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.


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

back at it

So, I decided to sell generosity.org–it might be valuable, and I could use the money, and I wasn’t really using it for much. I moved the blog here: johnstoner.wordpress.com. No hassles, no upgrades, technical problems are someone else’s problem. I can just write. Which is why I wanted to blog in the first place.

Update for those who were interested in my surgery: my implants really never worked out. I could walk better–well, I could walk forward in a straight line better, if there was no crowd to navigate. I could barely walk backwards (which doesn’t sound like a big deal until it’s a struggle), and I couldn’t move in a responsive way. A friend of mine once picked me up and spun me around in a bar, and when he set me back down, I kept spinning, and almost fell over. Surprises while walking were always bad–if someone in front of me stopped suddenly, I was very unsteady. Crowds, again, bad.

I couldn’t talk well. No voice projection, poor enunciation. I got used to repeating myself a lot, but not being able to address groups was frustrating. And in job interviews, it’s been deadly. If you want to make an extrovert unhappy, take away his speech.

My whole sense of rhythm was shot. Forget dancing, it was hard to knock on a door, hammer a nail, grate cheese… I was also just generally weaker–I could ride a bike, but not fast. There’s a mental threshold of physical difficulty–some things just feel hard to do. The implants lowered that threshold, pretty substantially.

Anyway, in the last couple weeks, the batteries died. One thing that kept me from just shutting them off was my body’s response to the sudden cessation of current to my brain.  My neck would go into painful spasms. As the batteries died, they tapered off, so it wasn’t quite as bad as it had been.

Having them off is not a panacea. My neck spasms are stronger and more painful. My left foot twists more, and it’s more of a struggle to walk long distances. But I can make myself heard across a room. And my enunciation isn’t quite back to what it was, but it’s better.

I’ve discussed having the leads reimplanted in my brain with my neurologist. I feel like I’ve been through a lot without much to show for it. My thought is, I’ll look at it again when technology improves, and outcomes are more predictable. The procedure itself is a lot to go through, and it can take a long time to explore the space of possible settings, either to find the optimal setting, or that there isn’t a good setting and you need to be reimplanted. It’s still too hit-and-miss.

When I moved this site over to the wordpress servers, I looked back at my original posts. I realized I spent over twenty hours in surgery awake. I went through four surgeries. Going back in again, without much assurance of a better outcome, is a lot to ask. I’m not one to say ‘never,’ but until they can convince me the next time will go better, I’ll pass.

In the meantime, I’ll try yoga. I’ll probably go with yin yoga: lots of stretching, slow, low exertion. The hard part for me is figuring out where it goes in the design of my day. No, that’s a bunch of crap: the hard part is starting. Isn’t that always how it is?

And as for blogging, I think I’ll start again. I still have plenty to say. I love the interactivity of Facebook, but some things aren’t just for my  friends to read.

The return of John

John’s visit is always a happy occasion, now more than ever. This trip home even more so because the DBS operation signals a first step on the return to walking without a reeling gait and speaking clearly. I don’t expect the surgeon’s handiwork to restore the abilities of that young “pre-dystonia” lad. Now we know that the realization of hope is something we can enjoy with a greater amount of expectation. Something is going to happen—Something good.

When John was graduating from high school, the affects of his dystonia were apparent. This did not deter the US Marine Corp. recruiting sargeant from dogging his steps, or John from listening to him on the phone. I caught the phone call one time and asked if John had explained his health problems. With an explanation of dystonia, the Marine lost interest. John was put out though because he felt he could make a significant contribution to “The Corp.” He was only satisfied with my actions when I explained that he could not hold a rifle in the regulation way and that all Marines need to shoot. We will never return to those days.

Betty and I have known about John’s bravery since he was a ten-year-old and endured brutal practices called “air studies” and cerebral angiograms and countless needles. We followed his judgment when he let us know he no longer wanted the drugs that interfered with his life or the strange “operations” that had such little promise of success. Judging from the response to the news of the operation on the internet, everyone now agrees with his mother and I. I must admit these are characteristics necessary to make a good Marine.

We are off on a new track now. This involves new trials, new expectations and new hopes. We are thankful for the prayers that brought John safely this far and count on them to bring him through the rest of the way.

Lloyd Stoner (John’s dad)