Arrive a Tourist but Leave an Explorer

The ocean stood before me like a glistening blue tidal wave at peace with not proceeding. The South Adriatic engulfed nearly a third of my vision as steep hills littered with trees and orange roofs met the sea somewhere below me.

It was like an ocean sandwich, the whitish blue sky motionless on top and the noisy, earthy crust covering the bottom.

For some reason I find myself constantly needing to remember where I am, to remind myself that I'm still on Earth. Sometimes I'll open Google Maps on my laptop just to find Montenegro, that tiny squarish country nestled between Croatia and Albania across the ocean from the backside of Italy's boot. "That's where I am," I'll tell myself, feeling as though I need convincing. "That part of the world is real and it looks like this."

A butterfly breezes past, and then a bird. The birds are everywhere, the slow noisy roof-loving ones chattering away while aerial masters of the sky swoop down and past you in an instant, dogfighting invisible enemies with their black boomerang-shaped wings and their tiny sleek bodies that bulge out underneath, an agile dive-bomber perfectly designed by nature.

Somewhere in the distance to the left, across the valley of orange-tiled roofs where a few tall apartments stand looking out of place, over the tall slender coniferous trees nearer to the ocean, a chained machine whirrs to its master. And then the echo of a hammer, and then a skill saw.

The tiny town of Ulcinj is getting ready, preparing for the onslaught of tourists who will soon be flooding in, people like me who might greet the glistening blue tidal wave and dodge the playful dive-bombers.

Or not.

We all come into this world a tourist. Sadly, most of us leave the same way.

My First Video with One Million Views

Early last week I considered traveling south from Cairns, Australia to Canberra, Australia to attend a big party for the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.

The rover had been en route to Mars for more than 8 months and was scheduled to land on Monday, August 6th. The party was to take place at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra, Australia, the first place on Earth that was to receive the signal from Mars (the data was then transmitted to NASA’s JPL in California).

However, when I learned that no Internet access or even mobile phones were going to be allowed inside (they didn’t want to risk interference with the transmission from Mars), I decided to stay home and watch the event on my laptop using NASA TV and Eyes on the Solar System (a browser-based simulator that allows you to fly around the solar system and track real spacecraft using live telemetry data).

The last time I planned to watch an event this way, I ended up accidentally missing it by a few minutes. I immediately searched YouTube afterward hoping that someone had recorded and uploaded a screen capture for replay but unfortunately it was days before I found anything.

This time I decided that I would record the event myself as I watched it on my laptop and then upload it to YouTube for others to watch. 

The ScreenFlow app was already installed (an app that allows you to record videos of your desktop), but I didn’t realize that the app needed to install special drivers to capture audio coming from the computer. 

With less than 10 minutes before touchdown, I rushed to install the drivers, finishing with only 6 minutes until landing.  I pressed record, sat back, and tried not to fiddle with anything (in the video you can see me start moving my mouse and then suddenly stop when I realize I should leave it alone).

My biggest worry was that the NASA TV stream would freeze up because the only Internet connection that I had available was the 3G connection on my iPhone, which I was sharing to my laptop via Bluetooth. 

It was slow at first, but once it started streaming, everything worked beautifully.

I felt like I was right there in the mission control room as they received confirmation of the landing, and then a few minutes later images from the surface of Mars. (If I had the microphone on, you would’ve heard me cheering with the engineers when the rover touched down; I still get goose bumps watching them receive the first images.)

A few minutes later, I stopped recording, processed the video, and then uploaded it to YouTube. I’m using a pre-paid Internet connection, which costs me $1 for every 100mb, so I’m very careful about what I upload and download. However, I had a feeling that uploading this video was going to be worth it. (It ended up costing me abut $2 to upload and test the video.)

Within a few hours, the video already had 17,000 views and as of writing this—only a few days after Curiosity landed on Mars—the video is at 975,000 views. By the time you read this, it will likely be over 1 million.

I take absolutely no credit for those one million views; all the credit goes to the NASA engineers and everyone else who made this landing on Mars possible. I’m incredibly happy that I was able to play a tiny part in helping one million people relive such an incredible experience 

As I said in my previous essay, this isn’t just another robot going to Mars. This is a machine, built by fellow human beings, sent out toward the stars in search of answers to questions that our species has been asking for thousands of years.

If you haven’t already watched the video, I highly recommend taking 15 minutes and watching it. I’m embedding the video below, but you can also watch it on YouTube.

Toward the Stars in Search of Answers

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk around on another planet?

Imagine building a machine, placing it on top of 600,000 lbs of liquid oxygen and explosive rocket fuel propellents, then launching it into outer space and guiding it for more than 8 months and 350,000,000 miles.

Well, that's exactly what NASA has done and their little robot, Curiosity, will be landing on Mars today.

This isn't just another robot going to Mars. This is a machine, built by fellow human beings of this generation, sent out toward the stars in search of answers to questions that our species have been asking for thousands of years.

And you can watch it all for free, from wherever you are (thanks to another wonderful invention by our species), using nothing more than what you're using to read this. Tune into NASA TV online today, August 5th, at 11pm EST / 8pm PST / 3am UTC. The rover has successfully landed! In case you missed it, I recorded the whole thing. You can watch it on YouTube or see the embedded video below.

Travel Notes: Flying to Australia

"I am in New Zealand... of all the places in the world, I am in New Zealand."

As I sat in the New Zealand International Airport lounge waiting for the departures screen to tell me which gate my flight to Australia was leaving from (in the area where the gate number for my flight should appear, it simply says "Relax"), I look around and feel the need to keep reminding myself that I'm actually here, in New Zealand, that place on the map that, until now, was really just a place on the map.

As my trip to Australia approached, I was asked several times what I was feeling. All I could say was that it didn't feel real. 

It's hard for me to comprehend how my physical body is going to move from one spot on the planet to an entirely different spot, across huge oceans and continents, in the matter of hours. Yes, I simply "fly across", but that doesn't feel simple to me. I'm in absolute awe with how that's even possible. I understand the science, but it feels like reality hasn't caught up with the science.

I look outside the airplane window and marvel at the wings, these giant metal structures that move and expand like a bird when landing, but manufactured by human beings, with materials and chemicals formulated by human beings, parts and pieces engineered, assembled, tested, and finally flown by human beings. 

An entire buildings worth of people, with multiple floors, carrying 100 tons of fuel and, on this particular trip, transporting 10 tons of asparagus from Los Angeles to New Zealand, some 6,200 miles through the air, like a giant, mechanical, human-made bird. And here I am in the air with all this stuff and all these people, 40,000 feet above the Earth, traveling at nearly 600mph, through an atmosphere that would certainly kill me a −57F.

How is any of this possible? And why do I feel like I'm the only one absolutely dumbfounded by it all?

A few hours ago I was in California and a few hours before that I was in New Hampshire. Now I'm in New Zealand, on my way to Australia! I can only imagine what Magellan or Christopher Columbus would've given to have this freedom, and how disheartened by the future they would feel if they had the opportunity to observe how easily people today take such fantastic things for granted. 

This isn't the future. This is the future and the past combined. This is now.

Notes: Solitude as a catalyst to innovation

A quote from The Rise of the New Groupthink, an article in the New York Times:

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

If we're constantly connecting, relating, communicating, and interacting with others, how can we really tap into the powerhouse of creativity and potential for innovation that exists within each of us? While I believe interaction and sharing is essential, I think we undervalue the necessity of disconnection and self-exploration for real growth.

Love is Enough

Love is Enough, seen in a remote Himalayan village in Nepal

"Who's that Buzz guy?"

"Buzz Aldrin? He was one of the first people to walk on the moon."

She was surrounded by space geeks, asking questions about space history that must have seemed trivial and obvious to everyone around her. But she wasn't judged. She wasn't laughed at, criticized, or looked down upon. Instead, her curiosity was enthusiastically embraced and nurtured.

Five people stood around the kitchen and took turns answering question after question. Five people who only a few days earlier were total strangers. This, I realized, is why love and passion are so important to humanity.

Their voices began to blur and their outlines became fuzzy as I began daydreaming of a world where every person was just as compassionate and caring. A world where strangers would regularly come together to share knowledge and exchange ideas. A world where what mattered wasn't power or prestige, but pure, simple, love.

But let me back up a little and explain how this group of strangers, including myself, came to be living together under the same roof. Continue reading