural History Museum, they just opened a Darwin building, and it has an entire room mapped for AR

“A film, Who do you think you really are?, features a unique film-making technology which allows Sir David Attenborough to take the audience on a virtual journey back through our evolutionary past, where digitally overlaid extinct creatures appear to roam around in the studio,” 

Richard Smith writes on Culture 24. I would LOVE to see a room like this. Experiences like this, blending new technology with natural history and other sciences can help kids (and big kids like me) become more aware of science and technology. And the more people who are interested in science, the farther our world can advance.


Seasonal Impressions

I have a blog coming up for all of you very soon, but I was searching through old gmail attachments, and I found some things worth sharing.

My mood, generally, is very dependent on weather. Sometimes, all I need to restore me is a cool breeze across closed lids. These are two instances, on that took place in a Chicago fall, and one that took place in a Chicago spring, as I was on the eve of heading back to my home state, Michigan.



The Belmont el stop.
The best place to see the sky in Chicago is at the Belmont el stop. A couple of days ago, the transient weather of fall meant that from the open air station, I could see several days of weather in one sky.

To the west, the sky was clear, an enameled cerulean blue.To the northeast, wedding white mares tails, little ice crystal clouds moved in sync to the southwest like lacy old ladies arm in arm, clipping down the street in their sturdy black shoes. To the southeast, however, trouble broiled. Cobalt cloud mountains faded into black marshy mists, and the illuminated buildings against that dark sky looked cut out of the scene. The trains coming from the south were coming wet, and those monsters were rolling towards me, grumbling and snorting in their anger.

The wall of rain over took a few of the orange afternoon-lit buildings and they were suddenly studded with diamond raindrops. With the sun at my back, I saw the rain advancing toward me. A rainbow jumped out in front of me and tried to hold back the torrent, but the storm threw a bolt of lightning and shattered it as it’s partners reached the sun disk in the southwest and shrouded it.

I stepped into the capsule of the train as the rain came beating down. Hissing and roaring, the storm lamented my escape. The train started up and we sped off towards the west. With a few raindrops on my shoulders and the leafy smelling wind still in my hair, I turned to gaze wide-eyed out of the train.

Ahead of me, the sky was still a vibrant tangerine color.

I was thinking today, as I passed over the Chicago River on the el, about things I can sink my teeth into. Like rivers. Like Lake Michigan. Like ladder-like pine trees. Like dunes. Like a steep grade and a narrow path, good shoes, and leg muscles. Like fresh air and flowering trees, like raindrops and layers of history exposed on the sides of sandstone cliffs. Like that yellow-gold-green that leaves turn when you are seeing the sun through them. Like dragonflies and those odd bugs that walk on the surface tension of river water. Like crayfish. Like waves. Like the copper-tasting water in the upper peninsula. Like arctic breezes, lost and wayward down here in the Midwest.

In short, I was thinking today about Michigan. I'm going back to Michigan in one week. I can hardly breathe without wishing I were breathing Michigan air. I can hardly cross the street without wishing I were crossing a Michigan street. Through the library windows, I could see Lake Michigan stretching out away from the city, miles of water and fish and seaweed, shipwrecks and sand. On the other side, waters are a clear cerulean. Here, they are an odd perversion of teal that looks sickly.

Around my neighborhood here in Chicago, I feel differently. I will miss little Albany Park when I'm gone, I think. Getting off of the Brown Line at Francisco, I sometimes find myself thinking of Chicago the same way I think of Grand Rapids. It's not quite words, more like a strong inclination. I get the urge to climb trees, explore houses, walk down alleys, roll in the grass, and slip behind bushes into their secret kingdoms.

Today, the sun came out just before sunset to give the world a hallowed kind of look. The flowering trees in front of the apartments across of Sacramento street gave off a wavering scent in the cool breeze. The rain a couple of days ago washed away the thickness of the air, and now it was clear and sharp. Now, you could inhale the fragrance of those tiny white flowers all the way down to the bottom of your lungs without stuffing up your nose, without causing your eyes to redden and tear. The grass was brightly green against the reinvigorated blackness of the soil. In the house on the corner of Sacramento and Leland, someone served dinner in the airy dining room. The streets were clear and dry. I wanted to get out my bike and tool around, or cover the sidewalks in chalked hopscotch boards. I wanted to get into those bushes and create worlds out of their encompassing branches. I wanted, desperately, to be little again, to have the freedom of late afternoons again. I didn't want to think back or ahead, I just wanted to exist in the ocher-golden light of the evening, and play.


 I don't write like this much anymore, and I wonder where I lost it. But I still feel the sense of wonder at the changing of the seasons whether I am in Michigan, Chicago, or here in silly old Maryland. The earth is beneath me, the sky above, and nature pervades throughout.

“I feel a pull on the rope, let me off at the rainbow…” - Genesis, “Anyway”
“I can see the orange sky in front of me, I can see things you’ll never see...” Days of the
New, “Whimsical”



Every year has new artwork.
Last weekend, I got a real treat!

The fates (and the finances) aligned themselves so that Gordon and I got to drive up to Michigan for the weekend, surprise our parents, and go to one of my favorite Grand Rapids summer traditions, Festival.

Festival (follow them on twitter!) is the largest all-volunteer arts festival in the country. The first weekend in June every summer sees downtown Grand Rapids shut down, marquees and stages go up, and hundreds of thousands of people descend to listen to music, people-watch, sunbathe, eat food off sticks, watch performances, create art, and more! It's a tradition to get your first sunburn of the year at festival, and it marks the start of summer in Grand Rapids.

I remember going to Festival when I was little, and it was a wonderland. As a kid, you can ride in a giant tire swing hung from an iron sculpture. You can create masterpieces with wood pieces at the Glue-in. You can paint pictures. You can do swing art, which is when you suspend markers above a large piece of white paper and swing it back and forth and around to create spirally, loopy, helixy patterns. There's a station where princes and princesses can make crowns and hats. There are buckets of sidewalk chalk to mark up the paths.
From the iron sculpture hangs a giant tire swing, the di Suervo Swing.

For adults, there's music at almost every corner, a pavilion where local artists sell paintings, sculptures, jewelery, what have you. Monroe street is lined with booths from local communities offering every kind of food from Mexican to Polish, American, Bosnian, Indian, Vietnamese...Things that don't even look like food, but smell like heaven.

In addition to all of the things out in the newly-summery sun, the art museum is free the whole weekend! If you feel like you're about to get sunstroke out in the street, you can head into the cool of the museum. In the museum, you can see the Art Prize winners from the previous fall.
Click to view full size!
My mom and I only went one day this year, Sunday, the last day. We were in a mood to praise Festival as one of the triumphs of Grand Rapids, after all of this business with Newsweek allowing idiots to post things saying that my pretty city was dying. And as we walked through throngs of people in tank tops, shorts, tshirts, and sundresses, right down the middle of the street, through clouds of wafting smells, hearing snatches of music, I realized that not only is Grand Rapids emphatically NOT dying, it is improving and becoming a better place to live every year.

I only get to go back every few months, so the changes are really apparent to me. I notice how things are getting cleaner and newer. Every time I go home, new buildings are being renovated. Every time I go to an event downtown, it's more successful. Every time I hear about Grand Rapids, it's something positive.

And this year's festival was full of people to reinforce that.

Calder Stage, with Calder's sculpture, La Grande Vitesse. 
There were many stages at Festival: the Calder Stage (right in front of the sculpture by Alexander Calder that is the symbol of the city,) the Fountain Stage (on the corner of Monroe and Fountain streets,) City Stage (on the corner of Monroe and Ottawa streets,) and Circle Stage (a permanent stage in Rosa Parks Circle, which can be seen in the ubiquitous lip dub.) There is no way anyone can see all of the performances throughout the festival, and admittedly, some are better than others. My mom and I had no interest in the mediocre gospel choir, but back at the Clock Tower stage we found a duo we liked and sat in the sun to watch

On the stage were two men, one with a guitar (Bruce Evans) and one with a bass (Gene Brott.) They were playing a popular Matchbox Twenty song we both knew, which is what drew us in, but primarily they play classic rock. They admitted to the audience after the song that they were only two of a complete band, but the soulfulness of Evans's voice and the fullness of the music could have fooled me. They were a part of a cover band called CounterBalance, described in Festival's program as "a 1968 to 1988 classic vocal rock band." After the Matchbox Twenty song, they played a few songs from those years, and then closed with "Freefalling," and it was a perfect summer moment for me. The sun was hot, and there was good, live music in front of me.

Bruce Evans and Gene Brott of CounterBalance
After the duo from CounterBalance finished, we decided to wander off and see what else there was to be seen. At the City Stage, we found the Ardan Academy of Irish Dance  performing. They were young people, from a tiny 7 or 8 year old girl in white-bright blond hair, all the way up to teenagers. The music was energetic and modern, and the dancers matched every beat of the intricate music under the bright sun as if it were effortless. Even the tiny girl hit every mark. When they came out as a group, they were in sync. They were a joy to watch, and there was not a seat to be had in the audience. My mom and I jostled for a good view, and when the dancers finished, we clapped enthusiastically along with the full audience.

Festival this year was hot and crowded, just as it should be. It remains one of my favorite parts of the year, whether I get to go all three days or just one, whether I stay for hours and do everything, or stay only a short time and enjoy the ambiance.

And it reinforces to me the values that are evident in Grand Rapids: Community, innovation, involvement, and enrichment.


Algae is the New Everything

Pond Scum! Woo!
So, I never knew algae was so cool!

In fact, I never knew it as anything but pond scum.

But that is only one type of algae, and the right types can do some crazy things.

There is a big rush right now to convert algae into biofuel. Algae is fabulous for this because it  eats carbon dioxide and farts oxygen, so it can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. (Which I am ALL FOR on this deathly hot day.) Okay, yes, the grass in your lawn (and ALL plants) do this. But there's a lot more algae in the world than there is grass. (Algae lives in some crazy places.) And it takes light and makes it into food better than other plants.  We can even genetically alter then to make them produce exactly the fuels we want. If we can use it to fuel our crazy, wasteful, material-girl lives, maybe it will be less harmful than burning coal, fighting over oil, or building nuclear plants that could get hit by tsunamis and leak radiation everywhere.

E85 is 85% corn ethanol and 15% gasoline.

Okay, so I'm sure you've seen the perky little graphics at gas stations that provide ethanol, with an appetizing ear of corn. And indeed, you can make biofuel with corn. But corn is environmentally expensive. It requires farmland, first off, and lots of it. It requires oodles of fresh water, sunlight, and care. If the weather is bad, the yeild is bad. And if you do succeed in growing a good crop, using it to create fuel instead of food drives up food costs, which directly affects families on a daily basis. Also, since it must be grown far from where people are, the transportation costs are huge.

Algae can be grown just about anywhere, it grows fast, it's easy to manipulate, and it doesn't cut into our food sources. It's a better candidate for creating biofuel than corn is. (For much, much, more go here.)  I, for one, am glad my corn on the cob is boiled, buttered, and a part of my summer picnic rather than used to fuel my car.

But that's not all algae can do. It could help support space travel.

It's the same old thing with the fish. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats forever. We'll take the analogy one step closer to space travel: Sea travel. Bring a carton of eggs and you can have scrambled eggs for breakfast for a few days. Bring a coop of chickens...

I think you get the idea. Algae is at the bottom of the food chain. It is THE bottom. And not just the food chain either. Back at the beginning of the world, when life on Earth was in version 1.1, organisms like algae helped create the atmosphere and make it ready for version awesome.cool, aka Humans.

So let's take a leap here. If we were to take a space ship to Mars, it would take about 3 months to get there. How much food do you eat in three months? How much water do you drink? How much air do you breathe? Cause you know, the air you breathe out doesn't have as much oxygen as the air you breathe in.  And--lets not be delicate here--how many pounds of poop do you flush in three months? (Everyone Poops, if you weren't aware....) 

How on Earth (or off of it) are you going to feed yourself, and what are you going to do with the waste? (FYI, I would not ask a certain Howard Wolowitz...) And if every breath depletes the amount of breathable oxygen in the ship, what are you going to breathe?! Problems indeed. Well, algae can help with the oxygen part of it.

Dr. Leslie Prufert-Bebout, aside from having a cool last name, is working on space-age algae: “…for
Dr. Leslie and her algae.
long-term, extended space habitation life support, utilization of the (Microbial) ecosystem-scale recycling methods that support human life on Earth will provide cheap, clean, and virtually waste-free primary support systems.” (via Algae Industry Magazine) So, the basic idea is that to make space livable for humans, whether on a space ship or in a settlement, we use some of the same systems that work here on Earth to keep us alive.

But replicating these systems is next to impossible. In fact, people have been researching this for years, and though most agree that it's a possibility, and probably a desirable thing to use biological systems to keep us alive in space, it's kind of been put on the back burner. The thing is, life is weird. Biology is weird. And complex. You are a biological creature. A computer is not. If I give you a worksheet with 100 simple math problems to do every day for a year, and give the computer the same thing, guess which on is going to make a mistake? Guess which one will forget to do them one day? Or get sick of it and refuse?

Well, the computer is not going to feel anything at all about being asked to do math problems every day for a year. It won't forget. And it probably won't make a mistake. We can't rule out mechanical failure, obviously, but I bet the computer would come out the more reliable. For one thing, almost any mechanical problem can be traced to a source and repaired. Biology is much less concrete.

So you can see how relying on biological systems to keep you alive in space might be kind of nerve wracking for the average space traveler.

But! It beats having to bring bulky machines that can only aspire to the efficiency of algae when it comes to disposing of carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

Of course much of this cool use of algae in space is in the future. Research takes time and money.

Lots, and lots of money. Fortunately, people like Dr. Prufert-Bebout, whose team ALEX, (Algae for Exploration) is funded by NASA. It's good to see that even if the space shuttles will be grounded for good after this summer, that NASA itself isn't shutting down--there's still a ton of research to be done, and people who want nothing more than to carry it out.

As long as people keep asking questions, keep being curious, I don't have any fear that science won't get done. Especially since seemingly mundane or unpopular things like algae can be so useful and fascinating!

For everything you ever wanted to know about algae (and for the source of most of my research for this blog) check out Algae Industry Magazine.




Newsweek says Grand Rapids is a dying city.

Coulda fooled me.

Do dying cities come together to make something like this?

It's a celebration of Grand Rapids. I couldn't think of a better song to represent what Grand Rapids is to me. It's the American Dream. It's a good 'ole, down home, mid-western city. It's forward thinking, family friendly, rich in history, and beautiful. It's not too big for its own good. It's like Goldilock's bed. Not to big, not too small, just right. 

And people say it's dying.

Er...Have they seen Detroit lately? If Grand Rapids and Detroit were injured on a battlefield, and a medic came to help Grand Rapids, GR would say, "What do you think you're doing! Look at Detroit! Detroit is dying! I'm fine, go help him!"

Michigan has a bad reputation for having a bad economy.

Well, I am a firm believer that the economy is what you make of it. It's like those stars you see after a camera flash. If it's to your left, and you look to the left, the further left it goes. But if you look right, the further right it goes. If Michigan's citizens look up, up Michigan will go.

And we are looking up. Especially in Grand Rapids.

Do dying cities have ARTPRIZE!?

Installation of Nessie
Art Prize is pretty much the coolest thing there ever was.  It is an art contest that anyone in the world can enter. You can. I can. Anyone. Artists from around the world use Grand Rapids itself as a canvas and during two weeks in September, people come and vote on the art. The winner wins $250,000.

As you can see in the photo, some of the installations are massive. There was Nessie, who lived in the Grand River for a few weeks, and now resides in a pond at the John Ball Zoo. Also, on top of the bridge is a table and chairs. This photo is from the inaugural Art Prize, 2009. But photos don't do Art Prize justice. You simply have to be there. Much of the art is interactive. You can play with it, climb on it, write on it, turn it, move it. It's art you experience. Of course, there is traditional art too, paintings, drawing, photography. And it's all over the WHOLE CITY.

"Castle Park"
I left Grand Rapids after high school, and only lived there on and off since. Now I live in Maryland, and I miss it terribly. I miss the layout of the streets. I miss the trees. I miss the downtown skyline. I miss the Grand River. I miss the West Michigan Whitecaps, our minor league baseball team. I miss Meijer and D&W and Taco Boy and Ogla's. I miss the White Pine Trail, Ah-Nab-Awen Park, (which we always called "Obiwan Kenobi Park") Eastown, Gaslight Village, Huff Park, and Castle Park (which has a real name, Hager Park, I think.)  I miss the city pools, Briggs, and Richmond. I miss The Flower Maze, which is what I called the cemetery near my home when I was little.

I miss being so attached to places that I have my own names for them.

I miss not being nervous when I'm walking in the evening by myself, or when I'm home alone.  

I know I'm biased because Grand Rapids is my home.

But my city is not dying. 


Quite in Raptures

So. The Rapture was a bust.

You didn't ascend to heaven on a beam of sunlight, walk through those pearly gates and right into the loving arms of God the Father. You didn't fist bump Jesus, your homeboy. Mary didn't bake cupcakes for you.

Nope, you're still here. You still have to go back to work, and you won't have a chance to loot your favorite electronics store.

But wait. Maybe the Rapture did happen, and you just didn't make the cut! Since God has abandoned the earth, (clearly) what's to stop the apocalypse from coming?

Fungal infections spread quickly. Those zombie ants they found in Thailand? Global trade means that what's Thailand's is ours. Whats to keep that fungus from jumping from ant to rat, rat to cat, cat to us? (Science, probably, but work with me here...)

And clearly, now, the aliens will be upon us. They could see that we were protected before, but with the Earth lit up like a light bulb with all those do-gooders ascending to heaven, they'll know to move right in.

But what if we don't need outside sources to do us in? Without religion to guide our morals, whats to stop us from nuking ourselves like a potato in a microwave? Will we devolve without His almighty hand guiding our path?

And what about those 200 million or so of us that are just...gone? What if pilots ascend right out of their cockpits? CEOs right out of their ergonomic Italian leather office chairs? What would happen if the internet went out?

What would we do? How are we supposed to have any fun with the apocalypse if we can't tweet about it!?

We'll have to resort to more primitive forms of entertainment.

Luckily, I have the answer for you.

Here I have compiled 10 post-apocalyptic/dystopian future books that could totally improve your apocalypse experience. Hey! They might even contain some good advice.

In the event that nothing at all happens, well. Keep dreaming. Keep reading. And lets hope you are one of those resourceful, grace-under-pressure types and not one of the masses killed.

In no particular order:


Cool Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian Future Books


1. The Host by Stephenie Meyer
Age Range: YA (14-18)
Mode of Apocalypse: Alien Invasion

This littler-known bastard cousin of the Twilight Saga is my favorite of Stephenie Meyer's books. Before all you literati shout that she has no talent and no place publishing her books, let me remind you that she never has to work another day in her life if she doesn't want to. And besides. A book doesn't have to be a beautifully crafted piece of literature to be worth reading. All it has to do is tell a good story.

And The Host tells a damn good story. Humans have been taken over by a species of alien that cannot survive outside of a host body. The "souls," as they call themselves are unfailingly pleasant, and insidiously conquered earth. They have several other planets as well, but Earth is the newest and considered the most dangerous because the hosts, humans, sometimes rebel.

Melanie is part of the resistance, but when she gets captured and inserted with a "soul" who calls herself Wanderer (Wanda for short) she is so violently angry that Wanda can't completely control her.

In the mash of the two consciousnesses, Wanda confuses Melanie's love for another human, Jared, and as Melanie wins control, the two (in Melanie's body) head off to search for him.

Though certainly Melanie's passion for Jared and her little brother Jamie is a little exaggerated, the adventure of the story gives it something that Twilight lacks. Melanie and Wanda together are resourceful and their trek across the desert is thrilling and visceral. Meyer has taken a step up from teen angst (though Melanie is a teen and certainly has much angst) to meld together an exciting, fascinating plot.

2. Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes
Age Range: 10-15
Mode of Apocalypse: Population Explosion

This is a little known book that I don't think is in print anymore, but when I read it at about 12, I loved it. It is about 150 years from now, and the Earth is over-crowded and the government mandates everybody's career based on aptitude tests. If you don't score sufficiently, the government wishes you enjoyment in your "leisure years" and sends you to a sector where your basic needs are provided for but any luxuries must be scavenged, stolen, or traded for.

This is Lisse's fate, along with a few acquaintances from her school. They band together to try to make a life for themselves out of a grim future that doesn't provide much hope.

All this changes one day when they receive an invitation to The Game, which is an immersible virtual reality exploration game. They are deposited in an environment and left to explore.

I won't spoil it for you, but beating the game brings them new opportunities, ones they never expected would be available to them.

Lisse and her friends are a dynamic group, and one of the things I loved about this book was how they related to each other. I was right along with them, making alliances, feeling their grievances and their triumphs.

The other thing that made this book memorable for me was the detail provided in the settings they visit and even the smallest of tasks. In The Game, the friends make soap from animal fat and the lye from their ashes. One of the girls makes a fishing line from strands of her hair. Kaolin mud is harvested to create pots. In the city, the night time is a time of raucous debauchery (rated PG, of course) and people in garish peacock colored costumes.

A short, well imagined, satisfying read, even for an adult.

3. The Passage by Justin Cronin
Age Range: Adult
Mode of Apocalypse: Virus/Zombie/Vampire/Things

The Passage is a recent best seller, a book that Stephen King gave lofty praise to on the jacket. I picked it up at work (when I worked at Barnes & Noble) when I forgot a book to read over lunch, and was hooked immediately.

One of the things I love about The Passage is how it morphs. It begins pre-apocalypse, with only tiny hints of what might happen, and with a cataclysmic action scene, catapults into post-apocalypse.

The styles of the pre- and post-apocalypse are slightly different and utterly engaging.

The first part is almost Neil Gaiman-esque. There is a lot of emphasis on weather, and the fantastic is mentioned side by side along with the mundane, a la Gaiman's American Gods (which, though not a part of this list, is well worth your read.) It features two FBI agents, a young girl abandoned by her mother, a nun with a traumatic past, and a death row inmate who is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book.

The second part is post-apocalypse and reads more like a sci-fi novel, without the grounding mentions of McDonalds' and Tahoes and Power Puff Girls.  Humans infected with a virus have turned lethal, and the virals have just about wiped out North America. Our survivors are holed up in a colony, and must function with the barest of resources.

Throughout the book, Cronin uses different forms to tell the story: E-mails, memories, dreams, letters, memoirs, notices, minutes from meetings, watch logs. It's quite refreshing, in such a long book, to have the prose broken up with these other forms. It also ads immediacy and believability to the story.

The Passage takes itself seriously, and I needed some buffer time for my fear of the dark to abate after I read it.

4. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Age Range: Adult
Mode of Apocalypse: Nuclear Fallout

I picked this up about a year and a half ago, never having read any Margaret Atwood before, and liking the premise on the back of the book.

This is a post-apocalyptic book with quite a different tone to it. The survivors here are kind of hippies, growing an organic garden on an abandoned high-rise rooftop. They sing a quite a bit, and their songs are written down in the book. You can also get a CD of the songs, but I've never listened to them.

I'm not sure why I kept reading this. I can't say it was terribly engaging, and not many of the characters were very memorable. The only thing that was memorable was the settings: the rooftop garden, an eternally damp old-folks home....Or maybe it was a spa or a mental institution.

Anyway, it is a prequel to Oryx and Crake and it does sort of feel like "Special Features" instead of "Feature Presentation," but there's something haunting and lilting about it. And it has a lot of cultural things about the surviving population that are pretty fascinating: their songs, their feast days (there's one every day,) etc.

Give it a couple of chapters to see if its your cup of tea.

5. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Age Range: 10+
Mode of Apocalypse: Nuclear Fallout

This is a kids book. It's also flipping fabulous.

Lina and Doon are schoolkids whose whole city is underground. Their world is lit by electric lamps that are increasingly un-reliable.

As far as Lina and Doon know, this is the way things have always been. Pencils and paper are scarce. Everything is deteriorated. But Lina's grandmother finds a box with strange instructions inside. Lina is certain that it is important, and it's up to her to convince the rest of her city that they have to follow the instructions.

This book is a fast-paced easy read with memorable, likeable characters. Lina is surefooted, clever, and kind. Doon is a stalwart, resourceful best friend. The world is fascinating, and since the reader discovers with Lina and Doon about the history of Ember, they feel all the fascination and the wonder that the characters feel.

This is the first in a series, and the second was less spectacular. I didn't pick up the third, so I can't account for that, but even as a standalone The City of Ember is a worthwhile read.

I sometimes think of books in terms of colors, and City of Ember is, to me, a mix of brassy amber, and deep night blue. It is rich with detail, and the image of a jury-rigged city was intriguing to me.

6. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Age Range: 14+
Mode of Apocalypse: Nuclear Fallout

If you haven't read The Hunger Games, stop what you are doing, and begin it now.

(I'm serious.)

If you have, I don't have to tell you how awesome this series is. I don't have to tell you about how the idea of the Hunger Games themselves is like a car wreck--it's horrible, un-thinkable, but you simply can't look away. I don't have to tell you how much of a badass Katniss is. I don't have to tell you how agonizing it is, knowing that everything for Katniss is a lose-lose situation, wondering how on /earth/ she'll get out, insisting that she /must/ get out alive and well, but not putting it past Collins to kill her off.

These books hurt so good.

And you may as well buy all three of them, and set aside a weekend, buy yourself some comfort food and tuck in, because you're not gonna look up once you start these books.

Once Katniss becomes a tribute in the Hunger Games, she and her loved ones are in constant danger. There is not a moment from the reaping (when the tributes are chosen) until the end of Mockingjay when she is safe. And Collins is not afraid of hurting people in this book. Likeable characters are not guaranteed survival, although some of them are guaranteed death. The Hunger Games are a fight till the death, after all. And The Capitol has very very long arms.

You'll be looking over your shoulder after reading these ones.

7. Vanishing Point by Michaela Roessner
Age Range: Adult
Mode of Apocalypse: Rapture? Many-worlds car wreck?

This book is an old one, also out of print, I think, but you can definitely get used copies.

So, most of the human race has vanished.



Left behind an empty country. Stragglers band together for survival and for company in one giant, ever-expanding mansion in California. It has some elements of a basic survivalist story (which is one of the big draws of post-apocalyptic fiction) but there are some strange things afoot.

Physics is kind of...broken.

Colors that previously existed don't. New colors emerge. The first generation of children post-vanishing have metallic hair. They can slip through extra dimensions as easy as we can walk through a door. Strange creatures roam.

The survivors are trying to figure out what has happened to their world, and in the midst there are love stories, people stories, place stories.

It's an old, little known book, and I found it in my mom's bookshelf when I was broke and dying for something to read. Pick it up. Give it the love it deserves.

8. Idlewild by Nick Sagan
Age Range: Adult
Mode of Apocalypse: Virus

Nick Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, tells the story of Halloween, who wakes up in a pumpkin patch with dancing lights above his eyes and amnesia. He has forgotten everything--who he is, where he is, what he was doing...All he knows is that he is paralyzed and that someone has just tried to kill him.

His paralysis is temporary, and he is soon up exploring his haunting environs: A cathedral-like Gothic mansion, a grave yard with nine graves, one of them open, a swamp, pumpkins.

A word of advice: Download this as an audiobook.  The narrator, Clayon Blarclay-Jones, breathes life into the character of Halloween that I'm not entirely sure would come across on the page. And this is not terribly surprising, since Nick Sagan actually usually writes screenplays.

But this book will surprise you. Since you are working backwards with Halloween to try and find the person who attempted your murder, your mind will be working like crazy, trying to find clues, trying to understand, trying to  remember along with Halloween.

You don't even find out that it's post-apocalyptic until the end, except that Halloween's narration is cut with scenes from before. When everything comes together, the realization of what has happened is staggering.

The sequel, Eden Born, is also fabulous, and the third, Ever Free, is not available as an audiobook, and I haven't read it.

9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Age Range: 14+
Mode of Apocalypse: Devolution

This is my only classic on the list, and it probably doesn't come directly into anyone's mind as post-apocalyptic fiction. But The Time Traveller travels past the apocalypse, which I would consider the breakdown of civilization as we know it. When he finds the simple Eloi beset by a nameless, all consuming fear, everything we know has been wiped out.

The whole book is kind of a thought experiment. It seems that Wells cast his mind into the future and followed it down logical paths until he arrived at one possible future. And it is not terribly pleasant.

The entire story is told via conversation. There are several characters meeting, and The Time Traveller tells his story. The prose is immediate and conversational. You might even start to smell the smoke from the imaginary campfire you imagine yourself sitting around.

H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds (Which would probably have made my list had I read it. [blush]) is an imaginative writer with outlandish ideas written in that nice, 19th century matter-of-fact-ness. Wells spells out complicated ideas with ease, introducing time, for example as the 4th dimension by explaining that an object must have "length, width, breadth, and duration."

If, in your reading, you passed on The Time Machine, I recommend picking it up. It's a novella, so it's short. You can probably finish it in a day or so.

10. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Age Range: Adult
Mode of Apocalypse: Global Warming

Okay, so the apocalypse hasn't quite happened in this book, but the world is different beyond recognition.

Lush settings, wild events, subtle politics, visceral descriptions, and an imaginative plot make for a thoroughly seductive reading experience. Anderson is an American, a representative of a huge company come to Bangkok to oversee another company. As he discovers the underlying politics of Bangkok, he invests more and more of himself in the sweltering, humid, nearly flooded city.

There is so much going on in this book, much of it in layers, that it is hard to describe. The book is completely transportive. You can smell it while you read, I swear. The city comes alive under Bacigalupi's luscious prose. 

The world is under great strain to support its people. Crops won't grow unless they are biologically altered. Cats have evolved into something that can disappear and reappear at will.  food is scarce and wealth is counted in calories.  It is a strange, alien place, but not so alien that you cannot imagine it happening.

One of the other reasons I liked this book is that it is predominantly Asian. Many of the other books I listed here only concern themselves with America. It's not surprising, as I'm reading works in English by mainly American authors. But it was a nice change of scenery, a change of thought, to imagine what Asia would be, pushed to its limits.


Well, I hope you enjoyed or will enjoy a few of the books on the list.

I clearly did not ad every post-apocalyptic book I could think of, so I apologize if your favorite post-apocalyptic book didn't make the cut. I only listed books I've read, so it's probably not that I don't think you have good taste in books, it's probably because I haven't read that one yet.

It's entirely cool to post your ideas in the comments.

Whether you get sucked up to heaven, get your brains eaten by zombies, or catch a virus that turns you into a creepy-ass dream-sharing vampire-like monster (a la The Passage,) I wish you a Merry Rapture.

Even if nothing happens at all and you have to live out your Rapture fantasies by reading these books.


We Have Cabin Fever

Reason the Fourth: We Have Cabin Fever

This post is Part 5 in a 5 Part series about why space travel should be made a priority by governments, world leaders, private companies, engineers, scientists, and teachers. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Thanks for visiting!

It's a small world, after all. It's a small, small world.

In fact, I want to go back in time a bit to 1964, when the It's a Small World ride was designed for the New York World's Fair.  Walt Disney was trying to emphasize harmony and unity among all of the nations of the world. Even the song itself was composed specifically to harmonize the five different languages it is sung in during the ride.
It's a Small World

"Because of the repetition and because the Sherman Brothers used a musical technique called counterpoint, where the same chords are played over and over again but with different melodies, the song they wrote is catchy and unforgettable," it says on Disney World's website.

And it blends all of the nations together in a seamless experience which will be stuck in your head for the next several years.

The ride was meant to connect nations under one idea, that we all live on the same rock, about 95 million miles away from the sun. You might say we're all stuck in one earth-sized cabin in the cold, vast, arctic cold of space.  And it doesn't matter how big your cabin is if you've got too many people living there. 

And whatever Walt Disney hoped for, we do not live together peacefully.

In a time when globalization has made the world one big neighborhood, everyone knows everyone else and can connect as easy as clicking "request friend" on Facebook or "follow" on twitter. We cat fight about things so obscure or so specialized that most people hate each other for reasons they can't remember or don't fully understand or both.

We snap at each other like siblings who have shared the same room for too long. We go to war over land and oil and money and religion.... It's not like war is a new idea that sprung up because we've been on Earth too long, but maybe if we had more space. Well, unless you fancy season-long days and ice cold temperatures, deep sea pressure, or the scalding heat and blowing sand of the Sahara....

There is no more room.

And that's when we turn our gaze up and peer out of our cabin's skylight. Suddenly, the siblings' feuds die down. We are united by one goal: find out what is beyond that pane of atmosphere.

Separating all the waring cultures of Earth might not actually solve all of the issues. You can't stop people fighting for the things they love, nor should you. And there will always be differences between us. 

But the one thing we all have in common is the Earth below us and the sky above.

Wouldn't it be nice to face outward for a while? To look away from our tired arguing and fighting and debating and nagging and find something new and fantastic, simply for the pleasure of discovering something new?

The immensity of space, that vastness of unconquered wilderness is inspiring to me. To use a writerly analogy, it's like a brand new journal, fresh and clean, just waiting for you to mold it into your own image. In it you will discover much, create much. It is a grand beginning.

We must take the plunge and venture forth. (I feel a Star Trek reference coming on.) We must "boldly go where no man has gone before." 

And if we find intelligent life out there, all of a sudden all of the People of Earth will become one People. To risk sounding like a wishy-washy-lovey-dovey hippie, we could really use something to focus us like that. If we are going to be a truly global society, we need to start acting like one.

To wrap it all up, space travel and exploration is an essential part of what makes us human, what makes us special and different. In The Lion King when Timon, Pumba and Simba are digesting a big meal after a good day and laying back looking at the stars, Pumba and Simba have very "human" answers as to what they are. Pumba is completely correct (for the wrong reasons and comic relief) that they are "balls of gas burning billions of miles away." Simba takes a more spiritual, cultural tack, repeating what Mufasa told him as a cub: that the stars is where their ancestors dwell, watching down on them. Timon is the only one who answeres like an animal. He tells the others with his characteristic confidence that the stars are "fireflies stuck up in that big, bluish-black thing." Perhaps more telling is his preamble to this. "Pumba, I don't wonder. I know." He is not curious, he does not question, he simply gives himself all the explanation he needs and moves forward.

But we are curious beings. We have a need to know things and we get there by wondering ceaselessly.  We want to know why we are, who we are, where we are, if we're alone....

The study of space can help us answer these questions, and ask more. Looking upward and outward and forward is part of our being human, and having conquered Earth, space is truly the next frontier.

It's a big, big, universe
So many dimensions
And unanswered questions...

Not to mention, life
What an invention,

by Darren Criss
from the sci-fi comedy
YouTube musical
Act 1, Part 6