Hello #LPSC2017

This year I will be covering the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference for now.space and mental_floss, and will add things I write there to this post. In the meantime, if I'm set to interview you there and you're wondering what else I've written, here are a few pieces that might help you along.

Why Is Nasa Neglecting Venus?
The Atlantic

A generation has now gone by since the agency set a course for the second planet from the Sun, and with this latest mission opportunity lost, the earliest an expedition there might launch (from some future selection process) would be 2027—nearly 40 years since our last visit.

For centuries, it would have been inconceivable that Venus would be in such a predicament. In the 18th century, Venus was the organizing force in international science. When humanity was finally able to stretch its arms toward the solar system, the first place it reached for was Venus. It was our first successful planetary encounter beyond Earth, and was the first planet on which humans crashed. It would later would host our first graceful landing.

Venus and Earth are practically twins. They’re alike in size, density, gravity, and physical makeup. They are both in our star’s habitable zone. Scientists have discovered no other adjacent planets in the entire galaxy that share such similarities. And yet somewhere along the way, Earth became a cosmic paradise for life as we know it, and Venus became a blistering hellscape. Beneath its sienna clouds of sulfuric acid is the greenhouse effect gone apocalyptic. At 850 degrees Fahrenheit, its surface is hotter than Mercury, though the planet itself is much farther from the Sun. A block of lead would melt on the surface of Venus the way a block of ice melts on Earth.

The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx
The Week

Until "Liftoff!" nothing happens, and then everything happens. The billowing smoke, the white fire, the upward movement of the launch vehicle — it happens immediately and all at once. The fire is one long continuous and controlled explosion, but the word and attendant imagery — explosion — never enters the onlooker's mind. What you see is the opposite of an explosion. What you see is control. Total and utter control and focus. The rocket's fiery tail, it's not even fire. It is a prize fighter working a speedbag. Such focus! Such control! The rocket, its motion is somehow nauseating, not because it lacks grace, but because it possesses so much of it. You light a bottle rocket, and you hear sssssssss and then sssshhhhhwwwwwww as it suddenly zips into the sky. The Atlas 5, though, rises slowly, a methodical rejection of gravity. It is a ballerina. Grace. Grace.

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It's not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It's like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It's not the flamethrower's discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn't billow. It's all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It's a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

How a Tiny Moon Rover Might Change the Course of Human Exploration

When explorers roamed the New World, they didn’t set foot on uncharted lands and unload from their ships lumber and food. They didn’t send for armadas back home, asking for fresh supplies to stay well fed and in warm beds. Rather, settlement required the necessities of life to be hewn or harvested, and what they unloaded from ships were tools and seed. It was called the Age of Discovery, but it was as well the age of cultivation, the age of construction, the age of contrivance, and, yes, the age of conquest.

We live today in the New Age of Discovery, with explorers like Alan Stern and Lindy Elkins in the roles of James Cook or Bartolomé, and New Horizons and Psyche are our plucky robotic vessels pressing forth into the unknown. As human spaceflight completes its interim retooling for its own push into the final frontier, the requirements for settlement remain unchanged from centuries gone by. You can’t bring with you everything you will need. Survival in the wilderness means subsistence farming and dogged resourcefulness. But how do you do that on another planet?

NASA’s working on it, and the first critical step is a project called Resource Prospector. If their plan works, humanity might one day look back on Resource Prospector as the mission that launched a thousand ships and forever changed the course of human exploration.

The Moon Base Mirage


Over at The Atlantic, I write about the looming, phenomenally stupid pivot by NASA away from Mars and toward the moon. A snippet:

American moon partisans owe a debt to Europe, which has tended the lunar flame during the ascent of Mars. Perhaps the most prominent moon advocate on Earth is Jan Woerner, the director general of the European Space Agency. Since assuming the post, he has argued persuasively that a “lunar village” is the natural successor to the aging International Space Station. It would be, in his view, a celestial point of harmony for a terrestrial species in discord. There is a problem, however: the Europeans have committed virtually no money to a moon village, and Russia, ESA's would-be partner in the venture, has no money to commit. They have already been forced to downsize their presence on the ISS due to costs, and have delayed plans for robotic exploration of the moon. (The head of the Russian space agency admits that Russia “does not have financial capabilities for advanced space projects.”) Lacking unity among member states, to say nothing of technology development and financial resources, what ESA really needs is for the United States to fund and spearhead such an effort. NASA's sights, however, are firmly fixed on Mars. With the presidential transition, however, and a new NASA director still to be appointed, lunar champions at home and abroad see an opportunity to abandon the Journey to Mars program and set sights a little closer to the Earth.

To that end, ESA is on a moon base public-relations offensive, from the light and easy (magazine spreads and aspirational illustrations) to bare-knuckled politics (publicly pressing the NASA administrator on the issue.) The overt message from Paris, where ESA is headquartered, is: We're doing this. The subtext is: While NASA plans a fantasy mission to Mars that will never happen, the rest of the world will be driving moon buggies and mining helium-3. But ESA’s campaign is powered by handwavium, and for all the illustrations of lunar domes and our great big blue marble over the horizon, progress on the moon base ends at Photoshop. If the U.S. doesn’t build the base, it won’t get built.

You can read the rest here.

Rogue One



Rogue One is infinitely better than Episode VII, and here are some brief and scattered thoughts as to why. Where the latter asked Hey what can we replicate?, Rogue One again and again and again seems to ask What can we do differently? Where can we take chances? As a result, Rogue One—which tells a story whose ending we've known since 1977 and whose general outline we've considered for just as long—surprises from the first minute. Episode VII, on the other hand—a film about which we knew nothing—indeed, a film whose writers loudly disclaimed and invalidated the entire "expanded universe" of hundreds of novels so as to have a free hand in storytelling—somehow managed to be derivative and styrofoam-ish, a shiny new sports car whose owners resolutely drove under the speed limit.

By the time I saw the original Star Wars, things like the Death Star and and Darth Vader were fixtures in popular culture. I'm not sure that they were ever scary, exactly. One was something that was always going to be destroyed, no question, and the other was always Luke Skywalker's father and destined for redemption. Accordingly, their presences in the films were less existential threat and more challenges for heroes to overcome. The story was never, "Will our heroes succeed?" Instead, it was: "How will they succeed?" This does not diminish the original trilogy in the slightest because the storytelling is superb, the universe inventive, and the characters and their arcs absolutely nailed.

The same should apply to Rogue One. That is to say, the question from the first frame should have been "how," because we know with absolute metaphysical certainty that the Death Star plans will be stolen, and the battle station eventually destroyed. And yet I never felt comfortable during this movie. I never felt that sense of: "Ahhhh! OK, that's great. That makes sense. Very good! That explains that!" Instead, I spent its duration wondering if they were going to pull it off. If they were going to survive. If this thing—this rebel alliance—would ever get its act together. There was never a sense of inevitability. The writers never tried to be clever or convince me of their cleverness. They simply wrote a damn good story that was thrilling and scary and wrenching. They didn't lean on expectations; they launched from them.

A lot of this has to do with the style and tone of the film. If A New Hope is Patton, Rogue One is Saving Private Ryan. People die. Good people sometimes act with cruelty and callousness. When someone gets shot, they feel it and you feel it. Even the Stormtroopers—bodies through which our heroes wade in every other entry in the series—earn the sympathy of the audience. Our heroes gun down a squad of white-armored baddies, and you sometimes flinch. Those guys didn't ask for this. They weren't torturing puppies and snatching babies from cribs. They were probably drafted, sure as hell didn't want to be at whatever meaningless posting they were given, and basically just wanted this whole rebellion to go away so the galaxy could have a little peace.

And the Death Star! My god, that thing is terrifying, a looming, hulking presence whose power is so well known and yet when used even sparingly wrenches the viewer. When it appears on the screen, you start to worry. You feel its danger and terrible possibility. And you feel the reasoning behind its construction. If you live in the Star Wars universe circa. Episode IV, you've been at war all your life. You're tired. There has never been a moment of peace, and dammit you've earned respite. If it takes building a giant weapon to stop this "destructive conflict," so be it. It's worth it! It's a simple solution to a messy problem.

And messy it is. Our heroes in this movie do bad things and suffer terrible losses. They pay dearly to steal the plans to the Death Star, and I'm not sure I can ever see the original again without thinking about that. That's good storytelling.

Contrast all of this with Episode VII. It feels silly to type this about fictional characters in a fairy tale universe, but having seen the sacrifices that went into building and destroying the Death Star, it's insulting to audiences and heroes alike that the writers of The Force Awakens lazily said, "Well let's just give the bad guys a Super Death Star that can destroy an entire solar system. How do the good guys stop it? Let's just have Han say some technical handwavium about flying lightspeed into the shield, and they all just shoot at it until it blows up. Who's up for lunch?"

Rogue One made Episode IV better because both are superbly crafted. They strengthen one another. Rogue One shames Episode VII because Episode VII is lumbering and stupid. It highlights all of that film's weaknesses. It reveals how ordinary VII is, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. For all the scorn they've unfairly received, the prequel trilogy is never ordinary. It is never lazy. It is never derivative. And just as Rogue One makes the original film better, the Clone Wars series and Rebels improve the prequels, and vice versa. What a playground George Lucas has crafted over 40 years! What a latticework on which epics can be hung!

A final thought that bears noting. Rogue One makes very apparent something unexpected in the Star Wars universe: that the Jedi are holding storytellers back. If you're a writer and you have in your sandbox invincible, magic heroes, then there's no problem that can't be solved through invincibility and magic. It's deus ex machina stretched over two hour intervals, and a magic arms race is the only solution. How do you stop magic, invincible heroes? By creating magic-er, invincible-r villains! How do you stop them? More magic! More invincibility! After a while, the audience is driven to the brink of total exhaustion and nothing matters because everyone can do everything. (Marvel films have the same problem.)

Rogue One (and the original trilogy) work precisely because nobody has superpowers, or because there's such a tremendous imbalance in said power that it's nullified, more useful skill than anything else.

Episode VIII has finished shooting, so if there is a halo effect to Rogue One, it won't be felt in that film, and whatever story has been set up in the sequel trilogy will have no choice but to play out as designed. Because Disney will drown us in Star Wars until the crack of doom, there is hope, however, for films in the far future. I lament that the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie is squandered, though.


The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx

Earlier this year, I covered the rocket launch of OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft that will visit an asteroid, study it, collect a sample, and return to Earth. My account of the launch has been published by The Week. I really do think it's the best thing I've ever written and I hope you enjoy. Here is a little snippet:

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It's not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It's like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It's not the flamethrower's discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn't billow. It's all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It's a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

You can read the whole story here.

An Automated Year


This year robots took over my life. It's not just my book project, which is centered around robots that explore the universe, but also in my home. We got a Roomba, a couple of Nest thermostats, and an Amazon Echo and a few Dots for different rooms. Each of these devices has had a significant, positive effect in ways I never expected. Moreover, they've become weirdly anthropomorphized and are all but members of the family now, or at least, really interesting houseguests that refuse to leave.

I knew I'd love the Roomba from the very first time I learned they existed, so maybe my expectations were simply set that I'd like it no matter what. We call her—it—Margaret, after my beloved dog who died a couple of years ago. Margaret was always—always—at my feet, and the Roomba, for whatever reason, always seems to start her vacuum cycle in the kitchen, where I'm usually to be found standing around. In other words, she would bump into my feet as if to get my attention.

The joy of the machine, though, is the way she—it—I'm just going to stick with she—can be either programmed for specific times, or activated manually when I'm away from home. It's hard to describe the Marie-Kondo-like Zen that overtakes you when you come home to very clean floors. Previously, I'd vacuum regularly, but it's never enough when you have kids and a cat. (I'm allergic to cat hair.) Our beloved Margaret, though, is always on the job, and dirt and dust and dander never has a chance to settle before being sucked away. This means that while it lacks the out-and-out power of an upright, it keeps the floors clean through sheer attrition.

Not that it isn't powerful. This model (a Roomba 990, I think) is surprisingly heavy and its suction apparently very, very robust. Moreover, its storage canister is quite large, meaning it can easily vacuum most of the first floor of the house with little difficulty. Its design is ingenious. I particularly like the propellor-like sweeping brush that reaches every little cranny of the house, along baseboards and beneath cabinets, the feet of chairs and table legs, and so on. Uprights don't do that, and uprights can't vacuum beneath the furniture. Margaret can. She gets stuck on occasion. Our sofa is high enough from the ground in front that she can get under there and do the job, but the back of the sofa is a shade too low, and angled such that she can sometimes get wedged in there. I've since blocked this danger zone with a heavy marble beam that I had lying around from a remodel. It's hidden from view, and the Roomba touches it and turns around. Problem solved.

There's not quite as much to say about the Nest thermostats. I mean, they're thermostats—let's not get crazy. Of note however is how effectively they urge the user (my household in this case) to conserve electricity. When nobody is home, the air conditioners switch into eco-mode, which basically means they do not run. When people are home, because they are so responsive and easy to manipulate with smart phones (more on this below) and even the Apple Watch, it's so convenient to just say, "Ah, no one is upstairs. I will set the air conditioner to 80, or heater to 50." I particularly like the monthly emails that not only give you an "eco rating," but compare your household with others in the area.

The thing that has most changed our lives this year is the Amazon Echo, and Alexa, the artificial intelligence within. Alexa is wonderful. Alexa is everything that Siri promised to deliver, but never did. (Number of times I accidentally trigger Siri on a given day: 5,000. Number of times I want to trigger Siri: maybe 1, previously: "Siri, set a timer for 5 minutes"—a task supplanted by Alexa.) The problem with Siri is that she's just not really good at anything. Sports scores, I guess? Apple seems really proud of Siri's ability to tell you the score of the big game. "Siri, what is the score of the Saints game?" but if I have to take my phone out anyway, I'll just call that up on an app and get all sorts of great contextual information as well. Siri in a perfect world would be able to replace the announcers at sporting events. At present? She's just a slower way of getting staid information.

Alexa is most powerful when she is ubiquitous. We started with an Echo in the living room / kitchen. (It's an open floor plan.) You just say out loud, though not loud, really—you can whisper to her—"Alexa set a timer," and she sets a timer. (We do set a lot of timers, I guess. Cooking, homework, etc.) And you say things like "Alexa play NPR" or "Alexa play Frank Sinatra," and the whole thing is just so convenient, so good, so transparent that you find yourself talking to her like she's some really smart and plucky servant. "Alexa, how do I spell Cincinnati?" Or, "Alexa, play some study music." I've written previously about my love of Christmas music, and Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora in particular. Guess what? "Alexa, play Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora." And she does, and it's wonderful. And she can control that too. "Alexa, I don't like this song" or "Alexa, turn up the volume."

She also controls the Nest thermostat. "Alexa, set the hallway thermostat to 75."

Alexa, what's on my calendar today? Alexa what's the high? Alexa, play Jeopardy! (really).

The real power of Alexa is the way she can interface with other applications or devices. There's the Nest thermostat, but also things like Wunderlist (which I live out of)—"Alexa, add 'Write a blog post' to my to-do list," and there it appears—or with my car's computer system. "Alexa, lock my car."

One thing I never thought I'd use, ever, ever!, but find myself using quite often is the Alexa's shopping capability on Amazon. We always run out of coffee. Now when it's low, however: "Alexa, order more vanilla biscotti flavored coffee." / "Your order history says you previously ordered Folgers Gourmet Selections Vanilla Biscotti Flavored Ground Coffee, 10 Ounce. It costs $4.73. Would you like me to order it?" / "Yes!" And she does. Two days later it's waiting for me, courtesy of Amazon Prime and FedEx.

Eventually Alexa proliferated across our home. This works really well with Amazon Music Unlimited, which I feared would only allow a single stream at time, but seems to have no limit. People in different rooms can listen to whatever they want.

Does it do everything I want? Not yet. There are some pretty obvious things that I wish would be implemented soon. "Alexa, play Christmas music on all of my Echoes." That doesn't work. The devices, as best I can tell, have no knowledge of the existence of each other, even when they're on the same wifi network.

"Alexa, find a Christmas movie and send it to my Fire TV*." She doesn't do that, either, again, because she has no knowledge of other Amazon devices.

"Alexa, set the alarm on my daughter's Dot for 6:15 a.m." Again, no dice, because she has no idea that other devices exist.

The only other shortcoming I can think of is that she's not very good at carrying on a conversation. Once you issue a command or ask her to do something that she cannot, she's done. And you have to start over. "Alexa,...", "Alexa,...", "Alexa,..." It's a little too much like talking to a distracted child. It forces you to be a little too condescending. The beauty of Alexa is that she's more like a friend or a companion. When you have to keep demanding her attention, the balance of the "relationship" is thrown a bit off.

I expect these oversights will be solved eventually. I'd also love to be able to use them as a kind of intercom system—"Alexa, call my daughter's Dot." But features are added every month, and other companies seem pretty good about writing apps for Alexa, so I suspect the wait will not be long for these abilities and others that I've not yet considered.

In total, these things have had a really positive effect on our home. The Roomba was expensive, there's no getting around that, as were the Nest thermostats, though all of their prices seem to have plummeted during the Thanksgiving shopping holiday. The Echo was $179 when I bought it, which turned out to be an absolute steal not only for the features, but because the speaker on that thing is Bose-like. Just extraordinary sound quality. The Dots were $39 over the holiday, and we picked up a couple. I intend to get more when prices fall again.

Are there privacy implications for all of this? Yes, with an asterisk. The devices do not open connections with Amazon until you say, "Alexa." And as mentioned previously, she's a little too quick to stop listening. Could she be hacked? Could be be recruited by the NSA to learn the intimate details of my life? Probably. But considering the number of computers, smart phones, video game systems, tablets—even my cable box!—that have "always listen" capabilities, the truth is if They, however you define They, want to listen, they already can and already are. Amazon has a really good track record with security, and I'm going to place my trust in them until they give me a reason to do otherwise.

* Regarding the Fire TV: One thing the awesome convenience and utility of Alexa has done is brought us firmly into the Amazon ecosystem. We long ago gave up on the hokey Apple TV. There were too many apps that we wanted to try, such as Sling TV, Amazon Video, or FeelIn, that were denied on the Apple TV because the system was closed. (It has since opened up, though we're too far gone to look back.) We switched to Roku—we got one for free from Sling TV for giving it a try (we didn't stay with it because it lacked a couple of the very few channels we actually watch). Roku is wonderful! But Fire TV does everything it does, and also interfaces nicely with Amazon Music Unlimited, and Photos. So we invested in one. So far I'm pleased. I'm not a big TV person in general, but the device (the Fire TV, not television in general) hasn't yet offended me, and is smooth and light compared, again, with the clunky Apple TV (version 3, the last we tried).

[image credit: Six Colors]

The Day After Tomorrow

The city of Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas have just endured the meteorologic equivalent of a zombie movie. The flood, it seemed, came from nowhere, in all directions, patiently overtaking everyone and everything. There was no hurricane, no Weather Channel Special Event. No "Megastorm Rudolph" or whatever. It was a rainy day, and then tens of thousands of people became homeless and lost everything they owned. The floods seemed to have no logic behind them—places flooded that haven't flooded in centuries, if ever—places where it was not just improbable that flooding would occur, but laughable—impossible. It was like The Day After Tomorrow, the awful movie in which one day there is sudden global freezing, or something, due to climate change. I don't doubt climate change or its human accelerant, but when it does come, I doubt I'll go to bed in a humid Louisiana summer and wake up to find Antarctica in the backyard. But the flood was exactly like that. People went to bed and woke up to a foot of water in their house, and they weren't even the least fortunate of the victims.

But a zombie movie, that's what I've thought about this week. Because the flooding just seemed to happen, and in places that, to a layman, seems to have been in random places with no concern for elevation or location—here, not there, here and here and here but not one road over. It's like Poseidon was throwing darts. It didn't seem even to be related to the intensity of rain. So there's been a general feeling of: It's coming. They're coming to get you Barbara! This threat, inexplicable. You cannot outrun it. You can't prepare for it. Stack all the sandbags you'd like—the water will not relent.

In most zombie movies you see How It All Started. Some scientist playing God, or whatever, and then doomsday. But for most characters in such a movie, that's not how it happens. For them, they're eating breakfast and down the road come the zombies, lumbering along, hungry for brains. What do you do? Where do you go? That's the flood. And like any good thriller, the first thing you have to do is get rid of cell phones, because isolation is key to scaring someone. In Baton Rouge, AT&T was able to oblige, its wireless service collapsing immediately after the flood began. No calls in or out. You're alone and whether or not your family is flooded or trapped or dead is a terrifying mystery.

My house was not flooded, though it was just dumb luck that it didn't. Our number wasn't called. But I keep thinking of the people who lost everything. Very, very few of these people had flood insurance because they didn't live in flood areas. It would have been like having blizzard insurance, The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding. And so they've lost everything they own, have no house, still have mortgages, and will get little to none of their money back from insurance companies. How do you recover from that? It's inconceivable. And yet for thousands of people, that's their life now. But it's so much worse than that, because businesses were flooded too, and aren't likely to open tomorrow, if ever. Now you're homeless, destitute, deeply in debt, and you don't have a job or income.

In truth, I've not paid much attention to the national news because when actual news is happening the national media is at its worst, the industry having long pivoted to a tawdry form of entertainment. Had reporters parachuted in, they would have sewn only the seeds of chaos, like foreign spies inciting Third World riots. But I was mortified to find a day after the city was submerged—residents desperately working to rescue neighbors, friends, family—that no major paper condescended even to mention on its front page the tragedy, the catastrophe, the liquid apocalypse that had befallen Louisiana. It was a clarifying event. Here is how little you matter. In truth, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities—obliterated Denham Springs, 80% of its residents submerged!—probably don't matter much to the rotation of the Earth. But simply as fellow countrymen, one would expect a tip of the hat. An empty gesture. No speech by the president. Nothing from the Dorito-hued con man running for president. A single tweet from Hillary Clinton, presumably the next president. Less than 140 characters of text. We didn't even rate a Very Special Edition of her propaganda podcast. Thanks Hillary. Baton Rouge citizens who are #withher know now that it's a one way #with.

But there again, it's been amazing?—I hate to use that word, but here we are—how meaningless the national spotlight has been. It's been a deliverance to avoid the stampede of politicians posing for photographs in shelters, their best Very Concerned faces plastered on. Will this look good on my website? This is the front of my reelection brochure. They're not here, and nobody misses them, exactly. It's just a principal thing. And to see the response of the community—you hear "everyone came together" and you roll your eyes, but here, that's exactly what happened. The moment the flood started, the Celtic movie studio opened one of its massive sound stages and started a shelter. Local fishermen raced their boats into subdivisions and down highways, going house to house, rescuing strangers. The Cajun Navy. Not because they were somehow directed or coerced, but because it needed to be done, and who else was going to do it? People used Facebook to ask for help, or to ask for someone to check on a loved one (AT&T was down when it was needed most!) and strangers in their boats would see the request, and steer toward the houses in question. This improvised emergency response—a bunch of guys in fishing boats, a film studio with an empty building, shared status updates on Facebook—was exponentially better than any "managed" disaster response I've seen in my lifetime. Please don't help us—we don't want another Katrina! Donation centers have sprung up everywhere—donation centers alone could have pushed the flood water away. My daughter and I went to Walmart to buy items to donate, and it was like the whole store was doing the same. People just pushing shelves of toiletries and baby items and foodstuffs into grocery carts to give away. So many people have volunteered that volunteers have been turned back. Those same volunteers took to social media to learn where help was needed, and went there instead. Roving bands of mercy facing down the zombie menace, the overnight Antarctica.

I don't know what happens next. Nobody does. School is back in session, which is good. But even in the letter from my daughter's school announcing the reopening, a sad aside: school is reopening in part so that parents can begin recovery efforts without also having to attend to the kids. The community will survive this, but it will take so many years. At least there is some clarity as to where we rate on the national scene, and the knowledge that whatever comes next, we can handle it.

An Ode to the Livescribe Echo Smartpen

The Livescribe Echo Smartpen is a best friend to both journalists and students, and is one of the few devices in my arsenal that have made a measurable, positive impact on my career. I bought my pen in 2010, making it quite old in tech years, and while it is beginning to show its age (the digital screen no long lights sufficiently that I can read it), it has proven to be a workhorse and a staple of my satchel. When conducting an interview, I generally bring my pen, a spiral-bound Livescribe notebook, and also a small, Philips digital audio recorder, for redundancy. (I've yet to lose a single minute from either device due to technical problems, though we buy insurance not for what has happened, but for what might happen. And as an added benefit, on occasion one mic can clarify audio that is muddled on the other.) The way the Echo pen works is this. I take notes by hand in my Livescribe notebook. The pen records both the audio being spoken, but also the pen strokes as I write them in the notebook. When I later download a note-taking session to my computer, I can see my notes being written in real time as the audio plays. (This is super useful when drawing diagrams of things being explained.) But a computer isn't even necessary for the process, at any step, ever (save backups, which can go directly to Evernote, where handwritten notes are then made searchable—one of many Evernote miracles). Sans computer, you can also take only your little spiral-bound notebook and pen, go off somewhere, plug headphones into the pen (or just use the pen's speaker) and open the notebook. Tap the pen on any word of any note you've taken, and the pen will almost as if by magic begin playing the audio recorded at the exact moment you wrote said note. This is a game changer, and adds a level of prevision to notes and direct quotes that must surely be unparalleled in the history of notetaking.

Here is an Amazon link to the Livescribe 2 Echo. N.b. that I make no money on this link, as Louisiana is ineligible for affiliate linking.

Note further that I've said nothing about the much newer Livescribe 3, which I own, and despise, for the following reasons:

1. It is not self contained. If I want to use a Livescribe 3 pen, I have to have my phone present (which is not always possible depending on the security policies of institutions at which I conduct interviews), and more unnerving, I have to trust that Livescribe's general execrable software will not crash on my phone, midway through an interview, leaving me missing key parts of interviews. More importantly, such mission-critical failures force me to disrupt the flow of an interview in order to reload the app and fiddle with the pen to get things reconnected. This is simply a deal-breaker. Audio recorders can sometimes be ever-present warnings to interview subjects that You-Are-Being-Recorded-So-Hedge-Everything-You-Say-on-Penalty-of-Career-Suicide. (Not that I generally, if ever, ask such loaded questions, but when you're being recorded, every question can feel that way.) This risks leading to stilted, toothless, mealy answers. But not generally. Once an interview begins, I start the recorder, aim it, and within 10 minutes or so, it is usually forgotten because we are used to being surrounded by technology. Moreover, people generally focus only on a single thing or thought. During an interview, that single thing is the question at hand. The recorder thus melts into the table and is soon forgotten. But start fiddling with your fat pen and iPhone, and suddenly the recorder returns to the forefront, this time glowing in phosphorescence.

2. I am left-handed. The designers of the Livescribe 3 (smartly) rejected the weird Livescribe 2 cap in favor of a twist-to-extend-pentip model. So far, so good. But they positioned the twist-to-extend band in the dead center of the pen. If you're right handed, that's no problem. As you write, the downward pressure of the pen against your hand acts as a kind of locking mechanism keeping the pen extended. (The pen extends by twisting the band counterclockwise.) But if you are left handed, the downward pressure of the pen against you hand constantly twists the band clockwise, thus unlocking the pen and retracting it. The upshot is that every few paragraphs during furious note taking, the pen suddenly retracts and thus powers down and generally loses connection to the app, disrupting everything. (See point 1.)

3. It is a missed opportunity. The downside of the Livescribe Echo is its bulk. It's like writing with a fat Crayola marker. This is because it has to pack audio recording equipment within its shell. By outsourcing the audio stuff to the phone for the Livescribe 3, though, the new pen should have shrunken considerably, to something more in line with a Sharpie marker. Instead, and inexplicably, they went the opposite direction, making the Livescribe 3 more like a Magic Marker. Whether this was a design choice (though I cannot imagine how) or poor internal engineering, the result is all of the bad with none of the good. You lose the self-contained pen while gaining a fat pen relying on Livescribe's notoriously unreliable software.

I've not yet given up on the company, though, and hope that the Livescribe 4 addresses these issues by: 1. Returning the recording component of the device to the pen's internals, while 2. Taking advantage on 7+ years of technological advancement to shrink the internals to give us a pen closer in size to a traditional pen, and 3. Move the pen-tip-twist-extension to the top side of the pen, when one's handgrip does not result in inadvertent twists.

I will report back when the next pen is released.

On Mass Shootings, Baton Rouge, and the Sorry State of the World

After the tragic slaying of three police officers in Baton Rouge (following the tragic slaying of a black man by police officers) I was asked by The Atlantic to offer a view from the ground, and I did. I'm happy with the way the piece turned out, though the 1,000 words lost in the edit made less clear the thesis of the piece, which is: The civil strife in the city, which made national news, was actually very localized in Baton Rouge, and easily avoided. The assassination of police officers has made it a city-wide tragedy—a fresh wound felt by all and impossible for anyone to ignore. I received some pushback on Twitter from people suggesting that I was somehow justifying cop-killing, which is the exact opposite of what I wrote in the essay. (Those people likely did not read the piece, but rather, the headline, which I did not write.) The city is reeling, and is unlikely to recover for a very long time. The piece can be found here.

Over at The Week, I wrote about firearms and the terrorist attack in Orlando, and suggested that Alexander Hamilton was pretty clear in the Federalist Papers about what a "well regulated militia" means. My suggestion: rather than wait for gun confiscation, which will never happen, or the next mass shooting, which definitely will happen, why not follow the Second Amendment to the letter? If the right to keep and bear arms is to maintain a well regulated militia, why not mandate militia membership in order to own a firearm, and let local militias police themselves? Small groups are very good at identifying problem individuals in their ranks, and militias would have a vested interest in doing so. Moreover, in keeping with the Framers' intentions, militias would have to meet once or twice a year; it would keep gun ownership a state issue; and it would confer civil obligations on gun owners. You want a rifle? That's fine. But you need to be proficient with it, understand firearm safety, and be ready to be called upon to use your weapon in defense of the United States. That piece can be found here.


It has been very difficult keeping this news a secret. Thankfully, it has now been reported in Publisher's Marketplace, so here is the announcement:

Brown Gets Close to “Earth” at Custom House

For HarperCollins’s Custom House imprint, Geoff Shandler preempted world rights to David W. Brown’s One Inch from Earth. Brown is a contributor to the Atlantic and the book, which Dunow, Carlson & Lerner’s Stacia Decker represented, is about NASA’s Europa mission (established to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of Jupiter). Custom House said the book features “persevering scientists as its heroes, the planet Mars as the villain, and an unlikely savior in the form of a Tea Party congressman on a mission to find a second Garden of Eden on Jupiter’s moon.”

A lot of hard work went into this. The proposal took a full year to write—longer, in fact, than my last book—and involved more research, interviews, travel, and luck than I ever could have imagined. (There are no shortcuts when doing good work.) Of course, the hard part is yet to come.

My agent, Stacia Decker of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, is one of the most competent, sharp, and fabulous human beings I've ever had the good fortune of knowing, and she parlayed the proposal into an tremendous book deal with the most exciting imprint in publishing today. (At lot of adjectives in that previous sentence, and every one is accurate.) I am over the moon at the idea of working with Geoff Shandler, who previously edited some of my favorite books ever, including Into the Beautiful North, a masterpiece by Luis Urrea.

Finally, I am honored to write this book and to tell the story of men and women whose work will transform science, philosophy, religion—you name it. One day we will all know their names, and it's a privilege to do my part in making that happen.

(I know this reads like an Oscars speech, but it's a pretty big moment for me, and I intend to live up to expectations.)

Worlds That Weren't

Some mornings I drive around absently in search of a place to work. It is a passive act, and I find myself making turns the way I imagine flocks of birds decide to veer left or right. It is a blue feeling to the extent that there is feeling at all, something to do with, perhaps, some fear that the work is transitory? The rational part of my mind prevents any of this from becoming disquieting, though. My career is fine, my health is fine, my life is fine. But it all changes. We get older. I get older. It is deeply unsettling to scroll through one's Amazon order history. I did this recently. Things bought, clothes, books, shoes, trinkets. I scrolled back a full decade. For each item I could summon some very real hope or need or intention that I felt at the time. I will wear these shoes to do something important. I will buy this camera and learn photography. A nice belt for some party I might attend. Maybe I could start wearing suits every day. A microphone to start a podcast. The lives born in my mind—lives that never came to pass. Why didn't they? Time. Practicality. Why did I buy that bandana? Did I think it would make me David Foster Wallace?

These are the tabs open in my web browser. A recipe for mini tiramisu; 5 vibrant takes on classic hummus; Operating System Development Series; The little book about OS development; Beyond Hubble: Meet the Telescopes of Tomorrow; How to Make Twitter Actually Useful; 23 Foods You Can Make in a Muffin Tin; Cake Batter Waffles; 7 Recipes You Can Make in a Coffee Mug. Why do I want to make so many foods using unorthodox cookware? And do I expect time to present itself during which I might develop a hobby operating system?

Such frivolous tabs, purchases, and coffee shop flocking do not carve much into my productivity, and they might even enhance it. A temporary workplace that sparks joy. Nice shoes that I have worn, and will wear again. The flash of whimsy that lights some tiny part of my brain when I think about making a chocolate chip cookie in a coffee mug. Perhaps the doomed little worlds we all spin into being make the one in which we actually live a little easier, a little better. We try them out, these tiny singularities, and live them out in the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. And then they are gone, and we get back to the business of life, and trudge along on our distinct little paths.

Career Day

MFA graduates and self-publishing evangelists have really poisoned the well on writers talking about being writers—not that the water was ever really potable, exactly. It's a strange job to discuss with non-writers because there are certain expectations there, both good and bad, that don't apply to "IT specialist" or "salesperson." I mention this at all because I recently participated in a career day at my daughter's school and had to describe my job to middle and high school students. My talk was not particularly inspiring for a lot of reasons. It was too process-heavy: "Here's how querying works," and such, which nobody really wants to know how to do. Not even writers. People want "writer stories"—something to fit the mysterious mold shaped by the forgotten generation. In retrospect I'm not sure how I could have better organized the talk. How do you become a writer (as opposed to a typist)? You become a servant of the written word. You read all the time. You put a straw into the largest puddle of life and literature you can find, and drink until full, and then drink some more. You spend your life trying to apply to your pages what you've learned from the pages of others. That's it, I suppose, though it feels a little grandiose to spell out.

"What do you write?" is a hard question for me to answer. I write as widely as are my interests, and deeply in select areas, but there is a lot of mercenary work in between that requires very little puddle drinking, and in my more sullen moments, I want to respond, "Of the stuff that I'm proud of, or including the shit that I also have to write to pay bills?" Still, I would never submit work to editors that I am not proud of in terms of the quality of prose. (What editors do to it is something else.) The very notion of slapdash writing is abhorrent to me, and I am perplexed by the endless army of writers who leap from bed every morning eager to grind out disposable "content"—there's no greater profanity—or write 20-lists punctuated by animated cat GIFs. This massive Internet organism chasing down clicks. The reason the Buzzfeeds and Fusions of the world have pivoted so effortlessly to video is because they never gave a damn about prose in the first place. (Buzzfeed's longform section excluded.)

I've never understood people content with just doing a job. There has to be some grand purpose and wild, far-off ambition, and when one looks back on his or her life, it has to have been about more than money. I've never not wanted to sink my hands into the planet's soil and pull madly until it spins a little faster. That is a big part of the reason that I think I get the people who work in the space industry, from janitor to scientists. A couple of years ago, there was a piece in the Washington Post about the men and women who built the A-3 test stand for NASA's Constellation rocket. (I've written about test stands here.) Welders and machinists and such—blue collar workers of the sort who built America and keep her going—and they were just in doleful disbelief that Constellation was canceled and their work discarded. They built the test stand that would take humanity to Mars! If you are a welder, is there a greater possible achievement? (Is there a greater achievement for any trade?) And they did it. And the White House shut it all down and built fences around the test stand and locked the whole thing up. The SLS, which replaced Constellation's rocket system, is incompatible with it. My heart breaks for these people. When I toured NASA Stennis, the test stand's only acknowledgement as we passed by, in fact, came from another passenger on the bus: "Poor A-3." On we drove.

Surprisingly often, when I interview people in the space program, they apologize for sounding too lofty. There is no need for such apologies. If your job is the exploration of the Jupiter system, and your goal is to unlock the mystery of life itself, you are entitled to a little loftiness, because there is no loftier calling. My own far-off ambition is simply too great to put publicly in print, but my higher purpose is the American literary tradition. To write something worthy of being included, and maybe being remembered—something to justify the privilege of having written it in the first place. Most writers have some goal. The big scoop, the definitive take, the scandal revealed, the injustice righted. Those things matter to me, but nothing matters more to me than the words themselves, and their employment and poetry in telling the story. Batman can bring justice to the world, but can he do so in well-ordered paragraphs? I probably should have talked about all this during my presentation.

** The classroom scene in City Slickers is to me the definitive representation of career day, and though I didn't collapse entirely into a midlife crisis during my talk, it did occur to me how close I now am in age to Billy Crystal in that film. He seemed impossibly old when I first saw it in grade school, and here I am. If I am totally honest, I could probably use a cattle drive to sort out things in my head.

Neal Gabler and the Hungry Writer

This month, Neal Gabler has a piece in The Atlantic wherein he discusses the perilous financial state of Americans and describes openly "his secret shame"—his personal financial woes. It's one of the more unnerving things I've read this year, if only because Gabler's biography of Walt Disney sits on my nightstand (it's a masterpiece) and as a writer, I just assume that if you can produce something like that, you can do anything, and you do so from your other apartment—the one in Montparnasse that you bought because you liked the tree out front. Gabler is a consummate writer, skilled with the pen and willing to do the hard work of research to make his journalism sing. When I think of the challenges that must come with researching Walt Disney's life, I lapse into silent awe that it's even possible. Such research involves more than the basics, or even the extraordinary. Rather, it involves a lone scribe doing battle with the most powerful media company in human history. Walt Disney isn't just a man, but a brand and an American ideal akin to Washington or Lincoln. (Disney himself recognized this, and it could be a source of anxiety and exhaustion for him.) The Walt Disney Company, which I admire greatly, has a vested interest in keeping its namesake a secular saint. I imagine that the company did not exactly meet Gabler with open arms, and yet Gabler successfully unveils Disney the man, great and good in the best ways—Walt Disney was a truly good man—but also flawed, complex, moody and sometimes selfish, searing and tyrannical.

Maybe the aura of Disney extended, as I read the biography, around Gabler, just as we see the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty and cannot help but apply that same sense of intrinsic wonder to Gustave Eiffel. Of course Gabler is a colossus! Of course he's flush, his only concern being the business end of a word processor. But we now know better. It's not like this isn't without precedent. Nobody thinks of Hemingway in Paris and recalls that he starved while there, pennies to his name, but that was the Paris he knew.

Gabler's piece has been like a wrecking ball coursing across my brain for weeks now. While I will not reveal my personal finances (unlike Gabler, who puts it all out there in heroic detail), I will submit that I'm doing OK. I write a lot—approximately 1,000 publishable words a day for a half-dozen outlets, not counting my book work, commonplace writing, or correspondence—despite my living in the middle of nowhere (a place, it must be said, where the cost of living is low, taking my income even further). Still, I worry constantly about money because my daughter attends private school and I expect of myself to be able to provide her a first-rate education now through the end of her college career. (There is a 1% and concomitant "social network," and my goal in life is to enable her to be a part of it.) Moreover, like many, I live with an acute, chronic case of imposter syndrome, ever in expectation that my house of cards will collapse and I'll have to figure out how to begin again. I want to die in front of Microsoft Word (in 40 years or so); I never want to go back to the myriad jobs I held previously (however tempting it might be to don a Starbucks apron and tell some of my younger, inexperienced editors to fuck off).

Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield has spoken eloquently about such fears, using the example of being chased by a bear. When you are being chased by a bear, he says, you're not worried about being chased; you're worried about being caught. When the bear catches you, you're not worried about being caught; you're worried about being eaten. When the bear starts eating you, you're not worried about being eaten; you're worried about being killed.

And so when I read that Gabler would have trouble coming up with $400 in cash if asked, I wonder what my own future holds. I am not a financial wizard. I'm barely a financial street magician. Certainly, I am talented and have had extraordinarily good fortune, but what about next year? This is a high stakes business whose fortunes are ever in flux. Melville died penniless, and he's the greatest author to ever live. How fast is the bear running? Will it catch me, and what happens then?

On Jury Duty

In terms of timing, this week was as good as any for jury duty. I've been attempting Will Bowen's challenge detailed in A Complaint Free World (excellent book), and so I've tried not to complain about being called. I've largely failed in this task, though the actual experience of serving on a jury was interesting and awkward and something just shy of rewarding. I was summoned to the 19th Judicial District Court in downtown Baton Rouge on Monday and did so. The initial "jury room" is more like a jury auditorium, and was filled with what seemed like hundreds of prospective jurors. That in itself amazed me, as there is no way for the court to track who did and did not receive a summons. You don't have to sign for it; it just appears in the mail like a spider. I was momentarily tempted to just toss it and take my chances, but in the end, the fear of getting pulled over for speeding and then getting hauled away in cuffs for an outstanding bench warrant seemed too high a risk to take. If I'm going to get arrested in this town I want it to be for something interesting. (I kid! I want it to be for something boring that I'm immediately acquitted of.)

Nobody in the jury auditorium was in good spirits. It was like a giant waiting room at the DMV, and the whole process seems like punishment for being on the voter rolls. (That's the list from which names are drawn, apparently.) It seemed to be a representative sample of the city with respect to race, gender, and age, which was encouraging. At the start of the day, one of the court's judges entered the room and acted as a sort of master of ceremonies. He was quite skilled as an entertainer and he did liven spirits a bit. (I didn't get his name—my spirits weren't that livened.)

After his little opening standup act, the jury administrators got down to business, asking everyone with a legitimate excuse for missing jury duty to line up around the auditorium. It was a blockbuster crowd, each person in possession of reasons to be anywhere but there. I had no such excuse and did not line up. Also, even if I did have an excuse, I feared that I'd just be rescheduled for summer or some busy time of the year. Like I wrote above, this was as good a week as it was going to get.

The next five hours involved waiting. Projection screens were lowered and we were all treated to a movie starring Kevin Bacon, in which he plays a Marine Corps officer charged with bringing home the casket of a fallen fellow Marine for burial. I didn't get the movie's name. The 30 minutes or so that I saw were surprisingly moving and compelling. Actually, I think it was the best performance I've ever seen Kevin Bacon give. But there was an adjacent quiet room, so I absconded there in hopes of getting work done, which I couldn't because there was no Internet access, and my cell phone couldn't get a signal through the stealth bomber material from which they apparently built the courthouse. So I read a book I had brought. (Moby-Dick, for the nth time. If you haven't read it, it is not the book you are expecting! Read it!)

At 1:30, if I recall correctly, my name was called and I reported to Judge William Morvant's courtroom on the eighth floor of the building.

Some thoughts:

Judge Morvant and his bailiff are an enormously charismatic duo and have a lovely repartee. He strikes me as a judge from central casting. Aged but not old, balding with graying hair—a very distinguished look—and he spoke carefully but also thoughtfully. He has the soft hint of a "river" accent suggestive of the where my mother grew up.

Note to television producers: If you need a new courtroom celebrity, this is your guy.

Approximately 30 prospective jurors were seated, and 12 at a time were brought to the jury box and were interviewed by the judge and the two lawyers. Tell us about yourself kinds of questions: name, marital status, job, and whether we had served on a jury before. I had not. Then the lawyers interviewed the jurors to weed out the ones who might work against them. "How do you feel about personal injury lawyers?" was one question asked that tipped immediately the case to come. Later, "How do you feel about insurance companies?" by the defendant's counsel, if I recall. They asked also whether any of us had pending litigation, and if we'd ever been in car accidents, and so on. Everyone eventually chosen agreed that we could be fair and impartial.

This questioning lasted a couple of hours, and I was chosen despite my questioning the concept of "sympathy," which you're not allowed to have but what I consider to be a challenging sort of rule because as human beings we make instant and enduring value decisions about everything and everyone. See this commercial:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jU-cori12KU]

So anyway I asked about this and the judge explained it quite well I think—something to the effect of not using a verdict as an opportunity for revenge—"We'll send a message!" or "He seems like a nice guy. Forget the evidence; he's OK to me." I may have misunderstood all of this, but it's what I took away from it. I remain convinced that lawyers are in the sympathy business and this is rule requires enormous hair-splitting when it applies to personal injury cases where there's no visible injury (e.g., a severed leg).

This was a civil case. The plaintiff was suing for medical bills and emotional distress resulting from a car accident—you get the picture based on the "feelings about personal injury lawyers" questions above. I don't want to go into much detail about the case, not because they aren't intriguing, but because I'm not really interested in relitigating it here, and because the deed is done and there's no reason for me to pile on.

I will say this, though: the defense lawyer was a genius. It's been a really long day, I'm quite tired, and I can't recall her name, but it will come to me in due course and I'll update it in the morning. [UPDATE: Valerie Bargas. If she's your opposing counsel, settle. Actually, run. Drop your case and just apologize for... everything.] She was a shark. She dismembered pretty much every witness called by the plaintiff, seemingly effortlessly, and then proceeded to remove the still-warm organs from the carcasses left behind. The plaintiff's counsel seemed to have an aw-shucks, kind-eyed "I hate to even do this to the poor defendant" pose, and it was effective at times, but overall, when Bargas spoke, it was with surgical precision—surgery performed with a steak knife, mind you—and was so compelling that you couldn't help but wonder what she'd do next.

"You're claiming losing 'joy of life.' Interesting. So we looked at your Facebook profile and..."

Again, you get the idea.

So the proceedings more or less lasted for two days, and on the third day we deliberated.

Not long after entering the deliberation room, it became Thunderdome. The comity of the previous two days vanished almost immediately when the requisite number of nine jurors discussed their opinion of the evidence and agreed right away that the injury claimed by the plaintiff was pre-existing, and that he was not entitled to $875,000 he claimed necessary to make him whole again. He was basically asking us to hand him a winning lottery ticket by ruining another man's life. That and the evidence of his previous injuries meant he didn't meet the "preponderance of the evidence" standard we were ordered by the judge to weigh.

The vote was 9-3—repeatedly taken just to be sure that nobody wished to change his or her mind—and one of the three was then infuriated at our decision that the plaintiff's injuries were preexisting, and thus the defendant was not at fault. (This was the plaintiff's third lawsuit against someone with whom he had been in a car accident, and each time he sought medical treatment, he only did so on recommendation from his lawyer, and only with doctors the law-firm preferred. I mean come on.)

There was shouting in the jury room! "I HAVE INJURIES AND MAYBE HE DOES TOO!" Incoherent shouting and tears! "I'M IN PAIN RIGHT NOW BUT I JUST TRY TO BE NICE TO ALL OF YOU!" It was a bit childish, but more like a really bad attempt at manipulation. She wrote a note to the judge, though insisted that nobody read it, so I do not know its exact contents, and nothing really came of it. Another juror shouted back something, and there was a back and forth, and the matter was already settled anyway so we just pressed on with the paperwork and alerted the bailiff. Meanwhile she (i.e. the upset juror) demanded to see the medical records (her right), but the records then provided were literally thousands of pages long, and even if someone wanted to read them, we're not doctors and no matter how hard we studied the MRIs somewhere in that paper mountain, nobody was going to point thoughtfully at it and say, "Hey guys I just noticed something. Check out the thickened ligamentium flavum here—I—I have a better diagnosis!" This isn't House. With respect to medical details, we relied on the expert testimony of physicians for the plaintiff and the defense. That's why they were there, after all. I'll add also—maybe I will re-litigate this after all—if you have a problem about which your doctor says, "I can fix this, but it'll take 10 years and half a million dollars," find a better doctor.

Not on our jury.

But the shouting. So what made it so much worse was that after the jury room went weird with this hysterical clownish shouting at the injustice of it all (even though justice was being served per the law after honest discussion by all jurors), it was lunch time and we had to sit in the jury room for an hour in awkward silence (the angry dissenter mumbling endlessly about everyone else, as she perused the medical records, not really reading, but really wanting all of us to know that she was reading—she never did produce some new evidence or even then try to persuade anyone) and eat our little salads and burgers.

What did I take away from this. First, I hope I'm never again in a car accident, because I'm one litigious party and a one bad jury away from losing everything I own and then some. $875,000 is total financial ruin. After the woman lost her mind, a collective "southern mentality" kicked in, and everybody wanted her to know that, no, we really do think you're a nice person (she said nobody liked her, which we did, an hour earlier) and that no please, tell us again everything you just shouted fifteen times. I began to worry that people would just start to agree with her simply to make her feel better, which really would have been a miscarriage of justice. (Again: let's ruin this guy's life because an unhinged person didn't take her lithium this morning.) If we wrongly went down the injury road simply to console this person, I cannot imagine how many weeks we would have been in there debating over how much "Loss of Joy" money the guy was now entitled. ("FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS? I'M IN PAIN! YOU CANNOT PUT A PRICE ON MY PAIN! But it's closer to three hundred thousand.")

Second, the jury experience is not horrible, but not something I'd like to repeat. How I feel for the jurors on six-week murder trials! (To be clear: everyone on the jury had a chance to speak their feelings and thoughts without interruption. It was all carefully considered, but the defense just had a much stronger case.) Third, at least in the case of Judge Morvant, the courts really seem to be run by men and women who care about justice and who want the system to work, and want us to leave believing that. And I think we did. But I don't think it always work, and I think that personal injury lawyers are very good at their jobs, which gives me pause when I consider how predatory some of them have reputations for being. The good news is that I can't be called for jury duty for the next two years. And I have the name of a good lawyer if some guy tries to sue me over a minor accident.

A Few Happenings in the Cosmos

While covering the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas last month, I wrote several pieces on various happenings and findings in and about our solar system. Here are a few snippets of pieces that resulted, published by mental_floss. (And let me just add that if you've never had to explain nuclear spectroscopy for a general readership, you just haven't lived yet.) Every Inch of Ceres Is Now Mapped—and Yet Mysteries Remain

Dawn is loaded with delicate instruments to help decipher the dwarf planet's secrets. The Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) maps elements on the asteroid so that scientists can make sense of the surface and processes at work. The instrument works like this. Galactic cosmic rays smack into the regolith (the loose surface layer; on Earth, think: dirt), and interactions with the surface lead to emissions of neutrons and gamma rays. GRaND detects these emissions as they bounce into space. Neutrons at different energy levels correspond to different surface elements.

During the regolith interaction, when the cosmic rays hit the nucleus of an atom, the nucleus explodes, sending neutrons and protons in all directions. Some neutrons escape the regolith, some smash into other nuclei. Here's where it gets interesting. If a neutron hits the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, it loses energy in the interaction, similar to the way a cue ball stops when it hits another ball in a game of pool. When GRaND is counting neutrons, therefore, lower numbers suggest more hydrogen.

That's what is shown on the above map [not pictured in this blog snippet—dwb], which is color-coded for the presence of hydrogen. (Blue is more; red is less.) The area in blue is the north pole of Ceres, and as the map reveals, it's teeming with hydrogen, relatively speaking. This indicates the presence of water ice—H2O—near the dwarf planet’s surface. This is the first time such ice has been detected, and the finding is consistent with longstanding scientific predictions. Planetary scientists will continue analyzing the data collected by GRaND and other instruments in order to better understand the origin and evolution of Ceres.

5 Space Missions Under NASA Consideration

You have to admire the effort it took to build the acronym VERITAS, which is short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy. VERITAS is a proposed mission to visit Venus and figure out where things went so wrong. Above the clouds, Venus is far more hospitable to humans than Mars. Its temperature and weather aren't all that different from Earth, and scientists have proposed colonizing Venus with a series of airships. Below the clouds, however, Venus is a living hell. With surface temperatures near 900°F, it's hotter than Mercury, and its south pole is consumed by a rapacious, undying superstorm. The questions VERITAS intends to answer involve the state of Venus's geologic activity; its tectonic characteristics in comparison to Earth; and the evidence of past water at its surface.

[Blog note: My favorite line in the piece was cut, and I'll share it here: "Venus is the place where people in hell are afraid they'll go when the die."]

What is an Ice Volcano?

Think back to the volcano diorama you made in grade school. Little mountain, maybe trees and plastic dinosaurs (because every grade school project is improved with dinosaurs). In our model, red food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar are meant to simulate what's going on when a volcano erupts. Magma, which is molten rock and volatiles, builds up pressure until the ground gives way and it spews forth from vents in the Earth's surface.

This sometimes looks like the occasional, seemingly apocalyptic eruptions of Volcán de Colima in Mexico. Sometimes it looks like the gentle flows in the Pacific islands where you can hire a tour guide and observe lava streams as they roll along.

A cryovolcano isn't all that different. Like an Earth volcano, it results from pressure beneath a celestial surface. Rather than molten rock, however cryovolcanoes are the eruptions of molten ice, sometimes called cryomagma. Ice volcanoes can erupt violently or flow gently, just like the volcanoes on Earth. The gentle "tour guide" eruptions are believed to be like flowing slurries.

[Blog note: Bring tequila, triple sec, salt, and a bag of limes and you can throw the best rita party on Pluto.]

The Tropics of Pluto

“Pluto is a very complicated place,” said Richard Binzel, a professor at MIT and a co-investigator of the New Horizons mission. “We’ve been trying to go back to basics to see how seasons and climate might be shaping Pluto.”

Scientists have worked out the location and nature of Pluto’s tropics—a concept that might seem unlikely on a frozen planet 6 billion kilometers from the Sun. To understand what “tropics” means in this context, consider the axial tilt of the Earth, which is 23.5 degrees. The tilt is the reason that our planet experiences seasons, and over the course of a year, the Sun is directly over one of any latitude between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5 degrees south). That’s why the tropics are known for their warm weather.

For comparison, Pluto’s axial tilt is 120 degrees. This makes the range of tropical latitudes much broader than Earth's... Moreover, just as the axial tilt of the Earth gives us arctic circles with their attending stretches of dark winter or midnight Sun, Pluto's extreme tilt creates arctic circles as well—circles that reach nearly to its equator. “If Earth were tilted by same amount as Pluto, we [in Texas] would be in the arctic zone on Earth," Binzel said. A result of the overlapping arctic and tropical zones is that Pluto actually has "tropical arctic" bands.

The Plan to Send a Submarine to Titan, Saturn's Largest Moon

Here is an actual problem that scientists have tackled, not as consultants for some sure-fire science fiction blockbuster, but rather, in order to put together a very real NASA mission: How do we launch a submarine into space, send it to another world, and drop it into an extraterrestrial lake?

As it turns out, a lot of work on the problem has already been done. The traditional shape of a submarine doesn't lend itself to the classic entry shell seen previously with the Mars landers. The Titan submarine team soon realized, however, that the submarine would fit quite nicely inside the cargo bay of a scaled-down space shuttle. Better still, DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—has already built a scaled-down space shuttle, and it's flying today. It is called the X-37B—and the submarine would fit inside it.

The entry velocities for a mission to Titan would be the same as Earth orbital velocities, something the X-37B and its thermal protection can already handle. ("For [this phase of] the study, we just said, 'Sure, we could make that work,'" Lorenz explained at the forum.) Such an entry vehicle would be especially useful in that it could fly to a designated spot without dealing with the winds and consequent uncertainties that a typical parachute descent entry would have to overcome.

Next, the Titan team considered extracting the submarine from the back of the vehicle, much in the same way the U.S. Air Force pushes a MOAB from a C-130. They also looked at ditching tests conducted by NASA in the event that the space shuttle would ever have to land on water. A splashdown on Titan of their spacecraft, they found, would be quite forgiving, and if they attempted such a landing, they could simply flood the entry vehicle, let it sink, open the back, and let the submarine swim out into the sea. From there, the vehicle would conduct preliminary sea trials to discern maneuverability, and then get underway.

[Blog note: Ralph Lorenz, the project scientist on the mission study, had a magnificent quote that's elsewhere in the piece, but that I wanted to share here: "The virtue of this study is that you just need to say those words—Titan submarine—and everyone kind of gets that it's out there, it's interesting, and there's a lot of exciting potential."]

Hello #LPSC2016 Readers!

This is my second year covering the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, an annual gathering in Houston, Texas of the world's planetary scientists. Most of my coverage will appear at mental_floss, and I'll post links as they go live. I suspect if you've arrived here, it's from one of my m_f pieces. If you enjoyed that work, here are a few pieces of note that I've written about planetary science and external issues affecting the field. The Scientists Who Conquered PlutoThe Week

We know well the way astronauts think because we've studied them for so long — lionized them, rightfully, in books and movies and on television. We understand the human adventure. We understand that astronauts train hard and while in space live in pretty miserable conditions. But we also understand the glory of being an astronaut. They are humanity's ambassadors. They are exploring the final frontier. They've played golf on the moon! But what of these people — the New Horizons people, these spacecraft pilots and planetary scientists who study the outer reaches of the solar system? What can be made of them? Alice Bowman said the words, "We are outbound from Pluto." Has a more breathtaking string of words ever been uttered?

Our Golden Age of Space Exploration, The Week

The lighting of Pluto is a coming of age for humankind. It is the end of one thing — proving that we can visit any world we so choose — and the beginning of something profound: looking outward, beyond the orbits of the planets, with an eye toward active exploration. Contrary to common lamentations, NASA is not an agency flush with cash (its total budget takes up less than one half of one percent of the federal budget), and it is not an agency adrift. We are, in fact, living in a golden age of space exploration. In a five-year span, humanity will have visited the farthest planet in the solar system and set a course for the Kuiper Belt (long hypothesized, but only discovered in 1992); executed a hair-raising entry, descent, and landing of the Mars Science Laboratory; and rewritten the books on Mercury and Saturn, based on the astonishing discoveries of MESSENGER and Cassini, respectively.

When Congress Puts NASA on Hold, Planets Don't Wait, The New York Times

Two years ago, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) spacecraft, a $671 million mission to study the composition of the Martian upper atmosphere, sat at Kennedy Space Center ready to go to space, but with no one there to push the button. Congress and the Obama administration were competing to see who would blink first, but the planets weren’t waiting. If Maven didn’t lift off before the close of its launch window, the position of Mars relative to Earth would force a launch delay of 26 months. This would have had repercussions for Mars missions subsequent to Maven, as well as for scientists awaiting data for study and analysis.

NASA's Spaceship Factory, mental_floss

Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world's greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it's all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep 'em firing!

Mark Kirasich, the program manager of Orion, described the Orion team as the "craftsmen of the 21st century." In some beautiful future of humanity, this is the job where blue collar men and women punch in at 9, ply their trade, punch out, and grab beers before flying home on jetpacks. Today they build Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rockets that will take them into space. Previously, they built the 15-story external fuel tanks for the space shuttle, and the first stage of the Saturn V rockets that sent men to the Moon.


Parenthood and Checkmates

This weekend my daughter participated in her first chess tournament. More accurately, she participated in our first chess tournament, as my chess tournament experience is non-existent. The whole thing was a bit tornadic for me, my emotional winds driven primarily by pride and love and fear. I loved chess in middle school, and especially as a high school student, but the idea of participating in a chess tournament was somehow beyond my reach. I knew they existed, and where they happened, and when they happened, but my insecurities were (and are) too great, and the whole thing seemed like something other people do. This was despite my membership in U.S. Chess and enthusiastic participation in the Internet Chess Club. I desperately wanted to be a part of the chess community, but taking the leap required some inner strength or certainty that I lacked entirely.

(Playing online was no problem, though it wasn't really possible until I was in high school, when Internet service providers proliferated. I wonder about millennials, who always had the Internet [and at high speeds!]—whether a nontrivial percentage of that generation wasn't marred by growing up entirely in a secure, antiseptic online environment. The monstrous behavior of online gamers is perhaps a result of this; children playing with friends without ever leaving their bedrooms, or even meeting them face-to-face. It is play without the risk of rejection and free of consequence for words and deeds. My daughter's generation is therefore suffering a kind of overreaction to this. We're foisting our own insecurities on them—insecurities about ourselves, and about the causes of what we see as a lost generation.)

My daughter somehow discovered chess at school, and asked to join the school chess club, and the whole thing caught me off guard and I am thrilled by this turn of events, of course. I bought her a regulation chess mat and weighted pieces, and an obnoxiously pink chess bag because she likes pink, and on some level, I guess, to make some kind of political statement that she's too young to make. I fought wars on my own mat in my youth, and I hope hers lasts as long. (My chess clock wasn't so sturdy and I replaced it with a $20 job I found on Amazon.)

I've tried to remain cool about all this, but it's hard because she's surprisingly good and really seems into the game. She pesters me constantly to play, and I always do when asked. For the last couple of months, a board has remained unfurled on our kitchen island, and we sneak quick games in before school or between homework assignments. When her chess coach informed the team of a tournament, I asked him (when she was out of earshot) if she would embarrass herself by participating (I had no idea how kids her age played or how experienced they were) and he said no, that she was more than ready. I later asked her if she wanted to play, and she said "Of course!" and that was that. We were on our way.

It was held at a local middle school*. Honestly, the setup was just like you see on TV: a giant auditorium (in this case a gymnasium), tables as far as the eye can see, and thousands of chess pieces arranged neatly and ready for battle. (Her age group didn't use a clock, though she's become quite adept at managing time and would have done fine with one.) Here is how a tournament works, logistically, from the point of view of a parent. We arrived 30 minutes before the tournament began and signed in. (We had pre-registered.) She was given a name tag of the Hᴇʟʟᴏ ᴍʏ ɴᴀᴍᴇ ɪs variety. Everyone—parents and players—gathered in the gymnasium bleachers and waited for the official start. The tournament director—an enormously charismatic man with a deeply held belief of chess as a force for social change—spoke briefly, thanking the volunteers and sponsors for making the event happen. He also explained the rules of the tournament to a room of nervous young people from grades first through twelfth. Kids asked questions and he graciously answered them. (Note: I didn't get his name to my great regret; if you happen to stumble upon this page and know, please contact me.) He then explained the rules for parents. Basically, there was only one: no talking. At all. No—taking—at—all in the tournament hall. In previous years, parents weren't welcome in the playing hall, but this year was a bit of an experiment. For what it's worth, I would prefer, for sake of the players, that parents again be expelled from the room at the tournament's open. By and large, everyone remained quiet over the course of the day, but frequent trips in and out of the auditorium meant the opening and closing of doors, which sounded like cannon-fire amid the silence.

After the Q&A, kids were assigned to tables based on their ages and skill levels. My daughter was at the "K-2" table for the youngest children eligible to play. (I cannot figure out what K means, exactly. Kindergarten is the obvious guess, but the other tables were K-5 and K-10 and so on. So I have no idea.) The kids were called by group (with groups being labeled on their name tags), and where they might sit was determined by staff at the tables themselves. I couldn't hear anything going on, and could only scarcely see, so far were we from the kids. (A line on the floor became a demarkation point: no parents could cross, to prevent us from distracting our kids. This was a very smart decision, though like every parent with a smartphone, I wanted desperately to get a picture of a games in progress.

An exterior room was set up for parents to play games of our own, or eat or read or work or whatever. We were all encouraged to leave. I did not. I couldn't see my daughter, and on her behalf, I stood (I was too anxious to sit) and willed her to have fun and hoped that she would do well. (Before we arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and told her that even losing every game wouldn't be something to be embarrassed about. That she was young and many had been playing games much longer than her, and that our real job was to just learn what tournaments are like. When she expressed nervousness, I asked her if she knew how to play chess, and she said yes, and if she had fun playing chess, and she said yes, and said that there was nothing to be nervous about, then. She would get to spend the day playing a game that she enjoys! She seemed to like this argument, and expressed no further anxiety.)

Once the games began, I remained largely in the dark. The first game was a total mystery, as was the second. On her third game, she had moved to a different seat at the table, and while I couldn't make out the game or the position of pieces, I could see her hands and the confidence with which they moved, and knew right away that she was in command on the board. She handed some little boy his ass. Her chess coach had a better view of things, and said that it appeared she was doing very well. He pointed out that she was no longer sitting. She was on her feet and "in the zone," moving pieces decisively and, for the most part, effectively. When I saw her face and the way she leaned into the board ready to pounce—a four-foot Garry Kasparov—I could see that she was happy. She was having fun. She was having a great time playing in a chess tournament!

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, I attempted to maintain a poker face and hide any anxiety I might be feeling. I'm not sure what I was nervous about, exactly, or even what my feelings really were. While I tried to work through this, I felt immense pride at how effortlessly she settled into the tournament. The games were played in a round-robin format, and she played 6 games in addition to others for fun while waiting for the next game to begin. She seemed to be in her element. Two and half hours of chess concentration is an exhausting business. I was moved by how smart she is, how old she's getting, and how few years remain before she goes off to make a mark on the world. In a way, the tournament was like a little glimpse of the future. Parents couldn't go anywhere near the players, and that was fine, because they didn't need us! That was a hard reality to consider: adulthood, and her leaving the nest.

In many ways my daughter and I are alike, but she differs from me in one big way: she can fit in with any group of people. She knows how to say hello and get invited to do what they are doing. It's a beautiful thing to see.

At last the tournament ended, and she met me for lunch. (We brown bagged it, though there was jambalaya for sale from the gym snack bar.) She told me about the games she played, and that she had fun, and that she won some and lost some. She was in great spirits, though a bit fatigued from the play. We ate—I even grabbed her a box of Girl Scout cookies that we're selling. After lunch and before the awards ceremony where we would get the results, the tournament had set up a craft station for the young players, and they were able to decorate little paper crowns with jewels and such. She enjoyed that as well.

Parents packed the ceremony. When the director got to her section, I stopped breathing, I think. Then they called her name. She had earned Third Place, which came with a lovely trophy topped by a knight. I was over the moon. She was thrilled, too, but not entirely. After pictures were taken of all the winners (she was one of the only girls to place in the tournament), she told me what was bothering her. She had seen a beautiful marble buried in the dirt along a sidewalk, and wanted desperately to get to that buried marble before someone else dug it up. To the marble we went. We used a twig to excavate it, and when she finally had her trophy and marble, she beamed. She has greater perspective on the "importance" of these things than I can ever hope to have. And she's still my seven-year-old, with a few years left before she's off to college. We celebrated with ice cream.

Amelia with chess trophy and marble

(*About this middle school. It was Scotlandville Magnet Middle School, and was very clean and nice—the kind of school any parent would be thrilled to find when moving to a new area. [We are not changing schools; we're all-in for Baton Rouge International School through 12th grade. As a taxpayer, however, the quality of schools in the area matter to me more, perhaps, than they should. When I see terrible schools, I want to know why, and why my money and those children's time—present and future!—are being squandered by mediocre adults.] The classrooms impressed me most. Lessons were still on the boards of a couple of the rooms, and the things kids are learning today, at least at this particular school, are extraordinary. Video game development—I don't know the details but would be curious to learn—, and serious science and engineering topics that escape me but are far beyond what we learned when I was in middle school. The granularity of the topics under discussion blew me away. I'm assuming a lot, but the way the notes were organized and written on the board suggested that the topics weren't passing references in a simplified lesson, but rather, were actually the lessons themselves. It was inspiring. I only had an available sample of three classrooms to gather this information, but it seems unlikely that I encountered three outliers in a row. Based only on what I saw, this school is the real deal.)

Scenes from a Coffee Shop

Most of my work is done from coffee shops. This blog post is being written from a local CC's, which is a Louisiana coffee chain. (I live in Louisiana.) As a rule, I rotate the places from which I work. There are three Starbucks and four CC's reasonably close to my house. There's no real method in choosing where I work on a given day, but morning-time traffic is often a consideration, and the simple need for a change of scenery (staring out the window at Airline Highway traffic versus staring out the window at Perkins Road traffic). I have an office at home, and I do a lot of work there, too, but this business can get pretty lonely, especially when you're deep into a project and despairing over the impossibility of it all. It helps to have people around, even though my actual interaction with other people is limited to "I'd like a grande medium roast." I've mentioned previously my love for the Relax Melodies app, which allows you to choose from a variety of sounds, mixing together up to 12 in order to create the most soothing white noise possible. (Presently I have Rain, Winds, Thunder, Train, Wind Chimes, Storm, Wind Surge, Heavy Rain, Rainstorm (do you see a pattern here?), Thunderstorm, City Ambiance, and Crowd playing. If this were actually a storm, I'd likely be swept to Oz.) This is my default mix, though I add various sounds depending on how loud neighboring tables are. I look for a sound effect that matches his (it's always a man) voice, thus canceling it out.

I'm always curious about the people around me, though I never ask them why they're not at work doing an actual job. To the best of my knowledge, none of them are writers. (I'm not sure I've ever seen another professional scribe in the wilds of the town.)

Some are easy to identify: business types—consultants or salespeople—usually use an iPad with some sort of leather case that also holds a large notepad. Occasionally, salespeople actually meet clients, and those are the worst because the whole thing is so phony. (That is to say, it's usually some sort of pyramid scheme at work. Actual salespeople with million dollar contracts at stake, I suspect, meet in their offices downtown, and take prospective clients to an expensive lunch.) Students are frequently to be found. They're the ones wearing hoodies and using high-end Macbooks they shouldn't be able to afford. They drink trenta-sized fraps (or Mochassippis, as they're called at CC's).

Occasionally, I see groups of really old men gather. They usually sit in the leather chairs, and are very loud but generally in high spirits. They discuss politics, but distantly. They've seen it all and are in agreement about which candidates are good and which are not. Debates never ensue. Whatever their party is, they don't seem particularly loyal.

Occasionally, two people who are friends with each other might meet for a quick cup. They are usually women, and they tend to be in their late 40's or early 50's. I almost never see couples (in the romantic sense) who meet to just have coffee. I suspect the reason for this is that drinks everywhere are now served in paper cups, which basically scream, "Take this and please leave." There's nothing relaxing about it. (Because I have no intention of leaving, they don't really bother me, though I'd kill for coffee served in a proper cup and saucer.)

When I'm not wearing headphones, the conversations I overhear are almost always the same. Friends who meet almost always discuss family problems: recent deaths, aging parents, children adrift—that sort of thing. There are occasional religious discussions. (When there are, that's usually the whole purpose of this visit.) They swap Bible website addresses and talk about what the Lord says about forgiveness. (Forgiveness is invariably the topic of discussion.) One or both bring those Bibles with the zipper on the side. It's serious business, the religious meetings.

After almost 10 years of this, I've only overheard one fight, ever, and it was between two middle aged sisters over money. Not even big money—inheritance-level money—but over a 100 dollars or something. They didn't seem impoverished or anything where 100 would change someone's life. Between the two of them, they probably had 25 dollars worth of specialty drinks and bakery items. I guess it was a principle thing, but the discussion got out of hand, and in the end one of them left in a huff and that was it. Starbucks got boring again.

I never order the pastries at Starbucks. Baked goods are my weakness. Bread, croissants, muffins, cookies, cakes—I'll eat any and all of them. But when Starbucks foisted their La Boulange atrocities on the world, baristas, still learning the ropes, tended to open the plastic wraps (think: Twinkie wrappers) in front of customers, and then microwave the pastries before serving them in a paper bag soon sodden with grease. In the worst way possible, this destroyed the illusion of an actual bakery somewhere in the back. If I wanted a microwaved Little Debbie, I could go to Dollar Tree and buy a box of six for a buck. Anyway, Starbucks baked goods have always bothered me because of their uniformity of appearance. If ever you've baked anything, you know what I mean. You bake a tray of muffins, and some are bigger than others. Some are smoother on the surface, and some come bursting forth as shown on the cookbook photo (or the picture on the box). There's a certain inevitable variety in the results. But Starbucks pastries all look precisely identical, as though they were 3D printed, frozen, and shipped to shops across the country. It's unnatural and kind of disgusting.

(Likewise, I never order the specialty drinks, though my reason involves the high calorie counts. I can't imagine drinking more calories than I would burn in a five-mile run. The drinks themselves are delicious and wholly appealing, however.)

The only people who really bother me at coffee shops are the ones who come alone and spend an hour talking on their cell phones. The human brain evolved, I guess, to filter out (when necessary) two people carrying on a conversation. One person on a cell phone though, and it's triply distracting because 1. He or she speaks louder than two people having a normal discussion; 2. Anyone with such a gross lack of self-awareness is also likely to be overly animated, and emote and use theatrical hand gestures; 3. The human brain goes crazy wondering what in the hell is going on with the loud half-conversation. The brain hears a person posing and answering questions and wonders instinctively, "Am I the one who should be answering this person?" Or maybe it's a matter of evolution-driven self-preservation: the caveman who talked loudly to himself was the one likely to bash you over the head with a club. Be wary.

(Of course Larry David addressed this very problem on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

I have no idea what people think of me. "When will this guy get a job?" or "Why is he always here?" or "What is he typing?" I don't know. Maybe they think I'm a non-traditional (read: old) student. It doesn't really matter, and by rotating coffee shops just often enough, nobody ever gets the chance to ask.

Beginners Are Not Welcome Here

Last year, my daughter got a betta fish. Let me back up for a moment. Twenty years ago, I got a betta fish. It came in a vase, maybe eight inches tall and five inches at the roundest, with a narrow mouth at the top. The vase was filled with water. Some sort of plant plugged the mouth of the vase, and its roots derived their nutrients from the fish who lived down below, and the fish ate the plant's roots. It was basically a little ecosystem. Every couple of months, I would replace the water, and in the meantime the fish would hide in the plant's roots, and swim around, and do pretty much what you expect a fish to do, which is not much, and the fish and the plant lived in harmony for about two years, which is pretty good for a little fish. The fish died and then the plant died, and that was that.

So last year my daughter got a betta fish. We bought it from PetCo. It came in a clear plastic container the size of a butter dish. I looked up online what food would be best for the fish, because there are about six thousand fish foods at PetCo, and my previous betta experience involved a plant.

I soon had my eyes opened to an extremely depressing, and I would suggest, new part of American life. There are, apparently, some serious betta fish enthusiasts out there, and they all have very strong opinions about how to care for a betta. (That's not the depressing part. I'm totally OK with people being interested in whatever.) On more than one betta discussion board (there is more than one betta discussion board), some would-be fish owner would ask for advice for buying a fish, and the response would be so heated that even Jonathan Edwards would step back and say, "Whoa, fellas, let's take it down a bit." Make sure you get a certain kind of water pump that doesn't disturb the water, because bettas are sensitive to noise. (There are stern warnings to affix some sort of sponge to the filter as a makeshift noise dampener.) Aquarium sizes—my god the aquarium sizes. Forget the betta tanks you buy off the shelf at pet stores—you need serious water volume for the fish. At least 2.5 gallons—or maybe 5 gallons! (For a single fish!) Then there are the plants, and decorations, and a certain kind of rock where special vacuums to clean the bottom can do the best job, and a heater—don't forget the heater, you monster!

Now I'm not saying that betta fish today are softer than when I was young, but based on my Internet research, there is no way these fish are presently able to survive in the wild.

I get that we want to be humane to our pets, and I agree that we should do whatever is reasonably possible to make their lives worth living. But the Internet breeds enthusiasts and experts each trying to out-enthuse the other, and what you end up with are beginners turned off of the whole process. I felt bad for the poor beginners wanting to know which betta tank is best—there is no "best betta tank." You can get the 30 gallon shark tank or you can get the hell out of here.

There have always been judgmental know-it-alls in all areas of life, but rarely have they been so angry at the prospect of someone new entering their little kingdom, and so angry that someone might enter their kingdom with insufficient zeal. You like Parcheesi? Well unless you're prepared to study for grandmaster-level Parcheesi play, beat it loser. We got no time for fun around here.

(For the record, we opted for the 1.5 gallon tank with the photograph of a betta on the box. Whatever pump it came with is what we use. I sprung for the heater because it was cheap, and because nobody wants to be cold all of the time.)

For a while, I thought it was just the fish community that had lost its collective mind. Last month, though, my daughter and I decided to get a bat box for the backyard. I had never heard of such a thing; we learned about them at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Basically, a bat box is about the size of a pizza box with a slot on the bottom for bats to get inside. The box is a little shelter for them, and once they get in there, they know what to do. They're bats. They're dry. They're happy. Apparently they eat lots of mosquitoes, and everyone wins.

So our project, in theory, looked something like this: 1. Get a bat house; 2. Paint it; 3. Hang it on the back fence. Like an idiot, though, I googled "bat box" and was once again sucked into the world of angry enthusiasts. (Bat enthusiasts, specifically.) The general format of online discussion followed the betta fish one almost to the letter. On some discussion forum, someone would post something like, "I'd like to get a bat house. I saw one at Home Depot. What do you recommend?"

The responses: "Are you kidding? Home Depot? You're wasting your time. Your best bet is to build your own. Here is a 375-step instructional website with blueprints and directions for how to run electricity to your bat house so that they can have a tiny television set to watch during the day. You'll need an extra iPhone. My bat house has about 500 bats in it, and..." And so on.

I can't imagine that anyone would read this and say, "Oh, well I'll whip out my bandsaw and get to work." Rather, he or she will read it and say, "Well, I guess my bats are going to be homeless."

Ultimately, we bought a $25 bat box at Ace Hardware. We painted it and hung it on the fence. Maybe bats will move in. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll opt for some Bat McMansion down the street. I don't know what will happen. (Apparently it could take up to two years for bats to find and move into the house.) What I do know is that my daughter and me got a cool experience out of the deal, and that we have a bat house. Maybe it's subpar. Maybe it's a bat shanty. But if a bat moves in, that would be pretty cool. And if not, we're out $25 dollars and a couple of hours. I can tell you with certainty that if I had to build a bat house ("It's easy! All you need is—") it never would have happened, because I am a normal human being.

I wouldn't have mentioned any of this except that I ran across it again today while reading about fitness. I love running, and do five miles a day, six days a week. The run plus warmup, and just pulling my running gear on, takes about an hour total, start to finish. (I've been neglecting my long runs because it's basically become impossible to cordon off three solid hours of my day for anything that doesn't have a paycheck at the end.) Even for five-milers, because my schedule is a little weird lately, and because it's freezing in the mornings, it's become really difficult to get a good run mid-day without spending the day fretting over it, and trying to figure out when and how I'll do it. So I have a membership to Planet Fitness, and until things settle, I figured that on hectic days, I'd just plan to go very early in the morning and do the stationary bike or treadmill.

On a whim, I decided to look into the little "30 minute fitness circuit" they have in the back of the gym. I thought I could throw that in alongside my cardio. I wonder what people think of it? I stupidly wondered. So I went to google, and that was that. Same format as the betta fish and bat box. Multiple someones posted in various places a question to the effect of:

"I'm a beginner. What do you think about the 30-minute circuit at Planet Fitness?"

And the responses are all the same: "It's garbage! You'd be wasting your time. What you need to do is plan a MWF workout working alternate groups. So on Mondays you're going to start with single leg hamstring curls and dumbbell neutral grip bench presses..." and you know the rest. These enormously overwhelming and confusing exercise plans that no normal human being will ever do, because no normal human being wants to pick up a car (or house 500 bats, or have an ocean-like aquarium for a single fish). Why not let the beginner just be a beginner? Hey guy, go to Planet Fitness and do your 30 minute circuit, and eat right. When you're ready, branch out.

The thing is: I know that these experts and enthusiasts know their advice will go unheeded. It's never about helping the beginner. It's about feeling superior in your godliness at that one tiny thing in the world you are great at. What I don't understand (aside from the anger) is how someone could love a hobby so jealously that they sabotage the efforts of others. Our wired world has made loners of all of us. We don't know the names of our neighbors, and don't want to know. It seems like common interests would be a great way to bring people together in the real world. "You want to get a fish? That's awesome!" Instead, somehow the Internet has made doing anything new a little lonelier and a lot scarier. "You want to get a fish? You're not ready."

[Image credit: h080]