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


Space is Cool! It's Big! It's Different!

Reason the Third: Space is Cool! It's Big! It's Different!

This post is Part 4 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, and Part 3.  Follow my blog or follow me on Twitter @jajaamanda to be alerted to when the next one is up!

 I mean.

Aren't you curious?

I do not claim that scientists here on Earth have learned every thing there is to learn down here. We can map pretty much the entire Earth (Thanks to satellites courtesy of NASA....) but we haven't "finished" the Earth just because our GPS devices mean we''ll never get lost within a signal range. There are still fascinating discoveries being made even about our own bodies. (Fiber-optic mind control, anyone?)

But come on.


To infinity, and beyond. (I've got Pixar on the brain.)

There are an infinite number of things we don't know, things to study, things to discover and wonder at and fear.

And it would be, excuse my plebeian expression, TOTALLY AWESOME to go there ourselves to experience and research all of these things first hand!

There are many road bumps in our way. For example, if you want to go anywhere out of our solar system, it's going to take you several years of your life, even at the speed of light, which we can't even come close to attaining. And if we did, when we got back to earth, it'd be generations later! We don't know how space affects our bodies. There's radiation to think of. And landing anywhere? Forget about it. Our space suits are clunky and old, and wouldn't hold up in an inhospitable area.

But we have the rest of forever to work together and work through these problems. Encouraging the limited form of space travel we can now accomplish will help us. And with every new generation, the scope of the human consciousness gets bigger.

For example, take three people who have never seen an iPad. Give one to a five year old, one to a 20 year old, and one to a 60 year old. The five year old will learn it the quickest. And when he's 20, having grown up with the kind of technology an iPad uses, he will think differently about innovation than the 35 year old who was 20 when introduced to the iPad.

Check out this scale of the universe. (Also listen to its awesome Epcot-esque music!)

The stuff near humans is pretty easy for me to understand. I know, sorta, the difference between the size of a school bus and the size of the Sears Tower, even Mt. Everest.  But as we get to the celestial objects, asteroids, moons, and Pluto, I can even see something else: The United States. I also know, kinda, about how big that is. I know how long it takes to travel it, and the time it takes to travel something at a speed equals size.  But past that? It is difficult to hold sizes that large in my head.

But if we continue pushing, observing, and traveling through space, our children will have a better idea of how big and far things are. And those kids I see playing with mommy's iPhone will have a better grasp on technologies that could be useful for future space exploration.

Every generation that grows up will find new ways of thinking about the problems space travel affords. And it has to start young. But if space travel by Americans is halted, even for a brief six years, we could lose those young people's innovative minds.  

Could this be the view from your hotel room?
Childhood is brief.

Not all would be lost, though.

Especially since space tourism is a distinct possibility in the near future, reports PopularMechanics. Several companies are now developing different kinds of shuttles with various features, including SpaceX, the company that won $75 million from NASA. So maybe your children's vacation choices will be a bit harder. Lets see, should we go to Disney World, or the Moon? A hands-on space experience like that could set a child on the science path early, and set them up for solving those tough problems our fuddy-duddy brains just can't seem to crack.

And if we can devise a way to travel quickly and safely, with more Earth-like planets being discovered all the time...can you imagine the adventures? You won't have to use your imagination to play Firefly, you could own a Firefly, hire yourself a crew, and roam.... Okay, so maybe it wouldn't be that simple to planet-hop, but the fact that there are planets out there that we could actually set foot on without immediate and painful annihilation is, to use my phrase from earlier, TOTALLY AWESOME.

Part 5: We Have Cabin Fever


The Science! The Science!

Reason the Second: The Science! The Science!

This post is Part 3 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 and Part 2.  Follow my blog or follow me on Twitter @jajaamanda to be alerted to when the next one is up!

Nick Risinger's Photopic Sky Survey (5000 mega pixels!)
Space has been the domain of art, divination, and religion, but since science reached the level of sophistication it has today space has claimed the attention of scientists. There are.... (deep breath) astronomers, astrophysicists, astrogeologists, astrobiologists, astrochemists, astrohydrologists, astro-anythingists! My point is that any question you can ask about anything on Earth you can also ask about Space, and your answer is going to be different and new because the surrounding variables are endlessly different and new.

And the best place to observe space from is space.

Endeavor brought with it a fancy shmancy particle physics do-hickey called the AMS - Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - that can do some fabulous science that physicists can't do here down on the ground. The AMS is a telescope of sorts, only, it doesn't measure light. It measures particles. And up in space, our grimy atmosphere doesn't get in the way.

Says NASA:
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is a state-of-the-art, high energy particle physics experiment built in Geneva by a collaboration of 16 different countries. It will search for clues on what the universe is made of and how it began, the origin of dark matter, antimatter and strangelets, pulsars, blazers and gamma ray bursters. And that’s just what the scientists now to look for.
Isn't it the cutest effin' noise you've ever seen? (right, February?)
So it could answer questions for us that we don't even have the capacity to ask yet.

Also aboard Endeavor is a squid with a flashlight. (No, I promise it's not a Disney/Pixar Nemo/Wall-E crossover.)

The bobtail squid uses a pouch of bio luminescent bacteria to light its way underwater and fool predators. It can control how bright it gets by regulating the amount of oxygen the little bacteria get. More oxygen, brighter light.

The little guys are headed to outer space to see if the lack of gravity affects their bacteria-gathering and flashlight-shining abilities. It's the first step in figuring out if the good bacteria in humans is affected by weightlessness.

Once we know exactly how humans are affected by being out in the cold, dark, floatesphere (I coined that term just now, like it?) we can be more confident about sending humans farther into the solar system, possibly to Gliese 518g, the most Earth-like planet ever discovered. And the best way to learn about a thing is to be able to observe it first hand. 

Everything we know about everything we can observe is biased by our point of view here on Earth. All of the solid things we rest on, all of the constants in our lives are of the Earth. Once we leave Earth, imagine the new insights and the new point of view we'd have!

Okay, yes, I know all the problems about getting humans across vast, empy distances, but that brings me to my third reason, that I will post a bit later.

Part 4: Space is Cool! It's Big! It's Different!

Humans are Harmful

Reason the First: Humans are Harmful

This post is Part 2 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.  Follow my blog or follow me on Twitter @jajaamanda to be alerted when
the next one is up!

Trash in the pacific ocean. Photo Credit
It's been in the news a lot lately: weird weather brought on by global warming, massive amounts of floating trash in the pacific ocean, Japan's compromised nuclear power plant leaking radiation all over the planet, dying bees, dwindling rainforests, disappearing habitats and animal species....

We are squandering the wealth of our planet and leaving our trash in its corners.

Maybe I've watched Wall-e a few too many times, but what if human impact is too far gone, and the Earth is irredeemable? What if we can't get it back? We'll need somewhere to go, or perish.

Part of what makes humans successful is that we're adaptable.

But perhaps we're too adaptable. If an ecosystem in nature can support X amount of animals, then any animals more than that die from lack of food, or are picked off by predators. And Nature prunes carefully. It is the sick, the young, and the old who die first from starvation, are first targeted by predators. It is those with inferior genetic code that are eliminated. The population regulates itself naturally.

Humans, on the other hand, are equipped to avoid pitfalls like this. We protect and heal our sick and young. We are both predator and prey, but we have super-powers. There is no prey we cannot catch. There is no predator that can diminish our numbers in any real way. If our food sources dwindle, we can create high-yield crops. There is nothing to prevent us swarming over the Earth and destroying everything in our path, like the plague of mice in Australia. (If you haven't heard of this, I recommend checking it out. It's crazy.)

We're in the middle of a Green revolution right now. We are beginning to realize that we are damaging the Earth that sustains us.

But what if we are too late? What if there is no way to bring us back? What if we replace every light bulb in the world, but Nature still deteriorates?
An artist's rendering of Gliese 581g.
Or what if our wars escalate, and we destroy the earth by nuclear holocaust?

Well. We'll need to escape.

It sounds fantastic. It sounds like a movie. Something that only happens on sound stages and comes from the minds of storytellers and animators.

But crazier things have happened. (I do live in America, right? No one fell off the edge of the world when they sailed out into the unknown?) 
And if our planet is destroyed, space may be our only escape.

And according to Discovery News, scientists have identified an earth-like planet a mere 20 light years away that seems like it could support life. Her name is Gliese 581g, and she could be our future home.  They can't yet measure specifics about the planet with the current technology, (more about pushing technology in the next post) but our solar systems are similar, which means the conditions planet-side could also be similar. And more recently, according to Space.com, "French scientists verify alien planet Gliese 581d's climate is stable and warm enough for oceans, clouds and rainfall."

In fact, there may already be life there. "'Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,' Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz," said on Discovery.com.

It's like a furnished house, just waiting for us to move in, if, in fact, we can get ourselves there. It IS 20 light years away, so even if we could go the speed of light (which you can't, the speed of light is a constant, so no matter how fast you go, it's still going faster than you.) I'd be 44 by the time I got there, if I left tomorrow morning. But if it is to save the entire human race, I'm not sure I'd mind a few generations in space. (There are logistical problems with this, but as you'll see next, a little Hawaiian squid is helping us smooth out the kinks.) 
And Gliese 581d doesn't have days or nights or seasons. We'd have to find a different way to keep track of time, if time is relevant at all on a planet that doesn't have days.

We would certainly have to take care not to lose our cultural identity, and to carefully study history so that we can avoid destroying Gliese 581d like we could Earth.  Our priorities would have to shift significantly.

Still, it doesn't seem like the far-off dream it once was. And it might be our best bet.

Part 3: The Science! The Science!

Endeavor's Swan Song

Endeavor launched for its last mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo Credit

Monday, May 16, 2011, the space shuttle Endeavor left Earth for it's last mission, springing up from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the early morning.

News channels broadcast the reports, and there were many mentions of it being Endeavor's last launch. The spacewalks planned are the last. Atlantis is scheduled for a launch June 28, but when Endeavor gets back, it will be grounded for good.

Propelling people and things into space is an expensive and dangerous operation, and I can understand that its risks and costs seem to outweigh the benefits when our nation itself is in so much debt. I understand the motivation behind it.

But I still don't like it.

Now, it doesn't mean the end of American space exploration. The hiatus is only supposed to be for about six years or so, and there have been blocks of inactivity before, and longer.

Also, there is a private company, SpaceX which has successfully launched a satellite and returned it safely to earth.  They won $75 million dollars from NASA as a part of the Commercial Crew Development initiative, which is to help private companies compete. The goal is to delegate some of the repair and maintenance work to private companies like this.

Let me diverge a bit here, because I love that idea. Like I mentioned before, spaceflight and exploration is dangerous and expensive, but it's also fascinating. It piques the imagination of kids and grown-ups alike. And I am glad that there are to be more channels to pursue space exploration than just through NASA.  Everyone knows that markets are improved by competition. Ideas are improved the same way. For us to move forward, we need the creativity and scientific prowess of many people, and the Commercial Crew Development initiative fosters that.

And that may be the best path for future space explorations. Because I have no doubt at all that they should continue. And I firmly believe that space exploration, travel, and experimentation should be a top priority on everyone's lists.

The next few days, I'll post my 4 reasons why space travel should be made a priority by governments, world leaders, private companies, engineers, scientists, and teachers. Follow my blog or follow me on Twitter @jajaamanda to be alerted to when the next one is up!

UPDATE: They are all up, and you can peruse them at your leisure here: 


Michigan Dreams

Michigan seems like a dream to me now.... - Simon & Garfunkel in "America"
Me, age 6 or 7, Black River Harbor, MI.
My mom, age 20, Black River Harbor, MI. 1978
Michigan's upper peninsula is literally a place of dreams to me.

When I was younger, I had a recurring dream. I was on a beach of smooth pebbles, sorting through them. In the dream, I was annoyed because someone wanted to show me something I wasn't interested in. I was looking for a specific rock. It was very important. Finally, I felt like if I didn't follow the person that instant, I'd be in trouble. I turned. It was my aunt, Melissa. The lake before us was calm and blue, the sun bore down on us and I squinted. Melissa lead me on to a breaker of huge, angular boulders. We climbed over the slippery rocks, me in my water-shoes, Melissa in her Keds.
A double rainbow over Lake Gogebic.
Rainbow Falls. 1978
Kitch-iti-kipi, looking straight down into the water.

The place is a real place, and to this day, I'm not sure if I actually ever did that or not. It seems so real, but it would have been so long that dream and memory have co-mingled. I may have seen a picture of the scene and inserted myself in it. I'm fairly sure I never would have been allowed on to those rocks, especially since in the dream/memory, I am about seven years old.

When I was in my teens, our family took a vacation to the Upper Peninsula, where we sometimes stayed at a cabin on Lake Gogebic. One day, we took a drive to Black River Harbor, almost as far west as Michigan goes, where the Black River empties into Lake Superior. The beach is made of water-smoothed pebbles, not sand, and the breaker allows boats to exit the river and go into the lake without being battered by waves.

But I didn't see this when we first got there.

Our aim was to hike a trail up to some waterfalls. Rainbow Falls, I think they were called. My cousins and I ran through the woods like Pocahontas, fleet-footed, dodging trees, tireless, joyful. On the way back, we took a smaller, unmarked trail that spilled us out into the sun on that pebbled beach.

It was quite a moment. I saw the image from my dream. A smooth, pebbled beach. Driftwood. To the left, a breaker. It was like deja-vu but stronger. I had never known if it was a real place, but there it was, in front of me. I felt like I had created the place, it was so exact to what I had in my memory.

The U.P. has always held this quality for me. I have a hard time separating memories from stories I heard or things I imagined. I remember stopping on highway 2 somewhere, wading out into the warmth of a shallow Lake Michigan shore. I remember a lake so clear that you could see straight to the bottom, 40 feet down. It was as colorful and alive as a coral reef. Fish flew instead of swam. We went out on the lake on a raft which we pulled along by means of a rope strung shore to shore.

Did I do that for real, or did I read it in a book? Who can say?

I have definitely written things that certainly did not happen, but take place in real Michigan places. The Caldera (click to read)  is a dream-story set in the Lake of the Clouds. Lake of the Clouds, is not, in fact, a caldera, which is a lake formed in the collapsed crater of a volcano, but it is a high-elevation lake often wreathed in clouds.

I could go on, listing fantastic places in the UP.

But what is really special about all of the things I remember (or think I do) about the Upper Peninsula is that they are all of the earth. They are primal. They are left over from geological processes that happened millions of years ago. Michigan was created by titanic, earth-moving forces. Forces so great, that in order to comprehend them, my mind defaults to magic or dreams, where things don't have to make sense.

And the best part is...they are all real places! What I remembered as a clear lake is actually a spring called Kitch-iti-kipi. Black River Harbor and Rainbow Falls are real. Lake of the Clouds is almost as haunting in real life as it is in my fiction. And you can go there.

Black River Harbor & Rainbow Falls - http://www.superiortrails.com/black-river-mi.html
Kitch-iti-kipi - http://www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails/Details.aspx?type=SPRK&id=425
Lake of the Clouds - http://porcupinemountains.com/activities/lake-of-the-clouds/

A map of the places mentioned in this post:

View Dreams of Michigan in a larger map


Wild Herds of Feral Shopping Carts Sighted in Germantown

I had to finagle the camera to get a trash-free view, and if you enlarge it....It's there.
We've been having glorious weather this week in Maryland, 75° and sunny, low humidity, and cool breezes, and I've been taking advantage of this to walk Tilly almost every day.

Unhappy ending to a deadly scuffle over territory?
During these walks, I've been noticing something disturbing more and more.  In ditches and creeks near footpaths between the apartment complexes of Germantown, I saw several shopping carts, blocks away from their stores, trashed.

The footpaths that go through the apartment complexes here are generally pretty nice walks. They get you off of impersonal streets and into a quieter area green and shaded by trees.  The one I take crosses a bright little creek a couple of times and last time I saw a bird with a wingspan as wide as my spread arms. It was black and immense, and it eyed Tilly and me for a few moments before it flapped off. Birds swoop, chipmunks scatter as you walk by, and the trees make little dapples of sunshine. It would be a perfectly lovely place to walk, if it weren't for the wild shopping carts that roam the area.

I come across their remains quite often along the otherwise picturesque path. Lately, I've been seeing the little black ones, but I've seen full-size, rusted, half-submerged shopping carts stuck in the creek bed, sunken into muddy areas. Sometimes there's one by itself, sometimes they're grouped together. And it's only been getting worse.

I've seen shopping carts blocks away from their stores, huddled under the bus stop. They're not in their orderly rows, corralled in parking lots and the vestibules of grocery stores. They're not even near any cart-providing stores. They're just huddled at the bus stop with the rest of the commuters. They look like cows grazing, or urban nuisances like pigeons or geese. It's kind of cute, when you can theriomorphize them. (Fabulous word, the product of an arduous word hunt and supplied, in the end, by @melindamcguire on Twitter.) When you interpret what is not animal in terms of animal characteristics, they become sympathetic.

Gross, ugly, and harmful.
But these carts, and all this other trash I photographed on my walk, is really dangerous to the natural ecosystems of the area. Wildlife has a hard enough time surviving when we "tame" (read: destroy) all of their habitats. It only adds insult to injury to then pollute the few places we leave for them.

And treating this trash like it's a natural part of the ecosystem removes the feeling that is harmful, and removes responsibility to keep our area nice for us and for the wildlife here. The carts and bikes and basketballs and pop bottles do not occur naturally in nature.

It is always astounding to me how blatant people can be about not putting their trash in appropriate areas. Granted, there will always be accidents. Baseballs will be batted and never found. Wrappers will fall out of pockets. But a few weeks ago, I saw a woman pushing home her groceries in a cart, a child riding along in the kids seat, and another one on a razor scooter. I've seen teenagers riding grocery carts down my street like they're some sort of skateboard.

Come, on, people. Don't you want to live in a nice area where there isn't trash all over the trails, and where people act with integrity and thoughtfulness?


Dystopian Detroit

100 Abandoned Houses in Detroit
The last few days have been filled with Detroit sports victories.  Justin Verlander became the second Tiger in history to toss two no-hitters in his career. The Red Wings are on track to make history by coming from behind 3-0 in a series to evade elimination in the playoffs. And the clean, inviting few blocks that make up Hockeytown, Comerica Park and Ford Field are among the only parts of Detroit that ever play host to their creators: people.

I've blogged about Detroit before. But I have to say something again as a disturbing statistic has been reported by several agencies.

Detroit's illiteracy rate is an alarming 47%, reports Huffington Post.

So. Half of the people in Detroit can't read. They can't read the newspaper. They can't fill out job applications. They can't do the work or earn the money needed to attend post-secondary education, although, ironically, many of them have graduated high school. They can't write love letters. They can't read Lord of the Rings. They can't read the directions on a prescription.

The ability to read and write has long been the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. And the haves have controlled populations this way. If a population can't read, it can't get new ideas. It can't communicate effectively with other members. How do we expect Detroit to pick itself up, rebuild its abandoned houses [click for an awesome photo essay on Detroit's abandoned hosues], and return to the great American city it once was if a person can graduate high school and still be functionally illiterate? How do you climb up when your ladder has no rungs?

The article I linked to at the Huffington Post mentions a statistic that says those who need "help" aren't getting it. But what can you do? You can not force half the people in Detroit to learn how to read. And programs to do it would be expensive. Detroit's citizens must take responsibility. Must take ownership of their city. No one else can do it for them. They need to build themselves up. No government or humanitarian group or charity can force a population to do better for itself. A psychologist may proscribe a pill to help a person to better themselves, but there is no pill that can clarify a city's mind. The soul of a city is its citizens.

I am not from Detroit. But I am from Michigan, and I love it. What happens to your state when your largest city is dangerous, unlettered, and failing? I am not brave enough to try and raise a family in an environment like that, but when everyone in Detroit who can read and knows a dying city when they see it leaves.... We are left with a 47% illiteracy rate, and a population who do not even know how to lift their city up.

I don't have the solutions for Detroit. But I have a lot of hope for it. The city has a lot of history, and a lot of good things going for it. All it needs is the support of its citizens.