Off to Mars — to stay

Could it make sense to take a one-way trip to Mars? This notion has been floating around for years, but it got some recent press when Drs. Schulze-Makuch and Davies published a paper titled “To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars.” Their thesis is that this might be the solution to several of the barriers to a crewed mission, providing among other benefits a major reduction in mission cost (up to 80% reduction, which is pretty dramatic!). This can only be accomplished by shifting our perspective on what such a mission is: not a there-and-back-again jaunt like a trip to the Moon, but the establishment of a sustained presence on Mars, paving the way for future colonists and expeditions. Schulze-Makuch and Davies declare that:

“… to attain it would require not only major international cooperation, but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays been replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.”

The initial reaction to a one-way trip concept is often one that assumes that the humans involved would immediately expire at the end of their mission. “One-way” sounds like “suicide”. But it’s not more of a “suicide” than inhabiting Earth, which is just as much of an ultimate death sentence — we just don’t think of it that way. Well supplied and informed, an expedition to Mars could survive for a long time, albeit in a harsh and demanding environment. They might not live as long as they would on Earth — or they might live longer; no one’s going to get hit by a car on Mars! And just think of the amazing accomplishments this group of 21st-century pioneers would attain, in technology and in science, and also in poetry and psychology: making Mars a human location, not just a light in the sky.

This short paper is definitely worth reading to see how Schulze-Makush and Davies set out the arguments for, and the conceptual design of, such a one-way mission. I was heartened to see their clear statement that “No base on the Moon is needed to launch a one-way human mission to Mars.” This is true of any mission to Mars, but has become somewhat lost in the various Constellation program discussions.

If there really were an opportunity to volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars, where you’d live out your days in a “cave-centered biosphere”, exploring and discovering and serving as a pathfinder for future advances — I’d sign up in a heartbeat. It’s difficult to think of any more important and meaningful goal to which I could devote my life here on Earth. (I know some, or all, of you will disagree with me on this, which neither offends nor dissuades me in the least. :) )

Literally supercilious

“Supercilious” is probably a word you’ve heard (meaning “showing haughty disdain”), but do you know its origin? I didn’t until now! It comes from “super” (above) and “cilium” (eyelid), which together become “eyebrow”, and refers to the act of arching an eyebrow in disdain. Coined in the 1520s, I infer that the habit of using the eyebrow in this way must go way, way back. Today in the 2010s, we instead could use an emoticon that can express the same feeling in eyebrow-less email and other online communications. Any suggestions?

Vanity license plates

Vanity license plates can be an interesting form of constrained art, like the sonnet or haiku, but much, much shorter. In California, they can contain up to 7 characters, which are letters, numbers, and a few special symbols (like ♥ and a handprint). To while away the tedium of my commute to work, I enjoy spotting new and interesting plates. This being California, I always have plenty of plates to consider.

On July 28, I started recording the vanity plates I’d seen. As of today, I’ve collected 167 distinct plates. It surprises me that I’m able to find at least one new one practically every day I drive to work. There must be just enough variability in my (or everyone else’s) travel time that I get a slightly different sample of cars each day.

Some of the plates are funny, some are clever, and some are cryptic (probably in-jokes that don’t make sense unless you know the person). Here are some of my favorites:

  • 1 HOBBIT
  • BMRNATR (on a BMW)
  • C ATROX: a good puzzle — hint (rot13): fanxr
  • CAKE 4 U: it’s not a lie?
  • ESC2PCH: local reference
  • FTDHTR: really?
  • HYR N U (on a jacked-up SUV)
  • IDIG K9Z
  • IFYTE4U (the vehicle was emblazoned with lawyer ads)
  • KNEADY (the vehicle had massage therapist ads)
  • UKARYOT: go science!
  • WB OUIVR: a French geek?

Another cool one, which I didn’t spot but a friend did, is “TWS BRLG”.

Some are just a bit weird, or too obscure for me to “get” them:

  • AE6KO: ham radio call sign?
  • KHAL8
  • NOR DO I

What’s your favorite vanity plate?

How to peel a banana

I think we’ve all had the frustrating experience of struggling to open a banana in which the peel won’t split near the stem, which obnoxiously manages to be the strongest part of the fruit — so you pull out a knife to get it started, or just end up mashing the top of the banana in your attempt to get it open. And yet somehow it never occurred to to me to try peeling it… from the other end!

Known as the “monkey method” of peeling a banana, this approach is trivially easy to achieve. You simply pinch or twist at the bottom end of the banana, and it obligingly splits open. I’m astonished that it never even occurred to me to explore better ways to do this. Wow! (Thanks for the tip, Evan!)

Standard Monkey

Beyond that, there are apparently many strategies for peeling a banana that differ from the “standard” (and apparently suboptimal) approach. I’ve already employed the “thumbnail method” in the past, when a knife was lacking and I was still ineffectually wrangling with the stem end. Now I’m eager to try the “throwing method.” And do read to the bottom of that link to learn about the “pro method.”