Ditch Day: Ditch Day Eve

Every year, the Seniors end Ditch Day announcements with “Go to bed Frosh! Ditch Day is Tomorrow!” This isn’t some sort of hazing or power trip, a useless statement handed down from the past (though handed down it has been.) Quite the opposite, it’s just good advice. A night full of sleep benefits a day full of mental and physical challenges. Even more than that though, it’s because the Seniors need the campus to themselves to make the Magic of Ditch Day happen.

The seniors can build many parts of ditch day in secret: behind the closed doors of their rooms or inside of the plastic-sheeting enclosures labeled ‘seniors only’ that pop up around campus a few weeks before ditch day like huge, black, misshapen, flapping mushrooms after a rain. However, there are always (much more than) a night’s worth of tasks that can’t be done secretly in a campus not devoid of underclassmen.

The night is filled with the shouts of seniors and alumni running hither and thither moving puzzles into place, setting out clues, and putting the final (and in unfortunate cases initial) touches on all aspects of the day that would begin soon after the dawn.  ‘Have you seen the drill?’ ‘I need some manpower!’ and from my sleep-deprived mouth at 5am ‘No time! I need to make a monster!’

Most seniors don’t sleep the night before Ditch Day, and in some cases like mine, for a couple nights before that. Thus a very, very explicit (almost) minute-by-minute plan for the night was essential lest one of the million tasks fall through giant, sleep-deprivation-induced mental gaps.

I’ll go into more detail of what we actually DID the night before as I talk about the components of my stack, but I’ll leave you with two pictures that capture some of what the night is like:


Things you can’t do secretly when underclassmen are around – move a several 500 lb blocks of ice.


And this picture sums up the feelings of 6am – cold, stressed,satisfied and ‘HOW CAN IT BE LIGHT ALREADY’


Links of the Week 9-28

Making Space

I thought today I would take a little break and let Mason Peck do the talking. Admittedly, he’s my graduate advisor in addition to the Chief Technologist at NASA, but he does such an exquisite job of keeping those roles separate (so well it’s frustrating sometimes) that I don’t think this counts as sucking up. He’s clearly acting in his NASA role in this case.

I really like the ‘massless space exploration’ idea – using what’s already up there – for two big reasons. One is that it ties directly into my research, which can potentially be used to manipulate dead satellites and other debris so that they can be put to new use. Another reason I like the idea is that it’s one of those cases where you get to a wall where people say ‘well, here’s the wall. Can’t beat it.’ But instead of slamming your head against it, you turn left and walk for a while until you get to the door to the other side. This has happened throughout the history of technology – ‘you can’t make blue LEDs,’ ‘you can’t get useful nuclear power,’ ‘useful heavier than air flight is impossible’ to name a few.

The other point to note is that Mason is really advocating a number of different big systems made up of a bunch of little, fairly independent, but interconnected parts. I’ve become increasingly convinced that this paradigm is the way to win in many different domains and it’s really exciting to see it being at least partially endorsed by NASA. Though I should note that what NASA advocates isn’t necessarily what Congress wants or will fund.

‘Tinkering’ is a term and activity that I love, but one not normally associated with space. I’m totally on board for changing that.


This TED talk by Stuart Firestein (who has an awesome last name by the way) touches on a ton of topics that I find interesting: from the fuzzy nature of science, to how the brain works, and more.

What really gave me a brain-spark was this paraphrased quote (in reference to why kids don’t go into STEM fields):

“Almost all 2nd Graders love science, but by 12th grade, they don’t.”

I totally agree, and wish he had gone into more detail, but it was just one thought in a 17-minute talk. So we are left to ask ourselves, why is that the case. I’d propose a pretty simple answer:

2nd Grade science is fun! 12th grade science isn’t.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration, so let’s go into a bit more detail. Think about it – 2nd grade science is full of exploration, of building stuff, and taking things apart. By 12th grade it’s all about writing lab reports for boring chemical reactions and doing lots of math. That is, 2nd grade science is actually about science and exploration, but 12th grade science is about learning the tools necessary to DO the science.

Now, I like math and 12th grade science more than many people, but I think it’s fun only because of what it allows me to do. If you were to give me the ability to do (real, good) engineering while bypassing the math, I’d take it in a heartbeat. For most scientists, math is just a necessary tool to get to the actual fun stuff – making things that do things, or figuring out why things do what they do. I’m fully aware that there are people who love math for it’s own sake, and I’ve always been a bit jealous.

So how do we close the distance between ‘real’ science and 2nd grade science?  I think that on the mental front, we need to explicitly make that be a goal. On the technical front 3-D printers and things like Elon Musk’s innovative CAD are a start but we still need a more intuitive system for turning human thought into ‘things’.


Volatility? Bring it on.

To follow up Monday’s pessimistic post with some optimism in the same Antifragile-inspired thought-domain, here are some speculations on how space exploration could become more robust (fairly realistic) and possibly antifragile (woooo everybody put on your tinfoil hats!)

Some robustification ideas:

  • In-space manufacturing via 3-D printers or other means
  • Fuel depots, raw material launches and other ways to distribute launch risk
  • CubeSats and chip satellites
  • More sources of value in space – on demand surveying for 3rd world countries, perhaps.

Some antifragility ideas (far more cool. Far more crazy):

If you think about it, antifragility is actually the driving force behind the justification for asteroid mining. As I understand it, the thought is that while it won’t be strictly more cost-effective to mine resources from space, it’s a much more stable source of those resources. Thus, if China, the current primary supplier of rare-earth metals, decides to choke the market for some reason, we could count on space as a stable alternative. Space as a source of resources becomes more attractive with increases in the volatility of political situations on earth. The ability to benefit from shocks and randomness is the hallmark antifragility, so asteroid mining’s ability to gain from political instability makes it a contender to be the first space-thing in the antifragile club.

The other crazy idea is to leverage the antifragility of biological systems for space. I don’t mean putting people and animals in space, I mean that the spaceships would BE people and animals.  This idea has been explored in science fiction, most notably in Starcraft’s Zerg and the Yuuzhan Vong (I really do try to avoid Star Wars references, but sometimes I can’t help myself.) Using living systems to fulfill roles that for now we see as mechanical is pretty far down the line, if at all, but Freeman Dyson is pretty bullish on the possibility and, while I’m not sure whether he’s right or wrong, I don’t see any reason not to be optimistic as well.



And now for something completely different!

The world has seen a long and illustrious legacy in which two outstanding things are combined to make a third, even more outstanding thing: Han Solo and Chewbacca. Computers and Motors (robots). Rum and Coke. The Avengers. Space and anything. And of course, sword-chucks.

I recently learned from my advisor that (in kind of old news) we can add Greek Myths and Dinosaurs to that list. If that doesn’t make your heart rate go up, you should just stop reading.  Since I’ve been kind of enamored of both those subjects since before I could read (dinosaurs) and just after I could read (Greek myths) the news certainly made my heart skip a beat.

In short, the theory is that fossils unearthed by the tectonically active landscape of Greece itself inspired many creatures of Greek mythology. There’s apparently been a book about it for more than a decade that I’m embarrassed to have never heard about.

There are oodles of fun fossil-based explanations: Gold-guarding griffons? Pterodactyls found in gold mines. Cyclopses? Mastadon Skulls. Titans? Enormous Thigh bones.  Just my speculation, but I bet you could make an argument for fossils inspiring hippocamps, dragons, chimeras and all sorts of other beasties as well.

The idea of fossil inspired myths makes a great story. Perhaps too great. Historical explanations that come in such neat baskets set off my historian-hat warning-clarions. Perhaps fossils seeded some myths. Perhaps the Greeks made fossils fit in with existing myths. Perhaps some paleontologists and historians met in a dark room and plotted to make me excited for no reason.

It’s important to keep in mind that we are all suckers for a good story that seems to fit the facts.  But regardless of how complete the story is, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy them as long as we keep in mind that they are in fact, stories.