In the field, on “Mars”

I have spent the past couple of days at the Mars Desert Research Station outside of Hanskville, UT, engaged in a simulated human mission to Mars. The pace has been hectic as we’ve worked to learn how the two-story Hab we live in operates, maintain all of its systems, keep ourselves alive on a limited selection of food, and also plan and execute our science goals. I’m learning new things every hour on the hour, and for the duration of the mission I’ll be posting to our crew blog rather than here. So feel free to follow us there — and enjoy the absolutely gorgeous photos we’re posting!

Fascinating analysis of Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

Like so many others, I’ve loved Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy since I first encountered it, around age 7 or 8. But partly because I fell in love with it so long ago, it can be hard to really pin down what I now consider to be “good” about it—to detach and analyze it objectively, outside of the strong sentimental attachment I have. But last week I discovered The Tolkien Professor (podcast available on iTunes), and he’s pointing out all the book details that together make up Tolkien’s genius. I feel like I’ve been given new glasses, or picked up a decoder ring, or otherwise suddenly gained entry into a new realm of Tolkien appreciation.

The Tolkien Professor is Dr. Corey Olson, a professor of Medieval Literature at Washington College in Maryland. He is podcasting his lectures on Tolkien’s works, specifically aiming to critique them from a perspective he thinks Tolkien would have appreciated. That is, he refrains from analyzing the books by trying to find parallels with the author’s biography; he does not seek to interpret the books using allegory; and he does not comb through the books trying to link their content to “source material” (e.g., Beowulf and other sources that Tolkien undoubtedly was inspired by). Instead, he approaches the books in their own right, and he discusses what it is about them that makes them so enjoyable, as well as taking a step back (or inside) to illuminate techniques Tolkien used to achieve different effects (see the introductory lecture, “How to Read Tolkien and Why”).

Dr. Olson has begun with a series of lectures on The Hobbit, and I am enjoying this (simpler) story more than I ever had before; there’s so much more going on than I’d been consciously aware of! As just one example, Dr. Olson points out that Tolkien, in aiming to draw the reader into a “fairy-tale” or fantasy story, used Bilbo as a surrogate; the fantastical world (wizard Gandalf, dwarves, adventures, tales of dragons, gold, etc.) breaks into Bilbo’s mundane and peaceful world and invites him to step away, into adventure and danger and wonders, just as Tolkien hopes we will step into his “sub-creation” (fictional world). Dr. Olson also has interesting and wonderful things to say about the dwarves, the trolls, the elves of Rivendell, Bilbo’s evolution into an Adventurer (or Thief, as it were), Gollum, etc., and overall, about Tolkien’s delightful and delighting use of language. I’m hooked.

He even inspired me to finally start reading The Silmarillion.

(And as I write this, on January 13, Frodo and the Fellowship are at Moria’s West Gate, stymied by the cryptic instructions on the door, rendered in ithildin. I hope they figure it out soon.)

Newer, faster, better!

For some time—actually since the time this blog was created—I’ve been dissatisfied about the speed with which the pages load. My main site page,, and its associated straight-html pages loaded fine, but anything associated with the blog always seemed… slow. Pages would take 10-20 seconds to load, which is a really long time in web-land, and especially when you’re trying to write, say, a blog post, and this delay happens each time you save or preview the post. I went a few rounds with DreamHost, but each time they said connectivity to my site was fine. Now WordPress, which is what my blog runs on, uses a database to store all of the blog content. I started to wonder if maybe the database host was the slow factor. I contacted DreamHost again. This time, I got:

It looks like the server you’re on is a bit loadier than we usually like for older servers like yours and that is likely causing a good portion of the slowness. I can offer to move you to one of our newer servers that are generally better balanced and more closely monitored if you like.

After deliberating for all of 0.5 seconds, I replied in the affirmative. They replied almost instantly, got me moved, and so far nothing has broken—and all on a Saturday, too! The difference is like night and day! I don’t know if you as readers can tell, but for me it’s a huge speed improvement (about 1-3 seconds load time now). And good timing, too, to speed things up right before I head to Mars; posting mission updates will be a lot less effort. And, bonus: I learned a new word, “loadier.” Thank you, DreamHost!

Finally, I added links from each individual post page to the “previous” and “next” entry in the blog (something I had been missing for a while). Enjoy!

What would Thomas Jefferson think?

Thomas Jefferson has a podcast. That’s right, you can now listen to our third President discuss his views on a wide range of subjects in a weekly show, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, that bills itself as “A Radio Program that Models Civil Discourse, Critical Thinking and Good Citizenship.” You can subscribe on iTunes or just browse and listen to individual mp3s.

Today I listened to Episode 761: The Long Now. President Jefferson begins by describing what he feels are the necessary elements of a good conversation: one in which we take time to really connect, we listen to each other, and everyone contributes. There were the obligatory comments about how today’s communication modes are less and less conducive to that kind of conversation, trending towards short exchanges, abbreviations, and interruptions. To that I would add that much of our communication is also more ego-centric: tweeting, blogging, and posting status updates on Facebook are all about pushing out to the world some information about ourselves, not about mutual exchanges or real conversation, even when comment facilities are provided. But I think that is just different, not necessarily bad; those who thrive on deep prolonged conversation with like minds will seek that out anyway, in whatever form they can find it. That said, a reminder is always welcome of the value of slowing down and getting the chance to connect with others through the exchange of ideas and analysis.

The show then focused on the 10,000 Year Clock being built by The Long Now. The goal of this project is to provide a symbol to inspire all humanity to take the long view. The Clock will provide a reminder to consider the impact of what we do and create, which may reach forward in time hundreds or thousands or more years. Rather than focusing myopically on our narrow lives and their brief extent, we can consider what lies beyond, outside, and long after we are gone. I’m doubly fascinated by this project, because it also served as the inspiration for Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, the best book I read in all of 2009.

But the point of mentioning this project on the TJ Hour was to find out what Thomas Jefferson would have thought of such an endeavor. And we learn that President Jefferson was awfully fond of clocks himself (had 29 in his house, including one too big to fit indoors, so he cut a hole in the floor to let it extend down into the cellar) but that he is skeptical of how a clock, with its fundamental purpose of precisely marking out time, could help us disengage from the ticking moments of the present and think further ahead. He talks at some length about how the very imprecision of clocks in his time went hand in hand with a less frenetic life pace, when days were ruled more by the position of the sun than by an external, ticking, whittling-away sort of device. He also mentions the role clocks played in the Lewis and Clark expedition—an interesting side note that I would have liked to hear more about. I enjoyed his advice about how to slow down time: take an hour’s walk, or grow a garden. Both of these encourage you to let go of your strangle-hold on time, and allow it to stretch out in an organic way. But (in my opinion) while they do also encourage free-wheeling mental activity, which for me often does lead to bigger, weightier thought about my own future, they don’t necessarily prompt me into a centuries- or millennia-long view. I think this clock, for me personally at least, could well provide inspiration more along those lines.

I could not determine from the website how long this show has been running, but given that the most recent episode is #803 and it is a weekly show, I guess it must have been going for something like 15 years! I find that incredible! And it’s a mere 0.15% of 10,000 years! I guess I do need a longer view.

Now if only John Adams would create his own podcast, too.

Space Shuttle: Landing by gliding

Tonight I was lucky enough to get to watch the International Space Station fly by: a bright unwinking point arcing upward and then, just past zenith, disappearing as it passed into the Earth’s shadow. This sight somehow never fails to stir something inside me. It is one thing to read news articles about spacecraft in orbit, and quite another to see them with your own eyes. Beyond that, the ISS marks our ability specifically to maintain a human presence in space—quite a bold and amazing feat, no matter how many years have passed since the Apollo missions.

One way that we get humans (and equipment, supplies, etc.) from the ground and up to the ISS is via the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle is a marvel of engineering—perhaps too much of a marvel, rendering it less reliable than we might hope—and it is in the sunset of its career. 2010 will see the final Shuttle flights (just five more are planned), and then the Shuttle will be retired while effort and funds are focused instead on developing its successor, the Orion spacecraft. During the 5+-year gap between the Shuttle’s retirement and the first crewed Orion flights, we will rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach and resupply the ISS.

There are many fascinating engineering details about the Shuttle and how it works. I recently came across one that really surprised me. It turns out that when the Shuttle de-orbits and descends through the Earth’s atmosphere to land, it manages that whole long glide and deceleration without any engine power. Effectively, it aerobrakes (taking advantage of our thick atmosphere), and attitude control is maintained through thrusters and hydraulically actuated surfaces. This isn’t enough to slow it all the way down, so the Shuttle also executes several S-shaped swoops to the left and right, dissipating speed horizontally instead of vertically.

You can watch a Shuttle landing from the cockpit view (STS-98): fascinating, although I guess the video starts after the four swooping banks have already been done. The dramatic right turn you see in the video is the commander’s final lineup with the runway—a final turn that also reduces speed and altitude.

The next shuttle to launch will be Endeavor (STS-130), on February 7. It will be the 32nd shuttle mission to the ISS.

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