Mars and Our Island Earth

“Mars mystery solved.” These words have been ringing in my head all day.  What is NASA planning to tell us on Monday?  It’s not every day that we receive a planetary science announcement in a planned news conference.  I know I’m a dreamer and it’s probably something far less exciting, but I can’t help hoping for life.  Even if it’s evidence of life that ceased millions of years ago.

Mars has for a long time been the source of awe, speculation, and artistic inspiration on Earth.  And ever since the first image of the Martian surface was sent to Earth from Viking I in 1976 (two years before I was born), we’ve had a lot more to think about.  Those rocks and shadows and dust look like features we might see on Earth, but they are actually 140 million miles away on a different planet.  That seems so far, but cosmically it’s really within arm’s length.  Mars, our planetary neighbor, so similar in size to Earth, with such familiar geological features.  Many are our differences, but what could be our similarities?

Viking I Mars photograph

The observable universe is 91 billion lightyears in diameter.  Our Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies hosting billions of stars and untold numbers of planets in that vast cosmic expanse.  In the 1960’s, astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake created the Drake Equation, which basically defines a framework to predict the probability of extra-terrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.  Although it has various interpretations and plenty of criticism, the equation nonetheless shows that statistically, in a galaxy with so many stars, we are unlikely to be the only intelligent life.

Intelligent life is fascinating, but I prefer to broaden the perspective to something no less intriguing: what about any life?  What about evidence of any reproductive, self-sustaining, entropy-balancing creatures, all the way down to the tiniest microbes, past or present?  Expanding the search that far must certainly enhance the probability.  In a universe so vast, it can’t have happened only on Earth.

But why does it matter?

I hear objections to caring about the universe outside of our planet.  We have so many problems right here on Earth.  We have war, poverty, disease, starvation, injustice, environmental degradation, and hatred.  True.  We have a massive burden here on Earth; however, are we not to blame for much of this burden?  Do we not choose to fight one another, to hoard our wealth where it exists, to mistrust anyone foreign of birth or status, to exploit our resources, and to seek retribution when others treat us as we have treated them?  As a species, we have extraordinarily limited vision.  After millenia of evolution, we still see each other as different tribes, different races, different species perhaps.  We fail to see that we are one brotherhood of humanity.

The differences we see are arbitrary.  Some humans with pink skin will say that humans with black skin are inferior; however, humans with dark skin probably just descend from humans who historically found some evolutionary advantage in having darker skin.  According to the CDC, dark-colored humans have a much lower rate of skin cancer than light-colored humans.  Many cultures along the equator of Earth tend to be populated by darker-skinned humans than those in cooler zones.  Perhaps the skin color differences arose because the advantage conferred by color in one place was different than in another.

For the entire recorded history of the human race, we have behaved like spoiled children dividing up the toy box, failing to see beyond the walls of our playroom. Nation has fought nation for resources, humans have murdered for wealth, and genuine grace for the fellow human has become a sadly rare gem. We have for too long identified too deeply as ethnicities or nationalities or religions and not deeply enough as humans. To be made in God’s image does not mean to be of any color or shape or size; rather, it means we are rational, moral, and most importantly, communal creatures. It is unnatural for us to divide ourselves so deeply along arbitrary borders such as race or nationality.

We see only the planet we live on.  We do not see beyond the atmosphere to other worlds.  The universe is vast, but our perspective is narrow.  If we are to overcome our desire to divide, we must unlearn, broaden, and re-inform that perspective.  I assert that the discovery of any extra-terrestrial life — even microscopic life or life long extinct — would be the most important scientific discovery of our lifetime — perhaps of all scientific history.  Suddenly, we will no longer look at one another as American, Russian, Christian, Muslim, black, white, or anything else divisive.  We will realize we are truly a uniquely human creation on our uniquely Earth-ish planet in an immeasurable cosmic expanse awash with other unique life.  Earth will feel smaller, more precious; our divisions will feel weaker, less significant; the universe will feel much larger, yet also much closer.

To learn that we are not alone in the universe will draw us closer together and make us more appreciative of the beautiful blessing of Earth in the universe.  Our children will grow up in a world not divided by race or religion or class, but one knit together by human brotherhood.  I can imagine no better future for my children.  That is why the very idea of a life announcement is so riveting and keeps me awake late writing these words.  By understanding our universe, we will come to better understand our place in it and our importance to one another.

Join me Monday to hear what NASA announces.  If it is a life announcement as I dream, join me in embracing a deeper appreciation of what it is to be a human in a vast, exhilarating universe.

Job or Service?

Retail sales associate. Job requirements: arrive on time in whatever uniform is required, stock some shelves, run a register, sweep a floor, smile, control your bitterness, pretend you’re not thinking about punching every customer.

But some of us do not approach our jobs as mere jobs.  This is a lesson on which all of us should reflect.

This weekend, Christie and I put on our parental armor and took the kids to the mall — a place we rarely go even without the kids.  After dragging everyone to FYE (Ghostbusters DVDs) and Hot Topic (Impending Doom record) with me, Christie wanted to go into Bath & Body Works.  I knew we were in for a rough time when David protested, “It’s all girly stuff!”

After trying to contain the writhing ball of atomic energy for about 10 minutes, a sales associate who had been quietly moving bottles of hand soap from one place to another and had taken notice of the situation approached David.  She told him that if he helped her fill bags with bottles of hand soap, he would earn a prize.  David was into the idea, so she asked my approval and we set off to see how he could help.  David dove into his task, moving bottles quickly but carefully from the shelf into the bags she had laid before him.  He finished his task and graciously received a bag of M&Ms from a basket behind the register.

Not wanting to leave Ashley out, the associate asked Ashley if she would like to help unload the bags into drawers.  Either because she’s a natural servant or because she didn’t want to be outdone by her brother, Ashley quickly accepted the assignment.  I accompanied her to her job site where she set about filling drawers with bottles from the bags David had just packed.  She worked quickly and diligently, ensuring the labels and spouts all faced the same direction even though that requirement was not part of her instructions.  After she had emptied both bags of soap dispensers, Ashley received a Reese’s reward from the basket.

After Christie checked out, the associate presented Ashley and David with Bath & Body Works name tags.  They were immensely proud to wear those name tags.  They were at least as proud of the name tags as they were excited to eat their snacks — perhaps more so. name tags

Clearly, this employee understands something so few of us do: our jobs are so much more than paychecks.  They provide us with opportunities to serve each other.  She could have just ignored us or quietly complained about David’s behavior and my apparent ineptness as a father with her coworkers.  Instead, she provided an awesome solution for me, a guy she’s never met, to redirect my son’s energy to a positive outlet.  Brilliantly, she solved my problem while still accomplishing the task required by her employer.  Also, my children had a great lesson in the rewards of service (although they will someday learn that the rewards are often more intrinsic than chocolate).

Just yesterday at work, my brain referenced this several times when I found myself feeling frustrated by job stress.  I hope I can continue to take a long view of temporarily unpleasant situations and see how I can manipulate them for more eternal benefits.

Mosque-Free Zone

Lots of my friends are really upset about the idea of a mosque at Ground Zero.

Sometimes on the crusade pilgrimage, Christians would slaughter towns of Jews. Their reasoning: “If we’re out here to avenge Christianity, why not kill some of the people who had Christ crucified?” So, what if some Christians decided to build a church in a town where crusaders slaughtered a bunch of Jews? If you’re okay with that and not the Ground Zero mosque, why?

Honestly, I don’t feel at all offended by a mosque at Ground Zero. I’m sure plenty of devout Muslims died that day while they were at work. The problem here is that Americans are so quick to equate Islam with terrorism, but also just as quick to forget all of the equally reprehensible things done in the name of our Jesus Christ.

Maybe if you are concerned about this mosque, you are concerned about the “Islamification” of America. Well, take a look around you at the culture we live in. Miley Cyrus dresses like a hooker and is adored by thousands of teenage girls. Rap musicians teach young black men that violence, drugs, and sexism are the norm and that reason and ambition are uncool. Schools kill music, art, and academic programs to keep the football funding strong. Television glorifies wealth and materialism. Credit card offers fill our mailboxes and we are encouraged to charge our purchases so we can fulfill those lusts for wealth and possessions immediately. Parents put children in front of Sponge Bob for hours. Local libraries put staff on furlough and close their doors while municipalities focus on trivial infrastructure expenses, like customized manhole covers. Children waste away hours with the PlayStation or the DS instead of being outside. School curriculum is controlled and standardized by executives who will never even see the children in the classrooms. Teachers are so afraid of offending someone or breaching standards of learning that they become mere administrators of that generic curriculum, much like a radio station programming director whose only job is to make sure that on-air DJs — if there are any — adhere to the playlist selected in a board room 900 miles away.

I could go on, but it’s late and my examples are in danger of becoming stale. The point: Islamification should be a minor concern for Americans. We’re much more likely to destroy ourselves through our own culture before being terribly affected by an “invasion” by another culture.

Also, for the mosque-opposers who consider themselves law-loving Republicans: remember that there’s nothing illegal about building a mosque there.

What Do You Pay for Water?

Our water bill came on Saturday and I noticed again that it’s pretty expensive. I’m curious if it’s just the price of water in 2010 for three adults and two children, or if this is yet another overpriced feature of life in Winchester. The tap water here isn’t great to drink, after all. I remember having a deep love for Harrisonburg’s tap water.

Anyway, to figure this out, I’d like to ask friends or those who happen upon my website to tell me what they are paying for water. I’ve devised a brief survey. Your answers are compiled anonymously, so respond truthfully with no fear of utility company retribution!

Take the survey.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The_Venerable_Bede_translates_John_1902At JMU I took a class about English literature to the 16th century with an awesome professor named Bruce Johnson.  Our textbook was the Norton Anthology of English Literature, covering medieval times to the 16th century. I love this book; in fact, I still own it. Fascinating bits of reading are spread across more than 2,500 Bible-thin pages — heroic tales, poems, mystery plays, prose, morality plays, dramas, and insightful articles full of awesome historical context for the pieces selected. When we were in the hospital having David, I brought my Norton Anthology along and read “Everyman”. A nurse inquired if I was taking a class and then called me a nerd when I told her I was merely reading for pleasure.

Included in the Norton Anthology is an excerpt from The Venerable Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a monk in Northumbria born in the latter half of the 7th century. Last month, I checked a copy out of the library and started to read it, but I got distracted by other things. When time came to renew it, I was unable to because someone else had placed a hold on it (the only other person in the Handley Regional Library’s jurisdiction who cares, perhaps). So, I searched out a copy to own.

My customary first stop for a book purchase, Blue Plate Books, had no copies to offer. Then I looked around Amazon for a good used copy, but none of the deals seemed to have the right combination of price, customer feedback, and quality. My next stop was Borders. Of course, they didn’t have one in stock at the local store, but I was able to order one with free shipping for store pick-up. I chose a nice paperback published by Oxford University Press.

The day it arrived, I went right to the spot where I left off when I returned the library’s copy and attempted to start without interruption. Sadly, this version’s translation is not a mirror of the one I had before. The difference was a little disturbing, so I decided to start over.

Now starting this 300-page adventure again, I am finding that I may have preferred the library’s copy. I’ve put my own hold request on it so I can pick it up as soon as it’s returned and share the first difference I noticed — the one that keeps coming back in my mind.

In the meantime, I’m glad it’s snowing so I have an excuse to stay in and make a little reading progress.

Programming Isn’t Cool Anymore

Note: I could totally be wrong here.  I’ve always been a little fascinated with things that were happening in the span between the years just before I was born to when I was just starting school.  What was it like for people who got to see Minor Threat, The Sex Pistols, Metallica, Megadeth, or Ratt when they were new bands?  What was it like for people who were buying or programming Commodore computers?  What was it like when Sony and Philips first showed the public a compact disc?  What was it like when the scars from the Vietnam War were still fresh and movies like Rambo told an extremely relevant story?  What was it like when philosophy, current events, and intellectual discourse still mattered deeply to pop culture?  Continue on…

Last night I watched Tron.  This is not really newsworthy as I have watched it tons of times since grabbing the DVD used at Plan 9 (R.I.P) a couple of years ago.  This movie makes me a little nostalgic for a time I never really experienced — if one can be nostalgic of others’ experiences.  Perhaps that’s vicarious nostalgia.  Anyway, the programmers in Tron — Flynn, Alan, Walter — come from a time when being a programmer meant something more than it means today.

In 2009, the field of programmers is flooded with hacks like myself.  We rely on frameworks to eliminate the need for any real creative problem solving.  We rely on intellisense to give us clues to the frameworks because programming isn’t so great a passion that we actually learn a language or its syntax.  We rely on Google to find our answers when the deadlines are too immediate or the problems too challenging.  Hence, we are hacks.

The programmers in Tron, the programmers like my Dad who learned the skills before Microsoft Windows was even a real idea, and the programmers like my coworker who maintains all of the “legacy” RPG applications on the iSeries mainframe: these are the real heroes of programming.  These are the guys who embody what a software developer really should be — or at least once was.  These are the guys who were constantly thinking and living outside the proverbial box.  There are the guys who were listening to Genesis or Kraftwerk while the rest of the crowd was still obsessed with the Bee Gees or Led Zeppelin.

The field of software development was relatively new still.  The programmers in the days of Tron were definitely making greater cerebral leaps and exercising tenfold the creativity of we 21st-century hacks who allow Visual Studio to fill in the gaps.  Those guys didn’t have WYSIWYG forms builders with drag-and-drop controls defined in a well-documented framework.  They had lines of code, monochrome screens, and brains with equally powerful hemispheres.

The very educational requirements of a programmer were far mightier.  Whether graduating from a university or a technical school, they were well-versed in mathematics, science, logic, and often arts.  In 2009, I am able to write a really great tax calculator web application with a brain that nearly failed Algebra II in high school and had to take Statistics twice in college.  My programming education — what little I received as I careened through five objective-free years in college — had nothing to do with math or logic.  In fact, in the first web design class I took, we learned the specific skill of knowing only enough JavaScript to find the answer on Google and adapt it to our needs.  I think it’s fair to assert that the goals of university education reflect the climate of the world in which graduates will be seeking employment; therefore, this is a sad reflection of the true state of modern programming: what was once an art derived from science is now merely a business skill to pad résumés and boost salaries.

So, it is with some disappointment that I greet my greatest programing successes.  The end product of my effort may seem impressive at times, but all I must do is read my code to see how modern software development tools and atmosphere have robbed this once-prestigious field of its mystery and pride.


Grillz were invented by Norsemen. I have been reading up on some Norse gods and legends because I’m tired of not knowing what bands are singing about. According to this book I am currently reading, which is actually from the young adult non-fiction section because that’s the best I could find here, Heimdall was “wonderfully handsome and he had a truly dazzling smile, for his teeth were of pure gold.”

Elephant in the Way

Confession of an Unrepentant Rhinotillexant

I just got back home from the gas station.  While I was there, I saw a man dressed in camouflage sitting in the passenger seat of a truck and holding a hunting bow in the space between his chest and the dashboard.  Then I observed a large protrusion under his bottom lip as he opened his mouth and spat a gruesome glob into what once was a drinking water bottle but now appeared to contain a science fair sample from a muddy sewer drain.

Chewing tobacco.  Gross.  Not only does it make you look like a monkey, but it also requires you to carry around a bottle of your own cud.  This set me to thinking about one of my own bad habits.

Our phone contractor was at work helping me to fix a problem one day last week and he totally caught me in the middle of an undeniable, but extremely relieving, nasal excavation.  At the time I was embarrassed, but now that I look back on the moment, it’s no grosser to pick your nose (rhinotillexis) than it is to chew a wad of tobacco and spit your foulness into a bottle that you keep handy in your car or on your desk or in your hand at parties where, for some reason, ladies are nonetheless impressed.

So, from now on, I shall pick with impunity.  At least I can toss the product of that habit into a trash can or wipe it on a friend’s back in the disguise of an encouraging pat.

Wading Ankle-Deep in Local Politics

It appears we are going to be in Winchester for a few more years. We can’t afford our mortgage here, but we also cannot afford to move because selling our house would prove nearly impossible in the current real estate market. So, why not get involved just a little in some local politics?

In Eric Beidel’s Willingham seeking GOP nod in Ward 4 from The Winchester Star on Saturday, May 31, I came across several reasons to dislike John Willingham. First off, he is vice president and senior commercial banker (I figured those should be capitalized, but I’ll preserve The Winchester Star’s case) at Wachovia on Loudoun Street. Bank executives are often rich. The monetarily wealthy fall into one of the categories of people I generally do not trust. Plus, being a banker enhances the natural human aptitude for greed. And of course, a greedy bank executive is in touch with the City’s poor.
Those are all assumptions and generalizations. To be fair, I’ll move on to some more concrete material.

Eric Beidel wrote, “A viable downtown area is ‘the heart and soul of any city,’ Willingham said.” My brain boils when I read this kind of nonsense. Mr. Willingham, the ‘heart and soul of any city’ are its people. DC money creates an ever-increasing class of poor in Winchester who cannot leave but must live under a system designed to fit higher wages — like those of bank executives. While some in the City may find shopping downtown delightful and the meals exquisite, there are still many who cannot afford to consider stepping into cute boutique shops — and some to whom the downtown area is a perpetual outdoor home. These people do not need another George Washington Hotel (How far behind schedule was it? Is it really finished?) or more overpriced shops. They need a hand. They need a boost. Why aren’t you talking about what the City can do to help these people find jobs and even some the counseling they need?

Here’s another one:

By continuing to improve the economic viability of this city, we will be able to fully meet the changing landscape of our educational system, promote the concept of new urbanism, improve our transportation system, and provide other amenities that we will need to attract the next generation.

New urbanism? What does that mean? I believe it roughly translates to “Fairfax aspirations”. The more Winchester focuses on “new urbanism”, the more it will lose its “heart and soul”. Outback Steakhouse, Best Buy, a few Wal-Marts, and a faux enchanting downtown will keep the new money happy for a while, but they can’t support a community forever. Lose the lower classes and you will lose the City.