Happy Donuts Eases the Pain

I’m blasting through the San Francisco Bay Area for the Game Developers’ Conference, my annual pilgrimage to the place where artificial intelligence is really used by people to really make things that people really care about. While out here I’ve seen a lot of good friends, including Victor and Steve and Neil — and especially including the Rubrick, one of my Edge buddies from high school and college.

As we were chilling after great dinner at E&O; Trading Company in the City, Derek was horrified to learn that I planned to track down to Menlo Park and hit Kepler’s Bookstore and Barrone’s coffeehouse. “Dude! Don’t go down to the peninsula. Find something new in the city!” And I did — I took half a day finding bookstores in the City like Stacey’s and MacDonalds Books, digging through Rasputin’s used record store, and scouring leather shops like Stormy Leather, Mr. S and Madame S looking for new clubwear.

But then it was time to go down to my old haunts … Menlo Park. Palo Alto. Mountain View. It was too late to scour the Stanford Bookstore, so I hit NOLA’s New Orleans restaurant just off University Avenue instead, then trolled up to Megabooks (alas, also just closed) and the mega-Borders (mmm, good philosophy bookness) instead. But this, too, must close.

But not Happy Donuts.

An incredible congregation of donuts, students, and WiFi, Happy Donuts has slowly evolved from a quiet little donut shop (circa 1997 when I lived here) into the premiere place in the Peninsula for late night information exchange. The donuts are good. The Wi-Fi is free. And they’re always open — 24/7. You tell me where the studious (and, from the conversation at the table across from me, some not-so-studious) college kids are.

And here, at last, I begin to catch up on my blog. Even with my camera’s power down I can still document the experience because I carry a phone with me. Yes, Mister Christian, it’s the 21st century: we may not be on the Moon, but I just took a picture with a dang phone:

If you’re too young to have taken apart your parents’ AT&T-standard; T phone and then put it back together by hand, you may not understand, but I just took a picture with a handheld phone that looks an awful lot like a Star Trek communicator! Captain Kirk never had it so good!

Mmmm … rich creamery technology goodness. As Homer Simpson might say: Happy Donuts eases the pain.

-the Centaur

Welcome to Mars

On practically my first night I did something I’ll not likely do when on a real Mars mission: stand out in the rain at 3 in the morning holding a flashlight.

The purpose of the MDRS is twofold. First is science: the MDRS station, and the Flashline and upcoming Euromars stations as well, enable us to test our ideas about living and working on Mars. Part of this is “analog science”: How to build a habitat. How to staff a habitat. How to do geology in a spacesuit. And another part of this is “real science”: Studying supernovas. Studying closed-quarters reaction times. Looking for life on Earth in places similar to that we can look on Mars.

But the second purpose is just as important: culture. We are engaged in an ongoing psychodynamic experiment in which the Mars Society is learning how to staff a Mars habitat. What kinds of people work together well. What kinds of people work together poorly. And, as we found out, how people react to adversity. Now, we didn’t encounter any polar bears at MDRS, nor did major chunks of our habitat litho-brake into the ground when their parachute failed. HOWEVER, we’ve still had our own little adventures.

I already told the story of how we had wrong directions and coordinates for the trip down to MDRS, about how I nearly got the truck bogged in the mud, and how he then took over as an experienced offroad driver to PROFESSIONALLY get the truck bogged in the mud up to its hips.

So we arrived at the station at approximately 7am, about 12 hours late from our original arrival time and 6 hours later than our revised arrival time (prior to finding out we needed to pick up supplies and drop off a generator in SLC before we left). What got left out of that report was that the Engineering Refit Crew was NOT done when we arrived and the Hab was a gianormous mess. I got the feeling that the Mars Society could easily have put TWO refit crews on site for FOUR weeks and still they’d have had plenty of stuff to do for the duration, and after talking to the refit commander, Paul Graham (not THAT Paul Graham, mind you), about what he thought needed to be done to the site, I think my original estimate is conservative.

So two of the refit crew, Paul Graham and Artemis Westenberg, stayed on with us for several days trying to help out with a number of issues. Hugh threw the whole crew, with a few exceptions for Dr. Broering who had to leave early, behind the refit. And on the last day, after a whirlwhind of cleaning, the major issues at the Hab (like having power, drinking water, and the ability to take a dump) were all resolved.

Except …

On the last night they were scheduled to be there, Paul burned the midnight oil trying to resolve a few outstanding issues. This involved running conduits (smurf pipe), running wire, and working his ass off on the most important part, the water pump. During all of this I followed everyone around with my clipboard and digital camera, basically pretending to be a handheld computer as part of my information system assistant project (when my hands were not needed running the aforementioned smurf pipe). The hardest task was the pump: Paul and Kevin Saka and the rest of the team worked for hours getting it right — the wiring, the fittings, the remote switch — and finally they got it.

Except …

We threw the remote switch at the end of the day, trying to feed enough water into the GreenHab to keep our recycler (and thus our toilet) alive. But no water ran. Paul cursed. It had worked before! And he’s not one to leave a task undone. And I’m not one to let someone go out into the night at 3am alone in cougar country, even if he is a 6 foot 4 marine who can take care of himself. So I picked up Little Blue (my giant Brinksman flashlight), grabbed my “Indiana Jones” hat, and headed out into the dark with Paul to fix the water pump.

Which returns us to something you’re not likely to do on a real Mars mission: stand out in the rain at 3 in the morning holding a flashlight. On second thought, maybe you ARE likely to do that on a Mars mission, if not in the rain holding a flashlight, but in the sandstorms wearing a spacesuit, helping a friend fix part of the generator or recycler or airplant, doing what you need to do because it HAS to get done or no-one will survive.

But you do it. It gets done. And because you do what needs to be done without hesitation, everyone survives.

Welcome to Mars.

Hugh, this one’s for you

Juggling the archives, here’s our very first shot of our very first EVA, a few days ago when we were still jetlagged and travel tired!

Hugh donned his spacesuit to help out the refit team by taking out the garbage “in sim”. More to come…

So tired you can’t even think straight

So as a blogger I’m supposed to write something neat and witty about commanding my first ATV EVA (six short letters compressing the oxymoronic phrase “all-terrain vehicle extra-vehicular activity”):

Of course, being “commander” basically meant that my job was to keep everyone on the right road so we could hit all the fun spots before we ran out of air:

And now the wit and wisdom of the post-digerati blogosphere should be inserted here. But unfortunately work on a Mars station, shorthanded and overloaded with post-refit cleanup tasks which in turn generate reams of paperwork, has left me — has left us all — so tired that I can’t even think straight:

We’re having to jury-rig components to keep the station’s power working since the replacement generator hasn’t arrived yet …

… and don’t ask about the war with the Mighty Martian Mouse.

But, on the bright side, I have a beautiful dreamer sending me the staff of life (pound cake) by Earth-Mars express.

So yall have a good night and I’m going to catch some z’s.

A Fractal Blog

Because of my trip out to the Mars Desert Research Station, my blog will be a bit fractured as I unload stories from both MDRS and prior, whenever I can get online to clear the backlog. Please be patient. Leaving the comforts of civilization was a challenge…

but it certainly has its privileges:

and since some of you have asked about cryptic emails from me I’ll update you all shortly with details on the entire analogue Martian lexicon: cougar country, flashlight duty, rocket fuel, the mighty martian mouse, blowing mud, ATV EVAs, and of course, the Martian motto: Whatever It Takes!

Ad ares!

Mars Orbit Achieved

I have touched down in Salt Lake City, our stand-in for the Orbiting Mars Way Station that will receive future visitors to the Red Planet. Still don’t know if we’ll have email, but things are getting closer and closer. Our crew is forming up:


And we’re getting ready to hop in our Mars Orbit-To-Surface transport vehicle (the big old MDRS van) and send our first crew out to the station! More news as it happens.

Ad Ares!

Dual Update Pending AND Return of the Centaur

Just so you all know… because I’m late, and because I can’t guarantee that I will be able to post while I’m out at the MDRS, I’m going to put up a dual update this week… and also return to posting my own art, now that my arm has healed!

Up today: Clarke and Cleopatra

This one is a dual page spread — sorry it may be a bit difficult to view, but I’ve not yet figured out how to take this large format comic (which splashed across two pages) and make it still legible when shrunk.

Up tonight: Amber and Xiao

Back to your normal format.


Trying to decipher line noise?

Try the Regex Coach — this looks like a way cool way to figure out the comic-book cusswords that Perl, Awk and their friends use for regular expression matching (finding strings in longer strings).

I particularly like the tool’s ability to translate what a regular expression means into human-readable language:

Check it out!

-the Centaur