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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Let's Not Go To Mars

So it's a slow day and I'm talking with one of my sons, who brings up Elon Musk's latest presentation on how we humans are going to colonize Mars.  It's a fascinating subject, I admit, but at one point in the conversation, my son asked me if I'd ever want to go to Mars.  My answer was simple and direct:

Why the f*ck would I ever want to go to Mars?

I admit, it's difficult enough to get me out of the house for a quick dinner, so it should come as no surprise that journeying to a distant planet is not exactly my idea of a good time.  More to the point, I cannot for any good reason, fathom why anyone needs to venture to Mars.

Spare me the misty-eyed romanticism of a Star Trek soliloquy.  I get the whole image of boldly going where no man has gone before and all that stuff.  I understand what's being sold to the public, because every other movie trailer is chock full of CGI effects that make space travel seem fun, adventurous and somewhat easy.

But there's a huge disparity between what's being sold to you and what's really going to happen if and when we ever try to slip the surly bonds of Earth for the red planet.  Let me explain:

Historically, human exploration has never been anything more than man's fulfillment of self-interest.  Fish crawled out of the slimy ooze looking for better food and hairy apes migrated to cooler climes for better weather. I get that. But if you know your history, after that, virtually all human migration surpasses mere self-interest, and is propelled by commercial enterprise

Remember discovering the New World? Do you still buy into legends of the pilgrims motivated by religious freedom?  Or have you grown up to accept that there were truckloads of money to be made exploiting a whole continent overflowing with raw materials?  The expeditions into North America, Asia, Central and South America were launched by governments and public and private companies, like the Dutch East India Company. I  promise you, none of those entities recruited, paid and sacrificed their crews for the romantic notion of human expansion.  These guys all wanted their cut of the loot, no matter where they had to go or who they had to kill when they got there.

Going to Mars is no different, except there's nobody there to kill.  Believe me, you and I and your grandchildren aren't going to be making reservations at the Asteroid Hilton any time soon. The first humans on the moon won't even be human, they'll be corporations like Google, SpaceX and Amazon, each carving out its territory as part of its deal with the government as private contractors, probably for mineral rights, because in case you haven't noticed, nothing grows on Mars.

Think about this for a second.  As far as we know, Mars has only two things to welcome your ship when it lands:  Rocks and a poisonous atmosphere.  That's it.  Even if you brought the wife and kids, there'd be no place to go and nothing to do other than die of asphyxiation, which you could do just as easily here on Earth without having to pay for the space travel.  

Of course, there are those who believe that some day, Mars will be made habitable in the way they did it in one of those Star Trek movies, but I wouldn't bet the pension fund on it.  If you're going to place bets according to movies, you're probably a lot better off going with the first version of Total Recall, where everything that lives survives under an airtight dome of artificially oxygenated air.  And even then you wouldn't enjoy it because you'd constantly be worrying about some terrorist sabotaging a leak in the system.

Sound like fun to you? Not me.  My heart goes out to those knuckleheads who fall for that whole idea of colonization, because the first five generation of Mars colonists aren't even going to be tourists.  They're going to be construction workers and contractors, just like the ones who don't show up on time to remodel your bathroom.  They'll have two jobs:  Build the machines owned by the corporate sponsors and fix the the machines owned by the corporate sponsors when they break.

Don't get me wrong, I thought landing a moon was a magnificent achievement, possibly the only moment in history when the entire planet really was brought together.  But people forget that before, during and after the moon landing, the Vietnam War continued to rage and thousands of humans went right back to their everyday jobs, carpools and PTA meetings.

Sure, the government will tout how NASA's moon program is responsible for microwave ovens, digital clocks, pocket calculators and Tang® the astronauts' orange drink.  And I suppose there's value in that.  I just don't see how peering through a telescope and finding nothing but rocks is going to gain any of us anything.

Unless, of course, we see someone peering back.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

You're Not That Important

I'm pretty sure it was Karl Marx who opined that "religion is the opiate of the masses."  Since those days, the consuming public has a lot more choice when it comes to opiates.  There's television.  Music. The internet. But more than anything, I'd crown personal techno-vanity as the all-time champion.

By personal techno-vanity, I mean all those useless gadgets, data and devices that allow you to monitor activities that carry no real importance to anyone, anywhere, at any time.  There are pricey apps that monitor every step you take and there are expensive wrist devices that track them.  For a modest monthly fee, the app will send and store your data someplace on the cloud so that you can retrieve and analyze it at any time of the day or night.

The question, however, is why would you want to?

I've got no quarrel with phones and devices that make you more communicative and productive with other people.  I'm a big fan of those.  The stuff that gets me scratching my head is the paraphernalia that does little other than promote an unhealthy level of self-absorption.  Do you really need an app to remind you not to lock your kids in a hot car? How fast your heart beats? Your core body temperature?  What are you really going to get out of monitoring your body mass index other than -- possibly -- bragging rights with the righteous dudes at the sports bar?

I know people who run.  I know people who swim.  I know people who lift, bro.  What I don't know is why they make such a big deal out of it, or why they require little wrist devices to enslave them.

Actually, I do know why. It's because companies like Apple and Nike have discovered that vanity is the  opiate of the masses.  They know that you not only love yourself, you practically worship yourself.  And if they bolster that illusion of self-importance by creating pointless hardware and software, you're going to spend all kinds of money in an effort of believing that you really are that important.

Newsflash:  You're not that important.

Oh, I know that in this age of social justice warriors and snowflakes and participation trophies you might think you're something special, but you're not and neither is all that extraneous data you're hoarding.  Have to watch your blood pressure?  Your glucose levels? Okay, I get that.  But wirelessly linking your smart phone to your shoes?  Really?

And if that's not enough, what's the deal with running triathlons and Iron Man competitions?  What's everyone trying to prove to everyone else?  How much do you really need to bulk up? A host of millennial brands perpetuate these worthless pursuits, featuring fitness models running through the countryside while everyone else is at the office making a living and paying bills.  The truth is that these fictitious fitness freaks never had to buy fitness equipment or use supplements or software to get in shape -- they're all in their twenties.  They were born that way.

But don't tell that to brands like  Bowflex, who prefer you believe that being cut is what every fifty year old really wants to be, when I'd venture to say that what the average fifty year old really wants is to be left the hell alone so he can order a piece of cheesecake without having to endure a lecture about cholesterol and triglycerides.

There was a time when people worked and played.  And that's all they did.  Nobody felt the need to analyze data from the family picnic or check a website for the precise moment high tide rushed up on the beach.  There was a time when you could have a good time just to have a good time.  You could run because you loved the way fresh grass felt on the soles of your bare feet.  There was no time target. No personal best. It just felt good.

So relax. Unplug.  You're not that important, despite what you think the data indicates.