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Important: Don’t Let Your Wireless Provider Spy On You

2012-10-30 1 comment

With the widespread popularity of smartphones, everyone is walking around with a computer in their pocket.  Which is awesome.  What is NOT cool is that due to flaws in the laws regarding what wireless phone provider (WPP) companies are allowed to do, your WPP company is legally allowed to spy on you and collect info on EVERY single thing you do on your phone.  What’s worse is that the companies will automatically opt you in to agree to be tracked and spied on, and it’s your responsibility to first of all realize that you’re being spied on and tracked, and second of all it’s your responsibility to opt out of it.

At this point some you might be saying “Well, I don’t do anything bad or illegal so who cares if they spy on me and track me?”  First of all, you cannot predict everything that will be done with your phone.  Perhaps in the future you’ll use it for something personal, private, or embarrassing.  Or perhaps someone borrows your phone to make a call and also uses it to do something unsavory that you’re not even aware of.  The point is you just can’t predict the future so it’s not a good idea to give them free license to spy on your personal habits.  Second, you may be saying “Even if they have that info, they’re just using it for marketing purposes, it’s not like anything bad will happen with it.”  Wrong.  The companies are allowed to use that info for whatever purpose they want, including selling it to third parties.  Additionally, the law states that if the government asks them for the info for ANY reason, they must turn it over to them.  “But I don’t break the law!” Oh really?  Did you know that the average person breaks the law at least once per day without even realizing it?  Yup, it’s true, check it out: Mr Average breaks the law at least once a day

Now don’t worry, we don’t need to start wearing tin-foil hats and living in the wilderness.  I’m going to show you how to opt out of being tracked in under two minutes, and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore and you can continue to use your smartphone without being tracked.

Each company has a slightly different process, but they all involve logging into the companies website, finding the proper page, and selecting to opt out of being tracked.  I happen to currently have Verizon, so this is what the page looks like for me (I blacked out my phone number for obvious reasons):

People are stupid for wanting sequential downloading of BitTorrent files? Then fix it, Einstein.

2012-05-02 2 comments

This is a very contentious topic and I welcome and encourage discussion, but let’s keep it civil.  The title of this article merely highlights the contentious nature of the topic.

There is a wiki-style page explaining why sequential downloading of BitTorrent files is bad.  If you don’t understand it, go research it until you do, then come back here.

Let me preface by saying that I think BitTorrent (BT) technology is amazing and I have much respect for all those who helped it be created and maintained.  I am not kicking the proverbial gift-horse in the mouth.  I’m thankful for what I’ve got.  I understand the issue of sequential downloading and how it is detrimental to the whole BT concept.  Which is why I understand the heated discussion between people requesting the feature and people explaining why the feature is bad.  I am not rehashing that debate.

What I want to do is try and intelligently think about the issue and discuss it, and to do so requires a paradigm-shift by those in the discussion.  Think about the progression and proliferation of technology.  Think about the concepts of supply and demand.  Nobody disputes that zillions of BT users want sequential downloading (zillion = a lot).  That means there is a huge demand for it.  They might not understand BT technology enough to know why sequential downloading (herein referred do as SD) is bad for BT.  But it’s easy to understand why there is a demand for it.  If we take a broader look at the history of technological progression, almost always we see that when there is a huge demand for something but our technology is unable to supply that demand, there is great incentive to innovate and improve our technology to meet that demand.

And so my call to action is this: people may be stupid for wanting SD for BT.  But the huge demand for it exists for a reason.  Rather than telling people to “not want SD”, instead innovate and create to solve the problem.  It may be that some innovation in BT technology solves the problem.  Or it may be that BT will never be capable of successfully incorporating SD, in which case a new technology is needed.  No doubt this problem will be eventually solved.  But ignoring a demand does not make it go away.  Neither does saying “there shouldn’t BE a demand.”  The demand is there, and it must, and will, be supplied.  You can argue about it until you’re blue in the face, but that’s the simple fact of the matter.  It’s not easy to solve the problem, and I have much respect for the brilliant minds behind the technology.  But pretending or insisting that a problem does not exist is not a solution to that problem.  The problem remains.  And hopefully soon, a solution will follow.

Fun with the new Droid Bionic

2011-10-30 2 comments

I was a devoted BlackBerry user and the Droid Bionic converted me. That says a lot right there.

First of all, I am not paid to give praise to this device nor the carrier. I am
just a customer who is so happy with my new gadget that I feel like a
kid on Christmas and I wanted to share my experience with others.

When I decided to try out the Bionic, I knew I could return it within two weeks if I didn’t like it, so I had two weeks to decide if I wanted to keep the Bionic or return it and get a different phone.

There were many things I was worried about:

-I was worried that without a physical keyboard, I would not be able to type well on the touch screen keyboard.
-I was worried that with the new OS, I wouldn’t be able to configure and tweak everything to get it working exactly the way I like it.
-I was worried about it being too big to easily fit into my pocket.
-I was worried that the battery wouldn’t last me through the day.
-And I was worried that the 4G LTE (which is one of the Bionic’s selling points) would not be available in my area.

Every single worry that I had was blown away and I am 100% satisfied with my Droid Bionic. I could not be happier with my purchase:

-The touchscreen keyboard provides a tactile response with both vibration and sound which made it much easier for me to learn how to type on a touchscreen keyboard (if you don’t like the vibration and sound, you can turn them off). Within four days I was already proficient with the touchscreen keyboard.
-Android has matured a great deal since I last tried an Android phone (about two years ago) and now the settings have all the options I desire so I can configure and customize the phone to my exacting standards (some might call them obsessively exacting standards but that’s just the way I am).
-The Bionic is bigger than my previous BlackBerry, but when I slid the Bionic into my pocket (no “That’s what she said” jokes), it fit perfectly and I have so far never had a problem with the Bionic being too bulky in my pocket; I don’t even notice that it’s there.
-Regarding battery usage: these days, every single smartphone on the market that has a large high resolution display and 4G data capability is going to have to contend with massive energy consumption, there’s just no way around it with current battery technology. So when I compared the Droid Bionic to several of my friends’ smartphones (Android, iPhone, and even Windows Phone 7), the Bionic was slightly better. They were all very close and I think it comes down to how you use your phone. There are many battery-saving settings on the Bionic that you can customize till your heart’s content. So the bottom line is that considering what the Bionic is, it does not hog battery, and in fact with the right settings it can make the battery last for a very long time.
-I’ve tried all three of the US’s major carriers in the following order: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. Granted, different phones will produce different results, but when I got my Bionic on Verizon, I was blown away by the speed. It might have also been the Bionic’s hardware, but whenever I was in range of 4G LTE, the speed was blazing fast: better than any other in my experience. However, when I was with Sprint, the ONLY time I was in range of their 4G network was when I was at the airport, and that was for about 10 minutes. With my Bionic on Verizon’s 4G LTE, I was pleasantly surprised to be in range almost everywhere, including where I live which is a notorious “Dead Zone” for cell phone reception. (P.S. Of course I use the Bionic’s WiFi whenever possible because that’s just common sense).

I’m in love with my phone (I think I’ll marry it). But I feel obliged to find something wrong with it. However, this may be just me being too stupid to figure it out, but I can’t find a way to make a homescreen shortcut that toggles the “Data enabled” on/off. I’ve been able to do it with wifi, but I can’t figure it out for data. It may be a shortcoming of the phone, or it may be I just haven’t figured it out. UPDATE: I found a free and simple app in the Android market that allows me to add a widget to my home screen to toggle the data on/off.  It’s called “Data Enabler”.  If it’s the latter and anyone out there wants to enlighten me, please do so, and remember, “A Lannister always pays his debts.” P.S. Let’s assume I’m a Lannister.

Is Google Plus The New Facebook?

2011-09-14 4 comments

Remember Myspace?  It wasn’t too long ago that people thought Myspace would keep growing and continue to be successful.  Facebook has since taken the position as the top social network with over 500 million active users reported in 2010 and all indications seemed to be pointing to Facebook’s continued growth and success with over 750 million active users a year later.  It’s become a household name and even grandma has a Facebook account.  Meanwhile Myspace use continues to decline and many analysts have written the company off as essentially dead.

So to some people it would seem crazy to predict the doom of Facebook.  But if there’s one company that could dethrone Facebook as king of social networking, it’s Google.

Also a household name, Google’s success was originally built on its search engine, which has become so ubiquitous that the dictionary now recognizes the name as a word, as in “I just googled a great new dinner recipe.”

However the world has seen continued innovation from the search engine giant and they’ve been massively successful with other services such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Picasa (their photo software).

But Google has had their share of failures too.  The most recognized examples are Google Buzz and Google Wave.  If you don’t even know what those two things are, you’re not alone.  Google has recognized their failure and abandoned them.  Yet Google has apparently learned a great deal from their mistakes, because they’ve finally stepped into the social-networking arena with a new service that seems poised to go toe-to-toe with Facebook:  Google Plus.

In case you haven’t heard, Google Plus (sometimes abbreviated as G+) is Google’s most recent attempt to create a social networking service, and from the looks of it, it’s no wonder many are calling Google Plus the “Facebook Killer.”

With Google Plus, Google has taken cues from both Facebook and Twitter.  While Twitter is not a direct competitor with Facebook because it fulfills a different function than Facebook, Twitter is certainly a company worth studying if you’re trying to build a successful social networking service.

So what exactly is Google Plus?  To put it bluntly, it’s like Facebook, but different.  But is it better?  Can it possibly compete with Facebook?  Why should we care?  If we already have a Facebook account, do we need a Google Plus account?

The answer is, yes.  Google Plus is almost certainly here to stay.  And while it may be possible for both Facebook and Google Plus to both be successful, anyone who doesn’t use Google Plus is going to get left in the digital dust.  Why is that?  If one already has a Facebook account, why do we need a Google Plus account?  Because Google Plus does a number of things that Facebook doesn’t, and it does them well.

The most exciting feature of Google Plus so far is the group video chat, which in G+ speak are called “Hangouts.”  As of right now, these group video chats support up to ten people, and as with everything in Google Plus, they’re absolutely free.  In other words, say goodbye to Skype.  While in a G+ Hangout, a small video of each person is displayed on the bottom of the screen, and whoever is talking is displayed in a large main video in the center.  After trying out a group video chat with friends and family, it is instantly apparent that these “Hangouts” will be both fun and useful.  In addition to just having a good time talking with friends or family, the group video chats are also amazingly useful for students who need to collaborate on an assignment or study together.  The business world has already embraced these group video chats for the same reasons giving Google Plus an instant significance for a large number of people.

The next way in which G+ triumphs over Facebook is privacy and sharing.  Many people have complained about Facebook’s privacy and sharing policies.  People end up accidentally sharing things with the wrong people or even making them public so anyone can see.  This includes messages, photos, videos, and anything else you might want to share with people.  Google Plus addresses this problem with a concept called “Circles.” Once you have a G+ account, you can add other people to your Circles.  For example, you might have a circle labeled “Friends,” another “Family,” “Coworkers,” “Acquaintances,” etc.  Any time you say or share something, you can easily decide who gets to see it.  That makes it much easier to prevent you from accidentally making things visible to the wrong people, which as many people know can be very bad.

As of this writing, Google Plus is still in its “testing” phase, meaning that in order to sign up for an account, you need to be invited by someone with an account.  Google is doing it this way because they want to work all the kinks out of G+ and have a smooth service before they “officially” release it to the public.   Update: Google Plus is now officially open to the public and anyone can sign up.

So go out there and give Google Plus a try.  Because it’s extremely fun, useful, and it’s here to stay.

P.S. I’m a writer for The Corsair Newspaper and you can read my article on The Corsair website (albeit an edited-down version):  http://www.thecorsaironline.com/opinion/2011/09/14/google-plus-takes-facebook-to-the-ring/

Operation: Teach Myself Guitar

2011-04-06 2 comments

I love video games.  Who doesn’t, right?  Well, some people, but they’re not technically human anyways.

I recently purchased the Squier Stratocaster by Fender that acts as a controller for Rock Band 3.   This is the world’s first real guitar/game controller.  Unlike the previous plastic Rock Band/Guitar Hero guitars, this thing is an actual factual guitar that you can plug into an amp with and jam, as well as use as a game controller for Rock Band 3.   The guitar has sensors built into the frets that sense where your fingers are pressing down, as well as which strings you are strumming with your strumming hand.

The reason I spent my hard earned cash on this art and science amalgam is that I wanted to teach myself guitar.  I correctly assumed that I would be able to use the fact that I love video games to trick my brain into learning a difficult task.   Rock Band 3 has so called Pro Guitar Tutorial mode which slowly weans you onto the instrument with increasingly difficult fingering exercises (hold the sex jokes, I’m not talking about summer camp).  These exercises are made, like all good video games, to provide the perfect level of challenge and reward so you gradually improve your skill without becoming overly frustrated.

The ultimate goal is to be able to play the songs in the game on expert mode, which is exactly what one would play in order to play the real guitar part in that song!   Pretty sweet!  I’ve only been playing for a few weeks now, but I am already able to play most of the basic chords and I’m learning some advanced ones as well.

It has previously been discussed on this blog how video games can be used as a tool to teach us new things.  This is just one example of how such an idea can be pulled off so well.

Educational deficiencies

2011-04-02 3 comments

Many people these days are aware of problems with schools.  It’s an extremely complex issue with no easy answer.  So I’m not proposing anything or trying to make any kind of grand sweeping generalization, or claiming I know how to fix the problems.  But I want to share with you a personal example of a deficiency in my education (through no fault of my own).

I always paid attention in history class (or at the very least read all the assigned reading and did all the assigned work).  So while I may not be a history whiz, I should at least know some of the basics, right?

Today I was on wikipedia reading about the Industrial Revolution.  I’ve heard the term before, but we never covered it in school.  Someone may have mentioned it in passing, but I really knew nothing about it until I started reading about it today.  In the opening paragraph, it states “Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.”

As I learned more about the Industrial Revolution, I began to see that this statement about the importance of the Industrial Revolution is not an exaggeration.  Every single one of us lives the way we do because of what happened during the Industrial Revolution.  I learned about economic growth.  Mechanization.  Worker exploitation.  Labor unions.  Collective bargaining.  These things are huge.  They matter, in a very direct and real sense.  I’ve only skimmed the surface but now I at least have a foundation of knowledge about that subject.  So many things in our every day lives are a direct result of global changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution, and having now learned the basics of it, I have a much better understanding of the world.

So what’s my point?  Well, we’ve already talked about how we’re autodidacts. I just want to continue the conversation.  There is so much to learn out there about the universe we live in.  The more you learn, the more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that comprises our reality fit into place.  Let your curiosity guide you.  And know that there’s always so much more to be learned.  You just have to teach it to yourself.  It’s empowering.

 

EDIT 2011-10-16: The following videos about the future of education and how it can be changed for the better are both inspiring and jarring:

Both videos are TED talks regarding the current state of and the future of the educational system.  In the first video, Salman Kahn (of Kahn Academy fame) talks about how he has begun working with schools to revolutionize teaching.  The second video, which is a bit more bleak, has Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame) talking about the consequences of the budget cuts to education as well as the possibilities for fixing the problems.

 

Free yourself from your computer. For free.

2010-12-23 2 comments

I’m going to teach you to be like me.  Now you are asking yourself, “Why would I want that?”  I’ll tell you.

If you’re like me, you use a computer regularly.  Very regularly.  Like maybe bordering on too much.  Perhaps you use multiple computers, such as at home and at work.  And if you’re like me, your digital data is vastly important to you: without access to all your emails, documents, photos, website bookmarks, etc., you would be screwed and your life would be hugely inconvenienced, to put it mildly.

But unlike most of you, my computer has no importance to me.  If my computer were to suddenly get destroyed, stolen, etc., I would not fret one little bit.  And it’s not because I’m rich, because I am most definitely not rich.  So why would the loss of my computer not bother me?  I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to demonstrate something else:

If I am traveling around in my day to day life or even if I’m traveling to some place afar, I never have to think to myself, “Did I remember to bring with me my [fill in the blank]?”  Why not?  For the same reason I wouldn’t sweat the loss of my laptop.  I have freed myself from my computer.  What does that mean?  I’ll feed ya, baby bird:  What that means is that even though I am constantly on any given computer, that particular computer is just an interface between me and my digital data.  No matter where I go, no matter what computer I’m using, my data and I are connected in the same way.  That’s because my data is cloud distributed.  Cloud distribution is the key to my success, and I’ll explain exactly what that means. Cloud distribution means my data is distributed in many locations, and they’re all in sync.  However, that doesn’t mean my data is ONLY in the cloud (this is a very important distinction).  My data is also on any computer I use, so if I’m cut off from the cloud, it doesn’t matter; I still have access to all my data, and I can make changes to my data while offline.  As soon as that computer regains its connection to the cloud, my data changes are saved to the cloud and to all my other devices, just as if nothing unusual had ever happened.

Here’s how I did it, and it didn’t cost me a penny:

Before we get started, you’re going to have to make a realization.  You need to realize that some of your data is unique and/or self-generated (like documents you wrote, photos you’ve taken, bookmarked websites, emails, etc.).  This data will be referred to as your valuable data.  The rest consists of stuff that is easily searched for and gotten from the web, like maybe programs or downloaded movies.  This will be referred to as your non-essential data.  The reason for making these two categories has to do with storage space and bandwidth.  Ok, ready?  Here we go:

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Step 1.  Dropbox.

Dropbox is absolutely key to my success.  Dropbox is an application/service that offers file synchronization.  You can sign up for a free account at dropbox.com.  A free account comes with 2GB of space.  However, you can increase that to a maximum of 1̶0̶G̶B̶ 19GB(Update 2011-04-26: Dropbox increased the maximum capacity of free accounts to 19GB) by referring other people and doing various other things on the dropbox website.  I maxed mine out, and that is important because for my purposes (and probably your purposes too), 2GB is not going to be enough but 19GB will be.  Once you sign up and have your 2GB account, you get an additional 250MB (that’s .25GB or 1/4 a GB) anytime someone clicks your referral link, creates a Dropbox account, and installs the Dropbox software on their computer (Update 2011-04-26: Dropbox now gives double the referral space (500MB or .5GB or 1/2 a GB) if you prove to the Dropbox website that you have an educational email address, which is an email address that ends in .edu).  And they (Dropbox) have a way of knowing whether a computer has already been used for this purpose, so you have to do it on a new computer each time.  So spread Dropbox to all your friends and family and make sure they use your referral link so that you get credit and get the extra storage space. There are ways to take advantage of this that some people do such as going into a computer lab or similar place and using each computer to give themselves a referral, or using a virtual machine software on their own computer to get the referrals. I am not condoning those practices, I am just being realistic and telling you that there are some people who do that. Note that Dropbox also has premium accounts that give you much more space for a monthly or yearly price.  But for the purposes of this tutorial, I’m keeping my promise that everything is free, so we’ll assume you’re going with the free account.

So, you’ve created your Dropbox account, maxed out your storage space to 19GB, and installed Dropbox on all your devices (computers, laptops, smartphones, tablet devices, etc.). (Note to certain people: you might not be aware of the fact that an iPhone is a smartphone and an iPad is a tablet device. There are many different brands available; Apple is just one of them).

When you install Dropbox on your device, it gives you the option to put the Dropbox folder anywhere.  I recommend putting it in your user folder.  For example on Windows 7 point it to C:>Users>username. On a Mac this would be in harddrive>Users>username.  On Windows XP it would be C:\Documents and Settings\username.  They have it for Linux too but I haven’t used it so I can’t comment on the specifics of a Linux installation.

Now, in your Dropbox folder (which is called either “Dropbox” or “My Dropbox”), you’re going to create a folder called Documents or Docs or whatever.  Put all your documents in that folder.  Next, you’ll notice that in your Dropbox folder there’s a folder called “Photos”.  Put all your photos in that folder.  Now this next part is up to you: you create whatever folders you need to inside your Dropbox folder and put whatever files you consider to be valuable data into your Dropbox folder and its respective sub-folders. You may organize everything in your Dropbox folder any way you want, with one caveat: when you first install Dropbox and look inside your Dropbox folder, there will be a certain 2 folders in there, one called “Photos” and one called “Public”. DO NOT delete either of those folders. I’ll explain why later.

Once your valuable data is in the Dropbox folder and you have an active internet connection, the files inside your Dropbox folder will automatically be synced to any devices you’ve installed Dropbox on, as well as to your online account.  This means that you can access your data from any of your devices, with or without internet connection.  But what if you find yourself using someone else’s device? No problem.  You simply go to dropbox.com, sign in, and you have access to all your files.  Dropbox is also useful for sharing files.  Inside your Dropbox folder is a folder called “Public”. Any file that you put in this Public folder you can share by right-clicking (or ctrl-clicking), selecting “Dropbox”, then click “Copy public link”.  Now you can paste this link in an email or wherever, and people will be able to click that link and get that file.

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Step 2. Gmail / Google Apps.

If you already have a Gmail account, good.  If not, then create one (it’s free).  I don’t care if you don’t want to switch to Gmail.  You have to or you’re making a poor life decision and you’ll get left in the digital dust.  Ok, so you’ve got your Gmail account.  Note that you now have all the other Google apps like Docs, Spreadsheets, etc. and anything that you could do in the past in Microsoft Word or Excel or whatever, now you can do it all using all the various Google tools.  Now you’re no longer dependent on a computer having the right software installed on it because you’ll always have access to your Google tools.  But what about if you lose internet connectivity?  That won’t be a problem once you do enable offline access to your Google stuff. I’ll explain how to do it but in the future the steps might change as Google changes its interface. If that’s the case, you can easily find instructions by searching Google. But anyway, at the time of this writing, the steps are as follows:  Sign in to your Gmail account at gmail.com, then click on settings (in the upper right-hand corner), click “Offline”, select “Enable Offline…”, then scroll down and click “Save”.  It will ask you if you want a link to offline mail on your desktop, start menu, and quick launch.  I recommend selecting at least one of those so you can click it when you need to.  Now your email is mobile (web-based) but ALSO saved on your computer in case you lose internet connectivity.  Any changes made while offline will be automatically synced once internet connectivity has been reestablished.  Now, on your smartphone and/or tablet device, download and install Google Sync and set it up by logging in with your gmail address and password.  Select calendar and contacts, and set it to automatic.  Now your contacts and calendar automatically & wirelessly synced across your phone and any computer.  If you were to have your phone lost/stolen/broken, no need to worry about your contacts and calendar, because it’s still all in your gmail account.  Just replace your phone, install Google Sync again, and voila! All your contacts and calendar data will be in your new phone.

BONUS: For only $9/year, you can have all the benefits of a Gmail account and also have a custom domain name for your email address.  For example, instead of name@gmail.com you would have name@mydomain.com, where “mydomain” would be replaced by whatever you want.  You can find a good article on this topic at Lifehacker located here: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/12/why-you-should-use-google-apps-with-your-personal-domain-for-your-google-life/

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Step 3.  Xmarks.

Simply put, Xmarks synchronizes your website bookmarks across multiple computers and browsers.  It also gives you access to your bookmarks from any device that can go on websites.

Before we go any further, it should go without saying at this time that you should be using either (or both) of the two best browsers: Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.  If you have any questions about this issue, you may find it helpful to listen to the ThoseOnBoard Podcast #0.2 – Choosing The Best Web Browser.

So now that we’ve established that you’re using either Firefox or Chrome for your web browser, go to Xmarks.com, create a free account, then install the Xmarks extension (the site has instructions on this, it’s very simple.  Xmarks is completely free, however if you want they have a premium service that you pay for and get added perks.  Just check their site if you’re interested.  Now, on your smartphone/tablet device, install and setup Xmarks as well.

Voila!  You are now liberated from your computer.  All your valuable digital data is backed up, synchronized, and readily available from any device.

Ok, so I lied a little bit when I said that I wouldn’t mind a bit if my computer were destroyed/stolen/etc.  Of course I would be angry because I’d have to buy a new one and like I said before, I’m not rich.  But I would be comforted by the fact that all my precious data isn’t gone forever.  And ain’t that somethin’?

Can Humans survive on other worlds?

2010-09-16 5 comments

Humans inhabit almost every corner of our planet.  Since the space age began, we’ve gone beyond our planet, traveled in space, and set foot on the moon.  It seems inevitable that sometime in the future, humans will be colonizing places other than Earth and living in those places. What challenges face those future colonists?

As a guy who studied Economics in college, I have no “formal” training in Astronomy; I’m an amateur astronomer.  However, I’m a fan of science fiction and of science fact.  So my curiosity led me to research the issue and I wanted to share what I learned in hopes that other non-scientists interested in this topic might get something out of it.  I hope you find it as fascinating and exciting as I did.

We will look at whether or not humans could live places other than the Earth, and we’ll review everything that must be considered for humans to live in those locations.

First, we’ll take a look at what an environment needs for it to be habitable by humans.  Then we’ll discuss how humans could possibly solve the challenges that we are sure to face; challenges that arise from a lack of vital environmental properties that we take for granted here on Earth. We’ll focus on two scenarios: living in space in some type of space station / habitat (which I will refer to as a habitat from here on), and living on the planet Mars.  A space habitat and Mars are the two most plausible scenarios. A space habitat is clearly possible because we’ve already created several such as the Mir Space Station and the International Space Station (ISS).  We would simply need to apply our resources and manpower to create a space station that people could inhabit for longer periods of time.  Among planets, Mars is the most likely planet in our solar system for human colonization for several reasons:  Mars is a terrestrial planet, meaning it is made of solid material that we can land on.  By contrast, the gas giant planets are made entirely of gas and there is nothing solid to set foot on.  The other terrestrial planets, Mercury and Venus, are much too hot for humans to survive.  Conversely, Mars has much more hospitable conditions, more comparable to Earth.  Additionally, there are several moons in our solar system (including Earth’s own moon) that could be potential sites for human habitation.  For simplicity, we will only discuss Mars, although much of what is true about Mars could apply to some of those moons as well.

So what exactly does a human-friendly environment need?

The things that must be considered are:

  • Gravity
  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Temperature
  • Radiation
  • Breathable atmosphere
  • Sunlight
  • Water Source
  • Food

Gravity

Humans must live in a place that has a significant amount of gravitational pull.  Without enough gravity, the bones in the human body start to lose mass and become brittle.  In space where there is zero gravity, this is a serious health concern that results in crippling and death.  The earth’s gravity has a pull of what is referred to as 1 G.  At the time of this writing, the minimum amount of gravity needed to remain healthy is unknown.  However, the closer you get to 1 G (Earth’s gravity), the less likely the body will lose bone mass.

However, gravity can’t be too strong or it will crush the human body.  It is unknown exactly how much gravitational force a human body can withstand for an extended period of time without negative health effects.  Again, the closer it is to 1 G, the less likely the body will be damaged.

Creating artificial gravity in space is simple in concept.  All one needs is a circular habitat of the right size which spins.  Think of an ant standing on the inside of a bicycle wheel.  By keeping the habitat spinning at the correct speed, you could simulate the force of gravity pulling at 1 G, and thereby eliminate the problems caused by weightlessness.

On Mars, things are not so simple.  Mars is about half the size of Earth and its gravity is less than half the gravity of Earth’s.  There’s not much one can do to change a planet’s gravity.  The only question is: would living in Mars’ gravity cause the same bone deterioration that we know arises from living in zero gravity?  The answer to that will not be known until humans have actually tried living in that low gravity situation for a long duration.

Atmospheric pressure

On Earth, the air that surrounds us presses against our bodies with a force of about 15 pounds per square inch.  We don’t feel this load and it poses no problem for our bodies because we evolved under these conditions and our cells push back against the air with their own force.  We are unaware of any pressure at all.  One can feel a difference in pressure when you dive deep under water; the pressure outside your body is greater than the pressure inside and you feel an overall compression on your lungs, eardrums, and body as a whole.  The opposite of that is when you are at a high altitude on a mountain or in an airplane and you feel your eardrums pop due to the air pressure outside your body being less than the pressure inside.

However, when we leave Earth, we encounter environments of different pressures.  If the pressure outside of our bodies is too low, our internal pressure has nothing to balance it out.  This results in great damage to the body because the pressure in cells and tissue will push to the point of bursting.  Imagine taking a really powerful vacuum cleaner and pushing it against your skin.  It will painfully damage the area and leave a bruise because the blood vessels burst.  In a low pressure environment like outer space, the entire body would be subjected to this but on a much more powerful and more dangerous scale.

If the pressure is too great then the body will be crushed.  An example of this can be seen with water pressure: if a human were to go too deep underwater, they would literally be crushed to death by the huge amount of force exerted on their body.

Like gravity, it is unknown exactly how much or how little pressure humans can endure for extended periods of time.  However common sense dictates that the closer it is to our pressure here on Earth, the less harmful it will be.

In space, there is no atmosphere to exert pressure so the pressure is zero.  On Mars, the pressure is less than 1% the pressure on Earth.  In the case of either space or Mars, the pressure is too low for humans to survive.  In space, a person would have to be in a pressurized enclosure or a pressurized suit.  The same thing is necessary on Mars.  However, it is hypothesized that maybe in the future we will be able to terraform Mars.  Terraforming is a hypothetical process of making a world hospitable to humans by transforming its natural environment.  One proposed method would be to create atmospheric pressure on Mars by adding huge amounts of gas to the atmosphere.  At this time we have no way of accomplishing such a feat.

Temperature

Most people are familiar with the effects of extreme temperatures.  If a human body is too hot for too long of a time, it experiences hyperthermia resulting in eventual death.  Likewise, if a body is too cold for too long of a time, it experiences hypothermia which also eventually results in death.  The human body can only survive in a relatively narrow range of temperatures.  The temperatures that we experience here on Earth vary greatly but are mild when compared with the freezing or burning temperatures found in other parts of the solar system.  Venus, for example, is a scorching  894 °F (480 °C).  Pluto on the other hand is a frigid -380 °F (-229 °C)

In space a person would have to be in an enclosure which could have its temperature regulated by common heating methods such as solar or electric heating. On Mars the temperature ranges from as low as -220 °F (-140 °C) to as high as 68 °F (20 °C).  While this is certainly cold, Mars at its warmest can be relatively close to temperatures that can be found here on Earth.  Assuming all other factors could be ignored, clothing to insulate the human body and keep it warm could be developed without too much complexity.  Humans have plenty of experience protecting themselves from cold temperatures here on Earth.

Radiation

The sun gives off a wide spectrum of radiation: from the visible light that allows us to see, to the infrared radiation that gives us heat, to the ultraviolet radiation responsible for sunburns and skin cancer. Many people are aware of the long-term dangers of exposure to too much sunlight (skin cancer).  The part of the sun’s rays that cause skin cancer is the ultraviolet (UV) radiation.  But here on Earth, we only get a tiny fraction of the total radiation emitted from the sun.  That is because we are protected by the earth’s magnetic field and the atmosphere to a certain extent.  The universe is filled with dangerous radiation that emanates not only from the sun but from everywhere in the cosmos.  The earth has a giant magnetic field that deflects dangerous radiation from the sun and other parts of the universe.  But a human that is not on Earth (e.g. in space) is not protected by Earth’s magnetic field and is therefore exposed to high levels of this radiation, which can cause death from the radiation itself or can lead to long term consequences like cancer.  Minimizing the exposure to this radiation can present a real challenge because it can pass through objects such as the walls of a spacecraft.

Radiation is a difficult problem to deal with because without protection from Earth’s magnetic field, the radiation permeates just about every corner of our solar system.  In space, the habitat would have to be lined with extra thick shielding of the right material which will add substantial mass to the habitat.  This poses a problem because the more massive a spacecraft is, the more energy it takes to launch it, maneuver it, land it, etc.

Unfortunately for humans, Mars has no magnetic field like the Earth’s that deflects harmful radiation.  On Mars however, we could build thick-walled bunkers that shield against radiation.  Similarly, we could burrow into Mars’ surface and build underground habitats.  A thick layer of Mars soil above the habitat would offer sufficient protection.  Sadly, spending too much time outside these structures would result in absorbing dangerous amounts of radiation.

Breathable atmosphere

Humans need to breathe gas that contains a significant quantity of oxygen.   The air we breathe here on Earth contains about 20% oxygen; the rest is mostly nitrogen which is an inert, non-reacting, non-toxic gas.  Note that an atmosphere may exert the proper amount of pressure for humans but might consist of gases that are not breathable.  In that case the oxygen must be supplied via other means, for example the breathing systems that firefighters use, or some other “scuba-esque” breathing device.

If humans are in an enclosure, it could obviously be filled with the appropriate mixture of gases (e.g. oxygen).  We currently have the technology to turn water into breathable oxygen via a process called electrolysis where electricity is used to split water molecules into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas.  The oxygen can then be used to breathe. .  We also have the technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air.  Both of these examples of technology are currently used in the ISS (the International Space Station).  Outside an enclosure, a simple breathing device could suffice.  For example, if all other factors were hospitable to humans such as a comfortable temperate and pressure, but the atmosphere contained gases that were not breathable, simply using a scuba-like breathing device would allow a person to survive.

Sunlight

The degree to how necessary sunlight is for humans is not as clear cut as the previous factors.  Humans can live without sunlight, but some evidence has emerged showing the detrimental effects of lack of sunlight such as problems with mental health.  Sunlight can also be used to grow food and sunlight provides a source of power by using solar panels.

Again, it is possible for humans to survive without sunlight and in certain instances they might have to such as if they were living underground on Mars.  In a situation such as that, artificial lighting that mimics sunlight could be used in the same way it’s used for conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that is thought to result from a lack of sunlight and is more prevalent in areas that get less sun during part of the year such as Alaska.  Additionally, we have the ability to use artificial lighting to grow crops indoors and we could do so in the absence of sunlight.  Sunlight will usually be available to power solar panels, but in some instances it might be necessary to have a nuclear reactor to provide power in addition to or in place of solar power.  Nuclear reactors are very efficient sources of energy that require only a tiny amount of fuel to provide large amounts of power for a long period of time.  In a space habitat this would add a huge amount of mass since nuclear reactors are heavy.  That would not pose a problem on Mars.

Water

Water is crucial.  It is needed for human consumption, bathing, watering any crops that might be present, consumption by any animals that might be present, and it is used to cool nuclear reactors.  Water is also needed to create breathable oxygen.  But water is heavy and therefore requires a lot of fuel to transport it in space, so it is crucial to carefully utilize every drop.

Water reclamation and purification technology currently in use aboard the ISS allows most water to be reused.  However, the tiny amount of water lost adds up over time and a space habitat would have to eventually be resupplied with water from an external source.  This poses a problem if the habitat is far away.  On Mars, that resupply could come from mining the frozen water ice and melting it to create liquid water.

Food

An obvious but important requirement is food.  Humans in space or on Mars will need enough food to eat to be able to survive for a long time.  Animal and plant sources of food would have to be obtained in new and innovative ways.

The primary method for providing food would have to be growing crops.  This could be accomplished via direct sunlight or with artificial growing lights.  The environment would need to be set up to allow plants to grow, including the proper pressure, temperature, and nutrient requirements.  In addition, low maintenance animals such as fish could be cultivated for food.

Conclusion

Humans are relatively fragile creatures that can only survive in a narrow range of conditions.  Conversely, humans are remarkably adaptable and our technology grows at a phenomenal rate.  The challenges of living in places other than Earth are significant but there are some current solutions to these hurdles and other solutions that will become more viable in the future.  At this point, humankind has the ability to live in space and on other worlds such as Mars, albeit in a rather enclosed space. Whether we currently have the resources to implement these ideas is another question.  However, none of these obstacles seem completely insurmountable and it’s only a matter of time before humans can call another world “home.”

“Who is your Daddy and What does he do?”

2009-10-19 2 comments

If my illegitimate child were posed this question he would be at a loss for words. And that’s assuming he speaks English! All bastards aside, I would like to take a minute to try to articulate my current career, irrespective of how unenamored I may be of it at the moment and how balls the job market is from a hire-ee’s perspective. Specifically, I would like to define what domain I studied to attain my Scientiæ Baccalaureus, what field I am applying to jobs in, and how I, the individual person, might fit into that greater picture. If I have the chance, I will even try to answer life’s deeper mysteries:

  • Why don’t penguins feet freeze?
  • Why does grilled cheese go stringy?

OK, so how the hell do those underlined words relate? Time to talk to our boy, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (check him out at TED). And by the way, dude, have you really been using that thing to fill in forms your whole life? I do not even think I could do write that last name in cursive if you held a Avtomat Kalashnikov 47 to my head (to clarify, his name is actually Hungarian which is in the Uralic family which makes it closer Finnish and Estonian than the Russian of the AK-47 but they both look the same kinda crazy to me). From his book, Creativity:

p.27-28 The first question I ask of creativity is not what is it but where is it?

The answer that makes most sense is that creativity can be observed only in the interrelations of a system made up of three main parts. The first of these is the domain, which consists of a set of symbolic rules and procedures… The second component of creativity is the field, which includes all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain. It is their job to decide whether a new idea or product should be included in the domain… Finally, the third component of the creative system is the individual person. Creativity occurs when a person, using the symbols of a given domain… has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion into the relevant domain… So the definition that follows from this perspective is: Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. And the definition of a creative person is: someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain. It is important to remember, however, that a domain cannot be changed without the explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.

Djeah boi!! So the domain is the content (the cultural space to be altered) of a particular field and the field is the discipline or the branch of knowledge which includes the people who have it. Okay so how does this relate to anything? While this excerpt is fairly abstract I would like to think that the perspective of creativity is a good one to take, because if you are not creating, what are you doing? That is meant to be a rhetorical question, but “Having sex with chicks!” is an acceptable answer (gotwavs.com/0085412111/MP3S/Movies/Idiocracy/poundonthat.mp3).

Okay, so let us focus some. Shalln’t we? I will try to define my domain but I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little difficult to pin down…

My Bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering, short for Biological Engineering, came from UCSD which has consistently ranked in the top 5 for such programs over the past 15 years, however, as far as the importance of rankings, I borrow from a post on collegeconfidential.com (member, s1185’s) due to its author’s frank message and organic context, “You go to college for the overall experience, since most of what you learn in class will be irrelevant for work, and your employers will pay little attention to US News Department rankings (as opposed to their unreferenced belief as to which is a better school) when hiring you.”

Okay, so people care enough about it to rank it, to find out what it is, let us break it down into parts (from Princeton.edu):

  • Biological:  Pertaining to biology or to life and living things.
  • Engineering: The discipline dealing with the art or science of applying scientific knowledge to practical problems.

So…putting it together, that means, Bioengineering is the discipline dealing with the art or science of applying scientific knowledge to practical problems in living things, or more simply, any type of engineering applied to living things. From a department webpage (University of Toledo):

Bioengineering is the application of the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and engineering principles to define and solve problems in biology, medicine, health care and other fields. Bioengineering is a relatively new discipline that combines many aspects of traditional engineering fields such as chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering.

The UCSD Bioengineering Department actually offers four tracks/majors for undergraduate students:

  • Bioengineering: Biotechnology – Biotechnology deals with the implementation of biological knowledge in industrial processes.  From Wikipedia: “Modern use of the term usually refers to genetic engineering as well as cell- and tissue culture technologies. However, the concept encompasses a wider range and history of procedures for modifying living things according to human purposes, going back to domestication of animals, cultivation of plants and “improvements” to these through breeding programs that employ artificial selection and hybridization.” Sex with sheep?
  • Bioengineering: Bioinformatics – Bioinformatics can be considered a branch of Biotechnology, it may be referred to as computational biology. This is a crazy domain that involves a lot of gnarly programming to apply information technology to the field of molecular biology. Sex with computers?
  • Bioengineering – So we tried to define this one already. Also from Wikipedia: “By comparison to biotechnology [see above], bioengineering is generally thought of as a related field with its emphasis more on mechanical and higher systems approaches to interfacing with and exploiting living things.” Sex with sex toys and robots?
  • Bioengineering: Premedical – This is the one I was in. A lot of overlap with the Bioengineering track above, this track contains all the courses a medical school would hope to see taken by an applicant. From what I understand, the UCSD medical school adds something to an applicant’s GPA for being in the Bioengineering department, something like .2 or .3 which is significant (too bad I do not plan to go to medical school). Sex with nurses?

To add to the confusion, some schools do not have Bioengineering but rather Biomedical Engineering. MORE CLARIFICATION! Wikipedia again:

Biological engineering (also biosystems engineering and bioengineering) is a broad-based engineering discipline that deals with bio-molecular and molecular processes, product design, sustainability and analysis of biological systems. Generally, bioengineering encompasses other engineering disciplines when they are applied to living organisms (e.g., prosthetics in mechanical engineering). Bioengineering is often synonymous with biomedical engineering, though in the strict sense the term can be applied more broadly to include food engineering and agricultural engineering. Biotechnology also falls under the purview of the broad umbrella of bioengineering.

So generally, biomedical engineering is the medical application of bioengineering, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Whew! So, I think I have done something to clarify domain and the fields within it. Here is a cursory glance at some of the applications:

  • Agricultural Engineering-Harvesting genetically altered wheat with a combine.
  • Aquaculture – Also known as aquafarming.
  • Artificial Biospheres – Yes, even Pauly Shore helped out.
  • Biosensors – Think a machine that reads your fingerprint.
  • Bio-based material-Simply an engineering material derived from living matter
  • Biomaterials – Natural or man-made that comprises whole or part of a living structure.
  • Drug Delivery-Ask a junkie.
  • Industrial Fermentation
  • Industrial Enzymatic Reactions
  • Life Support Systems-Like when Tom Hanks & Brian Boitano had to do the C02 filter modification.
  • Metabolic Engineering-Often involved in producing beer, wine, cheese, pharmaceuticals.
  • Production and Purification of Biopharmaceuticals
  • Prosthesis

Do I know how to do all this stuff? The answer is unfortunately an emphatic, no. But I am not an entirely useless individual. No really! Let me explain. Back to our first definition of bioengineering: “any type of engineering applied to living things,” we basically focused on Mechanical Engineering applied to the Human Organism. We studied math, chemistry, physics, physiology, basic programming, biomechanics, circuits, biochemistry, genetics, bioinstrumentation, statistics, biomaterials, yadda yadda yadda.

All of the above is good, but as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (copy and paste, I refuse to type that shit) said in his lecture at TED, it takes 10 years for someone to build up enough technical knowledge to change a domain. Likewise Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and Malcom Gladwell , both referenced in the most recent season (7) of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit might tell you that the difference between genius and mediocrity is about 10,000 hours of practice. So basically what my degree earned me is the chance to enter a field such as medical devices as I have (to some extent) as well as pursue more degrees, in the hopes of reaching that 10 years of technical knowledge or 10,000 hours of practice even further down the line, garnering at least a pittance in the process.

All these topics interest me but I am not sure I want to spend 10,000 hours on medical devices. Excuse me. Where are my manners? I should say what a medical device is (from Wikipedia):

This is an extremely broad category — essentially covering all healthcare products that do not achieve their intended results through predominantly chemical (e.g., pharmaceuticals) or biological (e.g., vaccines) means, and do not involve metabolism.

A medical device is intended for use in:

  • the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or
  • in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease,

Some examples include pacemakers, infusion pumps, the heart-lung machine, dialysis machines, artificial organs, implants, artificial limbs, corrective lenses, cochlear implants, ocular prosthetics, facial prosthetics, somato prosthetics, and dental implants.

This industry is highly regulated and very conservative (like Aerospace apparently) and is thus difficult to “break into.” It is also said to be a smaller more incestuous group than one might expect and thus one is advised to “never burn a bridge in medical devices.” A friend who works for a company that makes endoscopes told me that the best and brightest are in the medical device industry. I do not know how that claim could be supported but I am just giving you the word on the street. Unfortunately, the regulated and conservative nature that makes it so well “protected” from other job seekers would seem to make it less pleasant to work in. While computer engineers and programmers at Google sit in bean bags and take time for reflection and stretching, people in the medical device industry must cater to a series of auditors and make sure that they are always seen walking briskly and with purpose. Granted, I can only present my view from a very lowly position in a particularly bureaucratic office.

The industry has a development side (Research and Development, Product Development), a production side (Sustaining, Manufacturing, Growth), and an oversight side (Regulatory and Quality). It also needs Marketing and sales people to get the product out and Clinical Research to test the effectiveness and get things to market. Beyond that it has all the basic office and legal functions (Document Control, IT, Maintenance). What is true for me (some of which you may have gleamed from this blog) is that I like to understand how things work in the physical world, I like to create, and I like to stimulate peoples’ minds in creative ways. The kind of position I am looking for as a next step, in this industry at least, is on the development side, to up my scientific knowledge, and I could see myself continuing in that fashion or moving over to Marketing because it affords the opportunity to coalesce the needs of physicians, the technology limitations of the developers and scientists, and the capability of production, all the while requiring a well spoken and intelligent presentation. Regulatory deals with government bodies, Quality tells people they need to do more tests to make sure they do not make bad product, and Sustaining/ Manufacturing keeps those assembly lines running and tries to find ways to standardize, improve, and cheapify the process.

So while I can see some opportunity for engagement and learning, it would seem that jumping into a job that sounds interesting without a higher degree, without lots of experience, without awards, without a big penis, takes a lot of schmoozing and “being professional” day in and day out which is not easy when you have a restless mind and are in an office setting. I will say, however, that being in a place long enough to get acquainted with the people there does make it seem less abrasive but at the same time you can get complacent and the only thing that really matters is if you win the respect of the gatekeepers. That is, those you would interview with, if you applied to a better job. I guess that does not matter too much because my company has all but killed its Research and Development department so I am looking elsewhere (still in Southern California).

I still say that educating people on a grand scale sounds like more fun. But hey! The teamwork skills and Medical Device, Bioengineering knowledge could still be applied to developing educational products (game) down the road! Right?! I hope so. I am keeping myself open to a form of creation that would reach a customer in the form of an audience rather than a patient, to aid in the process of discovery, because that is what I seem to enjoy the most.

Oh yeah, here it is. From “Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? And 114 Other Questions:”

  • “Two mechanisms are at work. First, the penguin can control the rate of blood flow to the feet by varying the diameter of arterial vessels supplying the blood. In cold conditions the flow is reduced, when it is warm the flow increases. Humans can do this too, which is why our hands and feet become white when we are cold and pink when warm. Control is very sophisticated and involves the hypothalamus and various nervous and hormonal systems. However, penguins also have ‘counter-current heat exchangers’ at the top of the legs. Arteries supplying warm blood to the feet break up into many small vessels that are closely allied to similar numbers of venous vessels bring cold blood back from the feet. Heat flows from the warm blood to the cold blood, so little of it is carried down the feet.”
  • “The uncooked cheese contains long-chain protein molecules more or less curled up in a fatty, watery mess. When you heat cheese, the fats and proteins melt and if you fiddle with the fluid, the chains can get dragged into strings.”

Tools of Education

In an ongoing quest to continuously educate myself I find it paramount to take note of any new educational tools.  The most accessible of these tools is undoubtedly the internet.  Staying congruent with Jon’s post regarding a union between education and videogames, I feel that that which is most engaging is most likely to stick in one’s memory.  Using the fantastic firefox add-on Stumble Upon I have come across so far two of what may possibly be hundreds of such websites that are capable of teaching via intriguing flash animations and short bursts of information that are easy to inculcate and process.

Physics concepts


Introduction to Biology


Hodge Podge of Science

If anyone else has anything to add to the list, feel free to post it in the comments.

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