the terraformation imperative

There is a history and a mythology of space exploration. The history is one of people going, bringing what they need to survive, and learning, and doing science and engineering and occasionally art, and bringing back knowledge. And there is a mythology, again, of human beings going to space and  doing things: colonizing, mining, going to the stars. It’s all very human centered.

And it’s what you would expect from people who shop in grocery stores, and poop in toilets, and breathe without thought. We have a civilization where less than two percent of the population works in agriculture. In some ways, we aren’t that different from the astronauts we send to space. What we ingest and excrete is created and disposed of, for the most part, by other people and lifeforms we have little awareness of. We have other things to deal with.

It seems so obvious that to state it is insulting: there is no humanity without Earth’s ecology. We imagine ourselves as separate from nature, even opposed to it, but we are inescapably of the fabric of the life of this planet. The food we send to the International Space Station may be highly processed, but it originates in living organisms on Earth.

To establish independent colonies, we’ll have to do better. We’ll have to send not just people, but functioning ecologies for them to be a part of, to sustain them over time. So when we talk about colonization, permanent habitation of humans elsewhere, it’s better to speak of Earth-life colonizing other worlds. And before we reach for the goal  of terraforming other worlds, we must practice localized terraformation. We would begin with human-centered protoecologies that would include humans and highly efficient and compact systems, made up of algae and other microorganisms, and controls to regulate their continued operation.

You could call them cybernetic organisms. We’d exchange nutrients with it, in a tight cycle, initially. ‘Exchange nutrients…’ yes, that is a euphemism for taking  the pee and poo and hair and sweat and CO2 and probably cleaning fluid and laundry detergent–everything that goes down the drain and in the garbage in your house–and recycling it back into food and O2 and other useful stuff. That’s what the ecological system does for us on Earth.

Before you say ‘yuck,’ remember every drop of water you have ever drank, every atom of water in your body, is dinosaur pee. Every atom of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen and all of the trace elements in your body have all been metabolized through the bodies of living organisms on Earth for billions of years. We are all made of shit: shit a billion times over. The Bible says we go from dust to dust, but the truth is we go from shit to shit.

The best reason to mine the asteroids is that all the water on Earth is dinosaur pee. Yuck indeed.

And how will colonists eat? What kind of food will they have? It’s a little hard to say at this point. Maybe initially it will be something like Soylent. Maybe we’ll make ways to add variation and flavor. But it’s a lot to ask someone to go to a place where they’ll never eat an orange again. So you’ll need an ecology that will support orange trees. Or maybe something less ambitious to start. Kale? Basil? Will they exchange algae pesto recipes?

There are some reasonable starting places. But sustainable agriculture depends on a broad set of ecological services, provided on Earth by a living context that doesn’t exist anywhere else we know of. So we’re going to have to bring it along, if we are to persist elsewhere, even on a smaller scale than that of a planet.

Thus, the terraformation imperative: true space colonization is terraformation, at any scale.

conditional voting

As I write this, it’s July of an election year. The election is in November. The debate is in full swing: vote Hillary? Vote third party? Vote Trump? And people keep talking as if it’s an urgent decision. It’s not.

I live in Illinois. Illinois is not  a swing state. But people still say things like ‘You have to vote Hillary. It’s too risky to vote third party. A third party vote is a vote for Trump!’ Maybe… in Florida. Here in deep blue-state Illinois, not so much.

So this is what I have decided: if the polls in Illinois the week before the election are within 2%, I am voting Hillary. Otherwise I will vote third party, probably Green Party.

Two percent is an unlikely margin in Illinois. It’s pretty close. But it’s not a bad balance between my desire for a farther left candidate and my fear of a President Cheeto Jesus. Others might pick a different margin, but 2% feels safe to me.

That way, I can push things left in my small way. I can register my support for positions left of the Democratic Party. And I can vote against the two party system, if appropriate. I can, at the same time, hedge against the risk of a truly unacceptable candidate by delaying my decision.

If enough other people commit this way, conditionally and publicly, then we can see each other’s positions, and identify with coalitions outside the two party system that are masked by the fear in the debate. Voting third party could go from a futile gesture to a much more viable choice.

It’s often said that votes don’t matter outside swing states. This is a way to make non-swing state votes count. If enough people were to make this kind of commitment, it could permanently destabilize the two party system. Which I would be perfectly happy with.

You could think of it as adding a runoff vote ahead of the actual vote.

The rub

But if this strategy wins enough states to cause no one to reach 270 electoral college votes, that will dump the election in the House of Representatives, and they can pick whoever they want. Which I do have a big problem with… now. I suspect they wouldn’t select Trump, but they’re not likely to select someone I like. If the Democrats take back the House, it would be less of a problem, for me.

I don’t think that’s a big risk in the near term. I could see it happening during a long term transition to a better democratic form. It would be good pressure to reform the way we vote, and move to better forms of voting, like instant runoff voting.

My Hyperloop moment

I have a job. I am quite busy. Not as busy as Elon Musk, but busy enough for me.

So… conditional and public commitment. Sounds like a website, maybe with Facebook integration. Tracking voters, with their preferred and backup candidates, and the margin at which they’ll flip. Give people a login, let them come back and change their position. And create views of the different states and the aggregate choices folks have made. Maybe integrate with polling data. Send out alerts. And scale.


from white guilt to American anger

I have a friend from the Chicago bike community, Carl Harris, also known as Chopper Carl (I showed him this piece before publication, so I have his approval to use his name). I see him around on occasion, but we’ve fallen out of touch the past few years. We both still connect with the bike community, but neither of us is as active as we were.

Carl is a clown, always cutting up and joking around, modifying bikes in goofy ways and giving them funny names. Back in the day he built a bike trailer with a stereo, and he used to ride at Critical Mass and kick out the jams for all the people. Such a fun guy.

One evening a few years ago we were biking around after Critical Mass, and we went to his place, out on the West Side of Chicago. He wanted to show me some of the stuff he was doing with his computer, adding a hard drive and changing some stuff around. He used it to manage his music collection.

At some point he mentioned he wanted to make some change, I forget what, and I said, ‘I think that’s a BIOS setting.’ And he said, ‘I’m not smart enough to mess around with the BIOS.’ To which I replied, ‘if you’re smart enough to do all the stuff you’ve already showed me, you’re smart enough to mess around with the BIOS.’

That interaction didn’t register with me for a few days. Who the hell says they’re ‘not smart enough’ to do something?

Later that evening, we rode down to my place. We rode past the high school he attended years before, a West Side school. I asked him what it was like. He said he kept his head down and stayed out of trouble.

At this point, I shouldn’t have to mention: Carl is African American. His place was in poor shape. His neighborhood was rough. He was working as a bike mechanic at the time.

And it struck me, as I turned the story of that evening over in my head: Carl was a smart guy. He was like me. And the difference between his path and mine, his opportunities and mine, was not vast, but it was substantial. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, got a decent education (largely at taxpayer expense), had a bit of luck, and had a reasonably impressive resume at that point. He grew up on the West Side, and managed to keep his intellectual curiosity alive under adverse circumstances. I don’t know all the details of his story. But I had had better opportunities than he did, and made more of them than he could.

I saw myself. If I had been born in another place, with a different skin color, my brains would not necessarily have gotten me this far.

Now, I don’t want to paint Carl as a victim. These days he’s married, and he preaches the Good Word at a church on the South Side, and he plays the Hammond organ. I see from Facebook he’s gotten into ham radio. He’s still curious, always learning and tinkering.

He’s made a life for himself, and I want to be clear I respect his accomplishments. But he could have had more opportunities to develop his fertile mind and capitalize on his capability. He’s not a dumb guy.

And I realized he wasn’t alone.

Now, I think racial oppression and suffering are awful and unfair. It breaks my heart and makes me sad. But I live every day with pain and I get up and do my thing, and I see lots of African Americans do too.

What’s worse in my mind is the wasted time and potential. There is capability wasted, and there is brilliance unrealized. We are wasting these people’s time.

This was where I started to get angry, on behalf of my friend and others like him. And this is the place I think a lot of white people need to get to.

Race is a bullshit concept. I mean, I’m not trying to erase anyone’s distinctiveness. I respect African American history, heritage, and contribution. But local adaptations humans have developed over time don’t mean anything deep about the potential of the people with those adaptations. It doesn’t stand up to modern biology. And to feel ‘white guilt’ is to accept that logic–that there’s some significance in the color of my skin and yours. ‘I feel bad about what “our people” did to “your people.”‘

No. We need to see through these artificial distinctions. These may be African Americans enduring injustice, but the ones I know are a whole lot more American than they are African, and they deserve the same opportunities everyone else does. We should feel the same indignation and solidarity we would over their oppression we would if they were white. And we need to identify the self-fulfilling prophecies baked into the lie of ‘race,’ and find ways to turn them back.

It’s a platitude to say, ‘inside we’re all the same.’ But if it’s true, what does that mean? It means Freddie Gray was not just a loss to the African American community. He was a loss to the American community. He had a right to live out his little life the same as I do mine, and everyone else does theirs. And just because his skin was darker than mine doesn’t mean I should put his suffering and death and lost potential in a different category than mine.

We will never get to see what Freddie Gray would make of his life. His death is a tragedy and a crime, and I hope justice is served in his case. But you don’t have to kill someone to rob them of years of their life, or what they could make of those years. And African Americans aren’t the only ones who should be angry about that.

Jesus is my chainsaw

I’m formally Zen Buddhist. I took Jukai with Robert Joshin Althouse in 2007. But I grew up Catholic, and while I have multiple problems with Christianity, I still think there’s a lot of value in the teachings of the Jewish desert prophet. And while Christianity as practiced and understood today doesn’t work for me on a rational level, I do still have an emotional connection  to it.

Once a Christian tried to sway me with the line, ‘don’t think so much about this.’ That’s what we call ‘not understanding your audience.’ Yeah, no. But it does have enough of a tug on me that I don’t want to completely discard it. And I feel like repressing it could backfire in ugly ways. I’d hate to surprise my friends by going through a born again phase like Bob Dylan.

So an informal relationship with the the Christian tradition works best for me. I don’t consider myself un-Christian or anti-Christian, but I don’t think most people who would  call themselves Christian would call me one. Which is fine with me: I don’t have a need to fit anyone’s categories.

I came up with ‘Jesus is my chainsaw’ when I wrote this. It’s a line from a b-movie concept I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while, spoken by the evil Reverend Jim. ‘Jesus is my chainsaw! Come to Jesus! Bwhahahaha!’ But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. So I’m making it mine.

I have a deeply perverse and absurdist sense of humor. And for me, humor does have an important place in spirituality in general. So, while others might say Jesus is their savior, I say Jesus is my chainsaw. Jesus was a righteous dude, who stood up for ‘the least of these,’ threw the money-changers out of the temple, and died for what  he believed in… I don’t imagine him as a one-dimensional guy, but he could be pretty badass.

Savior? No. Teacher? Closer. Chainsaw? Hell yes.

the bank shot: the hardest question in 3D printing/replication

When Adrian Bowyer invented the RepRap 3D printer, he set forth a vision of the future of manufacturing based on self replicating robots–3D printers that make parts for other 3D printers. In the time since, 3D printing has advanced dramatically, in terms of reliability and cost. Design options have proliferated. There is enormous experimentation going on in the field. Many new open and closed source printers are available.

I often wonder what the 3D printing industry could learn from the history of open source software. As I compare the open source software and hardware businesses, I notice an interesting difference: the most successful companies producing open source software are not primarily in the software business, whereas the open source hardware businesses all seem to be primarily in the hardware business.

Red Hat and Canonical are certainly successful businesses, don’t get me wrong. But do they return the same level of shareholder value as IBM or Google? All these businesses produce open source software, but two have direct models and the other two are more indirect.

By ‘direct,’ I mean Red Hat and Canonical have open source as a foundation of their business. They give the software away, but charge for service and support.

And by ‘indirect,’ I mean IBM and Google are really in other businesses, but contribute to open source development  strategically:

  • IBM is really in the services and hardware businesses, but open source software helps it leverage commoditization against its software-industry competitors.
  • Google is primarily an advertising company, but it relies on an ecosystem of open technologies powerfully reinforced by open source software. Google needs Internet specifications to be freely available and widely implemented in a consistent way. Competitive, freely available open source software makes it easy to choose to interoperate with the rest of the world, and hard to choose otherwise, in a way that benefits Google’s business directly.

So what does that have to do with hardware? I’m not sure, but I suspect it could be a powerful direction of inquiry.

All the 3D printing businesses I see are in the business of either making and selling 3D printers (Lulzbot, Stratasys/Makerbot), or 3D printing services (Shapeways). Neither of which benefits from sharing source designs.

I’m curious: is there a business that could gain strategic advantage from using replicating 3D printers, but doesn’t necessarily sell them?

I love Adrian Bowyer’s vision of replicating machines, but it needs a business model. I’m envisioning entire industries being taken over by replicating bot farms, selling cast-off but still useful machines for belo cost once they’ve returned their investment, throwing off massive production capacity as a waste product.

But to unlock that possibility, we still need an entry point. We need a suitable business that will benefit from replicating 3D printers that doesn’t sell 3D printers or 3D printing.

The Google strategy doesn’t seem that relevant to me at this point. I do think interoperability and software standards are necessary, but we’ve had them for a while now and replicators haven’t taken over yet. We have the .stl file standard, and sites like Thingiverse, and sharing capabilities with Mediagoblin, and an open source software toolchain to drive these devices. The software toolchain does need work, but even an excellent open source toolchain wouldn’t increase replicator virality much: it’s necessary but not sufficient.

The IBM strategy seems closer to me.

I’m looking for the bank shot. Is there a bank shot here? Or is there one that’s close–an industry one could go after with a bit better technology than we have now? Is there a direction we could push things that would open this up?

Such a market would need to have these properties:

  • sufficient margins/ROI from replicators to suport investing in the technology;
  • potentially high levels of production–millions of units;
  • some locus of intellectual property central to the business but outside 3D printer design;
  • products that match the parameters of current (or soon to be available) 3D printing production–tolerances, sizes, and materials;
  • high demand for customization.

I find it hard to imagine such a business working in plastic items (PLA or ABS being the main feedstocks for 3D printing at this point). The large-scale production of plastic stuff I know about is pretty low margin. To me that says you need devices that work in metal, which at this point means CNC (subtractive) manufacturing. Maybe you need a device that combines the two. So as I write this, I don’t have an answer.

NSA data collection

There are a lot of things wrong with the NSA conducting mass surveillance. One aspect hasn’t gotten enough attention, I think.

The governing doctrine, as I understand it, is that the Fourth Amendment search and seizure rule doesn’t apply to data collection. It only counts as a ‘search’ that may or may not be ‘reasonable’ when they actually look at the data and attach identities to the actions tracked.

They’re asking for a lot of trust. But not just trust in the present.

I don’t know how long they keep that data, but keeping it is cheap, and the agencies involved are known for keeping records a long time. That means even if you trust the current administration with it, you’re also trusting future administrations as well.

Thus: say you are a woman who called your doctor and then called Planned Parenthood. You might trust the Obama Administration with records of those calls. But what would a Santorum Administration do with that data? I’m sure there are hypotheticals a conservative could come up with in the converse.

One of the ways Americans avoid slippery slopes is to not grant powers on the basis of personal trust. You don’t grant power to an Obama Administration that you wouldn’t trust to a Santorum Administration, or vice versa.

It’s bad enough that this policy exists and could be expanded upon by future administrations. But that’s compounded by the archiving of the data itself. Who knows what policies will be applied in the future to data the NSA has now?

self-expanding domains

I am talking about a domain, or category of things that are made with certain other things, perhaps a particular set of tools. They take an input, and produce an output within the domain. An example would be woodworking–things people use woodworking tools to make. You take wood from trees, and use woodworking tools to make wooden toys, furniture, or signs.

What makes a domain self expanding is if the tools/implements/whatever are in the domain itself. You can use woodworking tools to make the handle of a saw, but not a functional saw. So woodworking is a partially–and weakly–self-expanding domain.

There’s only one completely independent self expanding domain I could name, and that is life. Living things can metabolize non-living matter and produce living matter. Mushrooms and plants can use chemical and solar energy to break up rocks and turn them into more mushrooms and plants, and more bioavailable dirt. Also, by definition, any living thing has the capacity to reproduce itself, on top of whatever else it produces. Species within life count as self-expanding domains, as does life overall.

When the inputs are within the domain we call it domain cannibalism, and when they come from outside the domain we call it genuine expansion. For example, when you eat plants, for the overall domain of life, that would be domain cannibalism, but for the subdomain of human beings, it would not. Elements brought into the domain we call vitamins.

Some domains are indirectly self-expanding. Viruses do not reproduce directly, but they hijack living cells to produce more viruses.

Other domains are only partially self-expanding. Other than life, all the ones I can think of require human operation to force the action forward. They need to produce something that humans want other than the tools, so humans will continue to propagate those tools and and maintain and expand the domain’s capacity for expansion. And, of course, they need to reproduce, either of their own volition or with human operation.

The reproducing elements we call domain seeds. The products that do not reproduce we call domain flowers, in analogy to the way flowers and bees interact to reproduce more flowers. Flowers attract bees; useful products/domain flowers attract humans.

Early humans saw life propagating itself, and noticed that seeds from a plant grew into the same plant. So they planted some of the ones they liked to eat, chose the best ones to replant, and the first human-operated self-expanding domain was born: agriculture. Some of our plants would continue replicating themselves without us, but many wouldn’t. It takes a lot of human work to keep that self-expanding domain on track, producing and reproducing.

Machine and metalworking tools are almost entirely self-expanding, though they need a human operator. I’ve heard both the lathe and the mill  referred to as the ‘mother tool:’ they can be used to make the entire shop of tools, including themselves. That may not be the most efficient way for them to reproduce, but even the most efficient way involves their use: they are needed to produce the molds and stamps that produce their pieces. They form the basis of industrial production.

Software is built using other software (compilers and various packaging tools), but all software depends on computer hardware to run on, and humans to use them. That hardware is produced in a process that involves software, computer hardware, and a range of other tools.

Computer hardware is also arguably partially self-expanding at this point. Early semiconductors could be designed using pen and paper, but now with billions of circuit elements on a given chip, that’s just unmanageable. Also, mass production of semiconductors requires fairly sophisticated automated processes.

So there are two self-expanding domains that intersect, computer hardware and software. Software helps hardware create more hardware, and hardware gives software a place to run and do all the things it does, including make more software. Together they form the basis of an information based economy.

These domains also support evolution: as domain seeds are used to produce more domain seeds, they can be used to improve and test designs, advance the state of the art, and accelerate change as seed designs are refined. Repraps are an attempt to make that loop more explicit, and to use the open-source model to broaden involvement in that process and accelerate it.

Also, note: agriculture, industrialism, information technology: we are distinguishing the core of epochal technological transformations. When a new self-expanding domain is invented, it’s transformational to the economy.

This a materialist idea: it’s about things making other things, or people making things with other things. You could think of it as a material extension of memetics. I’ve tried to extend it to economics or culture, but I think memetics already explains that.

your jealousy is understandable…

… because how awesome is my laptop now?


it’s a wave…


of bunnies!

I have long loved Kozyndan’s ‘Uprisings.’ It’s a play on Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa,’ with bunnies. I got my anodized aluminum Macbook Pro, and saw someone had etched theirs in a laser cutter. I thought this was a great choice to put on mine. I bought the poster, had it scanned at a shop with a large-format scanner, pulled it into the Gimp open-source graphics package (comparable to Photoshop), and messed with it a fair amount. Then I brought it into PS1 and etched it on our laser cutter. I have to give credit to Will McShane for his assistance in showing me how to edit the image and operate the laser cutter. Both operations fall in that category of things I do rarely and are sort of complicated, so my memory doesn’t hang on to them well. It came out perfectly. Thanks so much for your help, Will.

I wanted to document the process a bit, though I neglected to take pictures.

getting and editing the image

I ordered the paper poster and had it scanned at the highest resolution I could find. At 16×22, that wasn’t that high–Fedex/Kinko’s got me a 100 DPI image. Which turned out ok.

Once I had it in my machine, I used the Gimp to make it more laser friendly. This took the most messing around and blind alleys, but Will got me going in the right direction. From there, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as what follows, but this is the bottom line.

  • I opened the image in Gimp, and did Layer > Duplicate Layer;
  • selecting the top layer, I used Filters > Edge Detect > Edge to pull out the bunnies visually, and Colors > Invert to get the image in black on white instead of the other way around;
  • In Colors > Brightness/Contrast I turned up both–brightness to wash out the noise in the image, and contrast to keep the black outlines sharp;
  • did Layers > Transparency > Add Alpha Channel, and in the layers dialog turned the opacity of the top layer down so the lower layer would show though;
  • selected the lower layer and turned up the brightness and contrast on it too;
  • feathered the edges… this was the part that did not come out perfectly. I selected the top layer again, did Select > All, Select > Shrink by 50 pixels, and Select > Rounded Rectangle;
  • did Select > Invert, and then Select > Feather. Then I did Edit > Clear, and saw the top layer feathered. I selected the bottom layer and did Edit > Clear again.
  • did Color > Desaturate in both layers to get it in grayscale;
  • computed the right DPI so that the image would fit my laptop. The original was 100 DPI, and was 1669×2229 pixels. It had to fit a 9 inch vertical space, so I divided 2229 pixels by 9 inches, and got 248 DPI;
  • went into Image > Scale Image, and changed the vertical DPI to 248, and Gimp computed the rest;
  • exported the file to jpg, and put it on a thumb drive to put in the computer running the laser cutter.

I don’t think this is precisely the process anyone should follow to make an image laser-printer friendly. It worked with mine. Some of these steps and techniques might be useful. It might be good for you to just resize your raw image and see how it etches on a piece of cardboard or something first, just to get an idea of what it will do. Speaking of which…

To ze LAZZORZZZZ!!!!1!!1!!!

So I put the USB key in, brought up Corel Draw, and got to etching. I will not document the entire process of using the laser cutter. Different cutters, different software, different setups… if you want to learn PS1’s setup, come down to PS1 and get certified on the device. But this was basically how it went:

  • I cleaned all the food/fingerprints/accumulated schmutz off my lappie;
  • did a test etch on a piece of cardboard, and saw an artifact along the right edge of the image, which was easy to clean up;
  • (this was Will’s moment of genius, I thought) taped another piece of cardboard to the top of my laptop, along one edge so it could flip over like a hinge. I made sure there was clearance inside the laser cutter so I could actually flip it without moving the laptop;
  • positioned the laptop inside the laser cutter, as precisely as I could so the etch would fall in the right position;
  • etched once with the cardboard in place. It looked perfect;
  • flipped the cardboard over;
  • took a deep breath;
  • and etched my laptop.

And you see the results above. To be clear, I should give Will more credit–he did a few of the hands on steps there, and was helpful throughout.

Aaron Swartz lives


By saying ‘Aaron Swartz lives,’ I do not hope to establish a silly Elvis mythology about his continued secret life somewhere in the Caribbean or something. I mean that his commitment lives on: the liberation of human communication. The fire of his curiosity is the fire of our curiosity, and of human curiosity. Let us not fear its flame. Let us fan it into a raging inferno that consumes the Earth and launches us to the stars.

Aaron Swartz lives!

the Wesley Willis Tower

I am building a twitterbot that responds to tweets referring to the Wesley Willis Tower as the Sears Tower/Willis Tower with correction. It was such a great thing when the Sears Tower changed hands and they renamed it in honor of Wesley Willis, but people still get the name wrong. So I’m building this bot, and teaching myself Haskell in the process. Fun little project.

To register my program with twitter, I need a web page on the public Internet so people can see what the hell I’m doing. Thus this post. I do intend to make my code public, and contribute updates to the hs-twitter library back–it’s pretty badly out of date, and doesn’t work at all.

#wesleywillistower #wesleywillis #rockoverlondon#rockonchicago #wesleywillisfiasco #rockandrollmcdonalds #whipthellamasass #loveyoulikeamilkshake #iwhuppedbatmansass #daddyofrocknroll #bumpmyheadsayrah