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  • Posts Tagged ‘my soapbox’

    One Year In Microcosmology: A Retrospective


    2011 - 12.22

    Happy first birthday to Microcosmologist! Since the very first post was on December 1st 2010, I guess we’ve been one for a while now.

    It’s been an interesting project on many levels. It’s also amusing to look back on the sketching and drafting I did, originally brainstorming on what I wanted the website to be, before I had even put anything up. All in all, I feel what’s here now is a solid actualization of what I had envisioned a year back. Maybe some of the more ambitious ideas never became reality; I never created my own custom mp3 player for the navigation bar, I never figured out a way to get past ‘frames’ and still have that navigation bar, and I haven’t made it quite the dizzying maze of self-referential links I’d wanted–but overall, the majority of the bullet points were crossed off the list.

    A lot of the ideas which never made it into reality were the ones that simply would’ve taken a lot of effort for not much real return. It would’ve been cool to have some fancy splash screen as an intro to the site… which any regular visitors would watch once and then bypass every time afterward. It would’ve been really neat to host my own photo gallery onsite, and animate it to look like a slide projector… but flickr makes it so easy to organize and share large images; not to mention the fact that it won’t crash when 40,000 people come to see your infographic all on the same day! I guess that underscores the need to wisely allocate your time. It doesn’t make sense to invest huge amounts of effort into something that won’t add all that much to the end user experience.

    The biggest highlights of building this site have most definitely been who it’s put me in touch with. Talking to Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute was coolness that crossed over into surrealness. Mister Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog was a peach to chat with. I also traded emails with Simon Allen the drummer in my favorite band, The New Mastersounds, and got to chat it up with guitar wizard Eric Krasno on the phone for a half hour. All these were supreme pleasures. I wonder what 2012 will hold!?

    ProTips: Flip Your Web Colours


    2011 - 12.20

    As you can see on this website, I prefer to read white text on a black background. It’s just less fatiguing, at least to me personally. I found myself getting irritated/eyestrain from long webpages full of useful information that I wanted to read but rendered with black text on a bright white background. I don’t know why this is the standard. Maybe the precedent set by newsprint? In any event, there is a solution. Create yourself a new bookmark, and instead of a web address, paste in this javascript:

    javascript: (function(){ var newSS, styles=’* { background: black ! important; color: white !important } :link, :link * { color: #CCFF33 !important } :visited, :visited * { color: #551A8B !important }’; if(document.createStyleSheet) { document.createStyleSheet(“javascript:'”+styles+”‘”); } else { newSS=document.createElement(‘link’); newSS.rel=’stylesheet’; newSS.href=’data:text/css,’+escape(styles); document.getElementsByTagName(“head”)[0].appendChild(newSS); } } )();

    Then whenever you click that bookmark, boom, white text on black background! It doesn’t work perfectly on every single webpage, but on the whole it works well. I generally click it when I find an interesting page that I know I’ll be reading for a while. It’s made an excellent tweak to my web-browsing. Try it out!

    If killing Courier was the right thing to do, then why are we all still talking about a non-existent device one year after the project was cancelled?


    2011 - 11.03

    This week CNET published a fascinating two part article on the death of the infamous Microsoft Courier project, which I had rapped about on here previously. It was a maddening walk down memory lane to read; the story of how a categorically innovative product was sacrificed on the altar of “platform synergy” or whatever corporate doublespeak you want to call it.

    The intriguing insider tale of exactly how it all went down reads a little bit like the Empire Strikes Back, with an ending that sees the team you rooted for in defeat and their forces scattered to the wind with their home base destroyed. Peppered around CNET’s analysis and echoed by Ars Technica (among many places I’m sure) are references to the device being “consumer-focused”. I have a beef with this term; it should be “creator-focused”.

    Someone like me, who curates a website, likes to photograph, and is perpetually jotting down ideas, would truly stand to benefit, perhaps dramatically, from the use of a “digital moleskin” like the Courier intended to be. Ars Technica could not be more wrong when they said that killing the Courier was the right move made for the wrong reasons; it was the wrong move made for Microsoft’s own “right” reasons–maybe preserving a product lineup that operates in lockstep with MS Enterprise 2015 is the right decision to keep your users corralled into your tiny little pen, but squashing this hardware that creative types could use for a whole new digital workflow: that’s a defeat for the everyman, no two ways about it.

    It’s not about the device; it’s about what people will do with it. Apple didn’t create Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, nor did they create Filtatron, the Moog synthesizer app; two of the coolest things to do on the iPad. They set up a platform for people to do neat things, and then creative types figured out how to use it, and turned it into the awesomeness that it is now (and wasn’t on day one). In a smiliar way, you can’t foresee the fresh ideas that would have been inevitably spawned on the Courier. If iPad is meant for consumption and Courier was meant for creation, these devices would have been complimentary… everyone loses in its absence. I would probably be using a Courier to collect, organize, and publish content on this blog right now if it existed. That’s just one narrow, specific example.

    The sad part is that only a company like Microsoft, with huge amounts of resources in software and hardware design, could actually manufacture a compact device that combined slick interface design, multi-touch/gesture input, pressure-sensitive stylus input, handwriting recognition, integration with cloud content hosting, seamless web publishing and so forth. I don’t see anyone else making something that offers up the “whole package” like that. Maybe it’ll be another 10 years before someone manages to work up to that level. Maybe one company will never do it, but it will only be possible with a hodgepodge of various services and some DIY know-how.

    In any event, Courier was a tantalizing glimpse into the future by some very forward-thinking people. A vision too far ahead of it’s time–a byproduct of a company with the creative brainpower to shatter the boundaries of what portable electronics could do, but too straightjacketed by legacy products and enterprise strategery to see the real-world potential of what Courier was.

    But whatever. I’ll step off the soapbox. Microsoft will be Microsoft I guess. It’s unrealistic to expect something miraculous from them.

    I get to do WHAT?!


    2011 - 10.16

    Okay, not gonna lie: extra-large size awesome news struck on Friday and I’m totally not able to play it cool about this.

    The most excellent people at Madison House Publicity have helped me obtain a media pass and photo credentials for the 2011 Bear Creek Music Festival.

    Just gonna sit back and absorb that one for a minute…

    Ah yes, that’s ah, well, you might say that it’s, um, geez, what can you say about that??  It’s gonna be flippin amazing.

    In the coming weeks I’ll be adding several posts leading up to the festival, and then once I’m there, I intend to upload photos and do a little live-blogging as the fest unfolds.  Then for (many?) weeks afterward there will be a steady stream of photos and other coverage.  I’m not even sure what all that will entail yet.  Being the ambitious guy I am, I intend to try to make the most of it.

    So consider this like a tiny preface to a novel that you’re about to read (and see and listen to!) on here.  It’s going to go deep into the artistry of funk music, like I’ve only scratched the surface of before.  This is something I’m terrifically excited about.  For serious.

    (Partial) Camera Lust: The Nikon J1


    2011 - 09.30

    The Nikon J1 is the company’s first mirrorless interchangable lens camera (MILC). That in itself is pretty exciting. What with digital viewfinders, live view, and the new emphasis on movie modes in high end cameras, it’s cool to see the elimination of the mirror and pentaprism format of SLRs. Just extra weight and bulk really. I am ALL for chopping out any of these obsolete bits. Pop Photo gives a great rundown of test shots they captured with the J1, check it out.

    Olympus and Pentax have been barking up the mirrorless interchangable lens format tree for a while now, and the retro-rangerfinder-esque stylings of their Micro 4/3rds format have major sex appeal for photography geeks. It’s super cool to see Nikon finally stepping into the ring (because that means now Canon has to as well, and I own Canon lenses!) But like the micro 4/3rds cameras, big-boy Nikon’s first offering in this vein comes with some whopping caveats:

    1. You can use your existing F mount lenses, but only with an adapter. It’s disappointing that this camera isn’t F-native.
    2. It’s got a crop factor of 2.7. Ouch. That means that your 28mm lens is now equivalent to a shocking 75mm. BOOM, your wide angle is insta-telephotoized! What?!? Jeez!
    3. That crop factor is, of course, due to a smaller than APS-C sized sensor. Hrmmmm. Small sensors are a drag. They mean poor light gathering ability at equivalent apertures, reduced bokeh affect at equivalent apertures, poor high ISO performance and by extension noisy, grainy, fuzzy images, when compared to their APS-C brethren.

    The second point here may really be the killer, as it essentially means you need to buy new lenses for this camera. Good luck getting a true wide angle below a full frame equivalent of 27mm. Nikon’s got a pancake 10mm that comes out in conjunction with the J1, but how long will it be before you can get something like my canon 10-24mm offers me? (16-38mm in full-frame equivalence) Probably never. No superwide. That’s sad.

    It’s a sign that the winds of change are blowing when Nikon makes their first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. MILCs are lighter, smaller, and a logical step in the evolution of cameras. Unfortunately it seems like it’s still going to be a long time before a guy like me would ever want to take the plunge with one of these, mostly due to that staggering list of compromises above. I’ll check back in when Canon makes a MILC with (at least) an APS-C sized sensor. Now THAT would be a camera I’d get truly excited for!

    The Funky Cactus Vinyl Gold, To Blow Up Your Eardrums


    2011 - 08.27

    It’s time to raise the curtain on two little mini-mixes I’ve been compiling for some time. I’m really tickled with how awesome these turned out.  First off: “The 70’s Cactus Vinyl Funk Mixtape” (click the cassete to play)

    I’ve been hitting up this really awesome record store in Houston called Cactus Music, where they have maybe 20-30 crates of used vinyl which is up for grabs at 97¢ per LP. Yes, $0.97. It’s completely unsorted and a good deal of the records are scratched and dirty, but still, for under a dollar per LP, this place is a total gold mine. This mixtape is the cream of the funky crop I found while diggin through those crates down at Cactus this summer.

    As you’ll hear immediately from the start, there’s plenty of crackle and vinyl “dirtyness” in here. I did pick up a record cleaner soon after I started buying LPs, but listening back to two recorded versions of the opening track which I dubbed before and after using the record cleaner, I actually decided to use the dirty one on purpose. I dig the raw, unkempt vibe that record crackle gives. There’s even a minor skip in the second track; see if you can catch it. I left if raw intentionally so it’s exactly like you’d hear if a buddy came over to your house and you were excited to play that hot LP you just found earlier this week–we’re not going to waste time cleaning this thing, throw it on the platter and go, man!

    That’s pretty much the spirit of this mix–it’s a bunch of weird 70’s funk that I’d never known of before, mostly from bands I’d never heard of before either. I compiled it to share my favorite finds with fellow funk fanatics. The mix is 30 minutes long so it would fit perfectly onto a cassette tape as part of the Bill’s Boat Cassette Project. Since I was putting extra care into the track selection and mastering of this mix, moreso than any of the other tapes, I got on eBay and picked up a sweet looking reel-to-reel style tape for it, as you can see above. The vinyl was digitized to FLAC through my Pro-Ject Debut III USB turntable, arranged in Sony ACID, compressed and mastered with T-Racks tube emulation software, rendered back to FLAC again, and then put to tape on my NAD 6130 cassette deck. I was very pleased with the end result!

    Since I did spend time obsessing about the sound quality, I’ll offer this one in FLAC in addition to the usual 160kbs mp3. Right click those links to download. Click the cassette above to stream it now (flash required).

    Track Listing:

    1. Cosmic Truth – Earthquake Shake
    2. B.T. Express – Do It ‘Til You’re Satisfied
    3. Brass Connection – Movin’
    4. The Commodores – Patch It Up
    5. Cosmic Truth – UFO’s
    6. Ronnie Laws – Mis’ Mary’s Place
    7. Steve Miller Band – Fly Like an Eagle (psychedelic intro only)
    Playtime: 30 minutes

    And the proverbial Side B to The 70’s Cactus Vinyl Funk Mixtape: “BOATCHASE!” (you can stream this too, by clicking the previous cassette and going to the next track. Since these mixes were created together, I’m grouping them in their own playlist together)

    Track Listing:

    1. Brass Connection – Sambo (progression)
    2. Curtis Mayfield – Junkie Chase
    3. Ohio Players – Fight Me, Chase Me
    4. Ohio Players – The Big Score
    5. Mandrill – Silk
    Playtime: 24 minutes

    As with the A-Side, this mix was gathered exclusively from 97¢ vinyl I bought at Cactus Records and built/mastered the same way, only this time I picked these particular cuts to emulate the soundtrack for a 1970s style boat chase scene, probably from a movie about people smuggling illicit goods from tropical locations. There’d be a lot of exposed chest hair and mustaches involved. And brown avaiator sunglasses. You’ll notice the last tune is a change of pace–this is the triumphant part of the boat chase where you’ve eluded the pursuers and are chillin out in the sunshine, smooth sailin.

    As above, we got FLAC format available for you audiophiles with the Grado headphones, and we’ve got 160kbs mp3 available for the iPod listeners on the move. Click the top cassette to launch em right now in the player, playa. Also available in the Music section.

    Awwwwwwww GIT IT!

    SETIstars Infographic


    2011 - 06.26

    So recently I was contacted by the SETI team regarding a sequel to the infographic I had produced a couple months back.  As many of you may know already, they’re trying a new way of keeping the Allen Telescope Array running: crowdsourcing.  There’s a new website over at SETIstars.org where anyone can go and give funds specifically for the restarting of the ATA. It’s a savvy move in the age of kickstarter, microloans, and grassroots funding.  And it’s pretty awesome to think that, well, if the people who should be paying for this won’t pay for it, fine, we’ll do it ourselves!

    I hope the venture is a big success.  It’d be reaffirming to see the citizenship of planet Earth as forward-thinking enough to collectively grok the profound implications that discovery of other intelligences would have.  It would be invigorating to know that we realize this meaningfully enough that we, as single individuals, would band together to sustain this important work.

    In the large scope of things, it’s not all that expensive either.  Just for perspective: the 1st infographic so far has seen over 40,000 views (just the flickr version, nevermind the ones I cannot track).  See the bottom of this new infographic to see how much 40,000 people would need to spend apiece to keep the ATA in action…

    There is a slightly-higher quality version available at flickr, as well as a whopping 11,749 pixels-long monstrosity of this new graphic combined with the original.  Anyone is welcome to use or repost this to their heart’s content.  All I request is a link.  And that you can chip in at least a fiver to SETIstars! Anyone can swing that.

    Also, I got a lot more creative with the background this time around.  Check out the remnants of Kepler’s supernova, comet NEAT, and the Andromeda galaxy!

    Special thanks to Phil Plait, Jill Tarter, & John Girard.

    Lastly, if you’re really into this sort of thing check out some other space-musings on the site

    Kepler Space Telescope Exoplanets visualized (great video comparing sizes and orbits) – video

    “oh, by the way” (a reminder of just how large the universe really is)

    Putting Things In Perspective: NEAT!

    When I’m Feeling Down, These Are Some Things That Bring Me Back Up (a roundup of inspiring projects)

    the microcosmologist frontpage

    Vinyl review: “Ten Years On” by The New Mastersounds


    2011 - 06.04

    Where do I start with this album?  This review will probably be as much of a broad testament to my affinity for the band and recollections of concert snippets as much as a treatment of the album itself.

    Like any act that has retained my interest over an extended number of years and releases, the Mastersounds are perpetually expanding into a different direction.  Not genre-bustingly or radically, like an artist such as Beck does with each successive disc–but in their own way NMS has probed off into opposing directions while remaining within the contemporary funk vein.  Not just “rooted” in funk like so many bands who are jacks-of-all-trades-but-masters-of-none, but actually remaining IN contemporary funk, as in, this entire album, track-by-track is nothing but funk.

    The second or third time I had seen the Mastersounds I was at the Double Door club in Chicago with my good friend Vincent.  Several songs into their set, the band dropped down into a minimal groove, with Simon Allen settling into a 4-on-the-floor disco beat while the energy simmered on low heat.  Just as the lighting guy engaged the ‘tripped-out’ function, Vincent turned around with a big smile on his face and shouted “They do THIS?!”

    Ten Years on is a bit like that for me.  I remember the first time I heard the tune “The Road to Fuji Rock” was at a live performance, and after the show my buddy Bill asked me what the highlight was.  I answered ‘their new tune that sounded like a Greyboy thing’–and he knew which one I was talking about.  Ten Years On has a number of tracks that are quintessential Mastersounds style (San Frantico, Make Me Proud, Chocolate Chip) but a solid chunk of the album sounds like the band convoluting itself with another favorite act of mine, the Greyboy Allstars.

    What I mean by that is that raw, ripping vintage sound of “102%” has been largely traded in for mellower timbres here, allowing us to check out an equally soulful and virtuosic version of the band in a more relaxed atmosphere.  The compressors and the reverb have been dialed back a couple notches and thus we have an album that could be an ideal soundtrack for a leisurely drive around town on the weekend, or companion to a cold beer at 6pm on a Friday evening with no real plans for the night.  Simultaneously, it remains dance-able with plenty of get-up-n-go.  It’s that rare two-headed monster, like Thievery Corporation’s “Outernational Sound”.

    “Soulshine” is the first hint of where things are going–Simon lays down those skins with bravado while Roberts sports his new, more relaxed approach.  Pete’s bass playing jumps up high for some dashes of clever groove punctuation while remaining rocksteady down low, intertwined transparently with most of Roberts parts as he is for the majority of the time.  From here the association gets more obvious: “Flimsy”, with Joe on the Piano (as opposed to B3 or rhodes) with the whistles and the Nawlins-flavored drumming is overtly reminiscent of “Quantico, VA”.  The aforementioned ‘Fuji Rock’ calls to mind the same type of calm but persistently driving energy of “Happy Friends” from Greyboy’s classic album, A Town Called Earth.  But don’t take that to mean that Ten Years is a knock off of the so-called left-coast boogaloo, or even a consistent tribute–aside from the assertively characteristic NMS flavor on San Frantico and company as previously mentioned, there’s a whole other slew of colored-gels through which to see the band.

    That disco-beat flavor which caught Vincent off guard is in here on “Cielo”, with Roberts working his signature style backed by Tatton with a tapestry of buzzing synthesizers and what sounds like a bit of ring-modulator.  Call it electric-funk disco.  It’s only a small stretch to say NMS dishes out a bit of Sound Tribe Sector 9’s territory on this one.  I’d definitely like to hear more of whatever spawned this composition.

    The following cut “Ooom” features guest avant-sax master Skerik in a decidedly mellow idiom.  Typically I associate this guy with crazy freakouts and wildness-for-the-sake-of-wildness, but instead the Mastersounds have him playing minimal lines with overdubbed harmonies and a slow, deliberate solo, as if each phrase had been obsessively contemplated in advance.  It’s like the got him into the studio and said “okay, now you’re the man and everything… buuuuuuut we-need-you-to-be-more-like-Rob-Lowe-on-102.”  This is a Skerik I could come to love.  His airy, thoughtful delivery is a stark counterpoint to the raucous squawking, and shows his talent sans the avant-insanity, which I can live without.  A gem.

    “Dusty Groove” is a tribute to the Chicago record store which was the first outlet to carry their albums in the USA; a fact I learned through the band’s charmingly extensive between-song banter at one of their shows.  And speaking of those shows, this is one cut that slices hard and thick when thumping out of a live PA.  Roberts glides deftly through those blues-scale riffs and comps with aplomb heavy as anywhere in the catalog.  We also get a delightful taste of Tatton’s funky “ON” setting as Allen lays into his ride.  This is the Joe Tatton I love.  The first time I ever saw the Mastersounds, outdoors at Wicker Park Fest in Chicago, his keys blew me away.  A riff in his solo on their cover of “Six Underground” was my phone ringtone for over a year.

    Since then, I’ve gone back and forth about Tatton on those keys, at times complaining about his demeanor as detached and bored during the live shows, an attitude mirrored with accordingly lazy playing.  Sometimes I feel like Joe is content to simply phone-it-in on those off-nights, of which I have seen a couple.  I was bemoaning this wooden delivery in their first performance at the Bear Creek music festival last year and my friend Bill was having none of it.  In the latter performance at the same festival Tatton was the opposite beast entirely; making lots of eye contact, and getting very tenacious with his riffs.  A few bars before the conclusion of “San Frantico” he slipped in a cascading jab in the space Roberts’ melody left open, so dense and tricky that Bill and I literally both raised one eyebrow high and looked at one another for a split second with the identical expression, speechless really, before looking back to watch the ending, dumbfounded.  It was a priceless moment.  The guy’s clearly got it, at least when he wants to dish it out.  I wish he would display such ambition more often.

    That much said, previous Mastersounds albums have been, for me at least, utterly dominated by the genius of Eddie Roberts guitar playing; his tone, his mastering techniques, his clean articulation and his tasty comping.  If any one man leads the pack in today’s school of contemporary funk guitarists, it’s Eddie Roberts.  Eric Krazno may be a better soloist, and Elgin Park may have the perfect guitar tone (I think it’s that big, curly telephone-style cable he uses to connect to the amp) and Sergio Rios of Orgone may have his own unique thing going, but Eddie Roberts is the only guy who’s got it ALL: The best rhythm playing you could ask for, masterful use of gear for a signature tone, great solos, a pitch-perfect producer, and a goofy, endearing stage presence to boot.  Roberts does on the guitar what George Porter does on the bass–steals the show, even when you’re not supposed to be paying attention to him!

    Given my admiration of Roberts, Ten Years On may be the first NMS album where I’ve felt equally captivated by the creativity of what’s going on in the keyboard parts.  I refer to 102% often, as the prior high-water mark for the band, and it is.  Update: (corrections/additions after chatting with Simon!) On 102% and prior albums, keys were performed by Bob Birch, an avid collector of Hammond equipment.  A good chunk of Plug & Play was vocal-oriented, which didn’t give a lot of room for the kind of instrumental exploration and long-windedness (which is why I sign up for this stuff) like you’ll find on Ten Years.  So thusly, this is Tatton’s first outing with the group where he really get space and license to stretch things out and paint with the full palette of keys.

    A few extra noteworthy details on those keys: Plug & Play was recorded with a Nord Electro, which does sound surprisingly good, as I return to that album for another listen.  That Nord is really quite the excellent keyboard, for what it is.  Not a full B3, but admirably close!  On Ten Years, a variety of B3/leslie combinations were used.  I must say, the tone of the organ sounds great on this disc, to my ears.  The presence of the other keyboard types in here (piano/synths/& a good scoop o’ Rhodes) makes the Ten Years landscape more sonically diverse and gives the able Tatton more voices with which to tell a captivating tale.  (Only thing we’re missing is some clav.)

    A question I’m sure someone reading this has, is how does the vinyl copy sound compared to the CD?  Indeed on the back of the record jacket, it says “Vinyl mastering by Pete Norman at Finyl Tweek.”  Comparing my CD copy I bought a while back with this new vinyl version, the LP sounds brighter, more articulate.  Particularly with the organ, I hear more subtle details of the B3 attack on each note. Now, it may be that what I’m describing here is simply the timbrel characteristics of my turntable.  But for what it’s worth, that’s the difference I hear when doing A/B comparisons between the two masterings, on headphones and a great set of loudspeakers.  For those so inclined, check out a spectral analysis comparison of the first 2 bars of Fuji Rock below.  These graphs show the frequencies present in those 2 bars; not as informative as an actual Frequency Response chart, but it gives you an idea of the difference.  Note the smoother curve on the vinyl version, both down low at 150Hz and again up at about 15kHz.  Click to see it full size if you want to probe deeper.

    I’m happy to see Tatton out front with bombastic solos, playing more keyboard types with a tweaked-up B3 tone.  As much as I adore the all-out assault of full-on Eddie Roberts, it’s a joy to see him kick his feet up and take it nice’n’easy here.  Allen and Shand are as locked-in as ever; so effectively that most of the time I find myself considering the “groove” instead of the bass playing or the drumming.  With Ten Years On, it sounds like the band has hit it’s stride–confident and well-worn with a tightness that belies years of musical camaraderie.  They come out sounding like they’ve got nothing to prove (as indeed they have already proven it!) but they are anything but finished saying something.  Instead, the musical conversation has matured into an exposition of both greater nuance and wider stylistic breadth.  For a band Ten Years into their career, it’s inspiring to see them produce a record like this: expanding into new territory while still retaining the original appeal, writing funk that could be equally appropriate for chillin on the couch with a good brew or sweatin on the dusty dance floor of a music festival in Florida.  While I look forward to seeing what direction the boys take next, intuition tells me this LP will remain my favorite album from my favorite band, for a good stretch of time to come.

     

    Talking Trash About Priorities in Space


    2011 - 05.17

    This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program.  This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next.  I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper.  I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.

    One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards.  I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”

    Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.

    One: why two garbagemen?  Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey?  Maybe the object was to  purposefully select an undignified way of dying?  It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death.  An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death.  This.  Very.  Moment.  Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak.  It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD!  But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!

    Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”  The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating.  Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care.  But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut.  Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…

    Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement.  The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:

    This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking.  In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources.  Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future.  In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale.  In the future, we will.  Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning.  Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant.  That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth.  Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.

    To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable.  We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves.  We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions.  Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.

    So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet.  We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems.  Those are the choices, there is not a third option.  Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system.  We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.

    Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats.  There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t.  All the eggs are in one basket.  Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness?  Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?

    Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date.  Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.

    What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done?  Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon.  What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space.  There’s greatness in them there skies.  Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils.  It’s all out there, literally.

    The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life.  These are the BIG questions.  Should we stop asking these?  Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend?  Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?

    Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING.  Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.

    The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too.  If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.

     

    A SETI Infographic


    2011 - 04.30

    UPDATE: At the behest of team SETI, a sequel to this infographic has been produced, showing how we can all pitch in a small amount of money, and DO something to restart the ATA.  SETIstars.org, get at it!

    So it looks like the Allen Telescope Array (which I mentioned previously on here) is falling onto the chopping block in this era of fiscal “emergency.”   To me, this sounds a lot like the recent battle to defund NPR or PBS, in that the money they need to continue is just . . . chump change in the grand scheme of finances.  They’re $2.5 million short, and for that, they’ll need to stop taking data and shut down the telescope array.  It deeply bums me out to think that such a low value is placed on the quest to find other intelligence in our universe.  When compared with so many other things that gladly get millions or billions of dollars, it’s maddening to see SETI so marginalized.  Do we really just not care??  Seriously??

    There’s an awesome article over at Wired Science, interviewing Jill Tarter about the whole deal.  Go check it.

    And to put things into perspective, I’ve whipped up this handy infographic, comparing how $2.5 million compares to so many other things that we absolutely must have, and will not hesitate to pay for:

    When I created this, I deliberately chose things that weren’t the most supreme.  For example, I priced a Predator drone @ $4.5M, instead of a Stealth Bomber, which is a cool billion.  The iPad sales dollars are probably much higher than I showed.  And I showed the Citigroup portion of the bailout, instead of the full bailout ($300B).  I also swapped the second and third to last entries in order to put the NASA budget immediately next to the DOD budget.  Imagine what we would know about the universe if those two were swapped.  (And maybe we could still lead the world by sheer power of inspiration.)  It’s the stuff of pipe dreams!

    Since the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered what they were, wondered what was out there.  Now that we have the technology to actually look, and even a good idea where to look, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, it’s all the more maddening that it should fall under the axe, deemed unimportant, unworthy of those precious dollars.  Sure, it’s true that there are innumerable causes out there which pull at our emotions and demand the attentions of our pragmatic sides.  But what outcome has higher stakes than finding out we’re not alone in the cosmos?  When that happens, human history will be split into two neat periods: before we knew about them, and after.  BC will stand for before contact, and AD will be replaced by AC; after contact.  Nothing else would transform our cultures, our politics, our religions, our folklores like knowing we’re not just a lone voice, but part of a galactic chorus.  The most recent findings tell us that “within a thousand light-years of Earth,” there are “at least 30,000” habitable planets, and there are “at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way” of which “at least 500 million” are in the habitable zone.  The glorious Milky Way, with its wealth of diversity and abundance of worlds  is right there waiting for us, if we could but pick up the receiver and listen.