Let’s Get Small

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I’m a small guy, at 5’5″ I think some people almost find it alarming how tiny I am, at least compared to how tall they expect me (or any adult male) to be. It’s me in the context of other people, the relative scale can be surprising.


On my Galaxy Note 5, it has a one-handed small-screen mode, where the contents of the display shrink for ease of use with one hand. Turns out that this unthinkably-tiny display-within-a-display is almost exactly the same size as the iPhones I stopped using as recently as late 2013. To see that size of a display now, or to hold an iPhone 5 or earlier, is to hold something that suddenly seems impossibly, laughably small. It’s the context of having gotten used to 5.5, 5.7, and 6-inch displays that makes them seem so small, when they once seemed so, well, optimal.

Know what? Everything is small. Enjoy the zen-like experience of this Business Insider video (which I seem to be having some trouble embedding, so if it doesn’t show below, click the previous link), which shows the relative size of the micro- and macro-cosmos. It induces for me a kind of sublime separation from everything, and at the same time a kind of vertigo. But a pleasant one.

A more, let’s say, manual version of this kind of revelations-of-cosmic-scale can be found here. And of course you can also dizzy yourself with the immeasurable heavens.

How Mars One is Like a Björn Borg Clothing Line

[This post has been updated with some really brilliant insight from the author.]
Mars One, the pseudo-pyramid scheme that pretends to be sending astronauts to Mars in the next decade, has inspired a fashion show.

Björn Borg, who I assume is very important in the fashion world, showed off a collection of what is said to be sportswear the serves as “a tribute to the courage and the faith that these people show by going out to the unknown for the evolution of mankind.”

That’s all fine. The idea of human beings risking everything for the longshot chance to live out their days on another planet is, in fact, deeply inspiring. The problem, readers of this blog will already know, is that Mars One is, at best, just shy of a scam. Far too many of its core claims have been shown to be either outright false or gross exaggerations, its stated aims have been declared utterly implausible by even the most optimistic experts, and former would-be candidates for the big trip have revealed the shoddy and ethically dubious process for choosing candidates.

But the idea in abstract? Totally compelling. That, with a heaping dose of laziness, must be why outlets like Space.com and others still repeat the press releases of the Mars One company, complete with references to the alleged 200,000 applicants, which is complete bullshit.

And how perfect a metaphor is this kind of high-end fashion show for the Mars One concept? The Borg collection of clothing is lofty and future-looking, but also entirely impractical and more than a little absurd. The clothes are aspirational, but of course will never be worn by anyone.

It is Mars One.

Forget the boondoggle. How does the Björn Borg “Training for Mars” sportswear look?

I know nothing about the fashion world, so I’ll leave you to be the judge of that. The show was held about a week ago in Stockholm, with Mars One candidates in attendance. Here’s the official promo video from after the fact:

This is clearly not the kind of merchandising Mars One needs to fund their adventure. They need to find some product to be “the official nacho cheese sauce of Mars One” or something.

As a side note, Engadget is going to begin a video series profiling five of the Mars One candidates, and I hope they are going to approach the project with an appropriately skeptical eye. I will be watching with interest. The trailer alone with the wide-eyed, hopeful candidates, and with the parents pained at the idea of their kids disappearing into space, thinking it could actually happen, only makes me more irritated at the scheme.

Here are my previous posts on Mars One:

Consider a superintelligent agent with actuators connected to a nanotech assembler.

I’m reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, about the possible capabilities and potential threats posed by rapidly advancing artificial intelligence. It’s a little dry at times, to be honest, but then he’ll go and say something (in the nonfiction-science-book equivalent of a deadpan) that makes your mind explode.
Because you’re probably thinking, hey, a superintelligent A.I. could maybe take things over on this planet, and that’d be just crazy! Well sure, but also…

Consider a superintelligent agent with actuators connected to a nanotech assembler. Such an agent is already powerful enough to overcome any natural obstacles to its indefinite survival. Faced with no intelligent opposition, such an agent could plot a safe course of development that would lead to its acquiring the complete inventory of technologies that would be useful to the attainment of its goals. For example, it could develop the technology to build and launch von Neumann probes, machines capable of interstellar travel that can use resources such as asteroids, planets, and stars to make copies of themselves. By launching one von Neumann probe, the agent could thus initiate an open-ended process of space colonization. The replicating probe’s descendants, traveling at some significant fraction of the speed of light, would end up colonizing a substantial portion of the Hubble volume, the part of the expanding universe that is theoretically accessible from where we are now. All this matter and free energy could then be organized into whatever value structures maximize the originating agent’s utility function integrated over cosmic time—a duration encompassing at least trillions of years before the aging universe becomes inhospitable to information processing.

Suck it, Entire Known Universe. You’re about to get iColonized.


Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves”: Thoughts on an Impact Event

The International Space Station gets a snapshot of the Moon.
I’ve been deeply affected by Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves. While I am often a slow and somewhat lazy reader, I found myself taking every opportunity I could to dive back into it. While my favorite novel, Anathem, also by Stephenson, presented a world I wanted to explore more deeply and spend more time in, I found that the story of Seveneves was one that I wanted to tell everyone I spoke to. I didn’t of course because everyone would hate that.

But this is the kind of book we’re talking about, where each event, each decision, and each change of fortune filled with suspense and excitement for what came next, and an enthusiasm to share with others what novel and evocative things I was experiencing.

I’m left with so many thoughts and questions. I don’t necessarily consider the fact that these questions haven’t been sufficiently answered to be a problem or a mistake by Stephenson, but immediately after finishing the novel, they are swirling in my mind, demanding my attention.

Here are some of those thoughts and questions, in no particular order, a few of which are simple questions about “what happened” to certain characters or with certain events that simply aren’t told, and others are more nuanced regarding motivations, character, and connections.

An obvious warning: If you haven’t read the book, I’m going to spoil pretty much everything here. It’s like a nuclear-spoiler bomb. If you have no intention of reading the book, or don’t care about spoilers, there’s probably no reason for you to read this post anyway.

Quickly: In Seveneves, the moon blows up because of unknown “Agent,” which humanity learns will kill everyone on Earth within a couple of years due to pieces of the Moon raining down like fire, wiping out everything. So the people of Earth send a select few into orbit with the International Space Station to begin the “Cloud Ark” to live in space until such time, thousands of years later, that they might return to Earth. Lots of awful things happen which lead to there being eight people left, all women, seven of them able to have kids. Through genetic manipulation they propagate the species on an asteroid where they parked the space station. 5000 years later, we see what humanity has become, an orbital species of seven races, only now beginning to dip its toe into repairing and repopulating Earth. Got it?

* * *

The book handled well the curious and difficult balance between the enormous impact of the end of life on Earth and the relatively smaller crises and concerns of the Cloud Ark population. This is a book about those people, not those lost in the Hard Rain, but I would have loved (in another volume or book?) a deeper exploration of how humanity coped with knowledge of its inevitable demise in one fell swoop. My brain would often hang on questions about how governments, economies, and institutions could continue plodding of their own inertia over the two years of preparation. The book cites isolated incidents of violence and riots on Earth (not including the zero-hour standoff in Venezuela), but my mind reels at the idea of a planet full of people all processing their absolutely-assured deaths. Maybe no book could handle it.

* * *

One real triumph for Stephenson in this book is how he brings to bear his penchant for detailed description. In The Baroque Cycle, I was often entirely lost and confused by his meticulous and lengthy descriptions of each setting’s most micro and macroscopic details, or long events with several characters all doing a lot of things I couldn’t keep track of. Anathem occasionally left me a big agog in a similar fashion in terms of architectural descriptions. (Not so much with Reamde which was a non-sci-fi suspense thriller.) But the intricate descriptions of Seveneves almost always served a definitive purpose. Even if at times I felt the lengthy descriptions of minute orbital mechanics were less than thrilling, they almost always paid off, anchoring me in the physics and the challenges they posed, or allowing me to better grasp the enormity and complexity of things like the Great Chain.

* * *

Why did the descendants of the Seven Eves avoid interbreeding to such an extreme degree? While it is explained that Moira finds ways to mitigate the genetic problems of inbreeding, one would presume that as soon as there were sufficient numbers of humans that they would immediately start mixing with the other “families,” increasing the (incredibly small) population’s genetic diversity by traditional means. I understand that the Council of the Seven Eves left us with seven women who each had very strong and differing opinions about the kinds and character of humans they wished to spawn, but I don’t understand how such an ideological point of view (and we are led to understand that “Blue” is averse to ideologies) could have been followed so rigidly, except perhaps by the presumably indoctrinated descendants of Aiïda.

By the time people are sufficiently numerous and have divided themselves into orbital territories in the Grain Chain, it makes more sense that folks might tend to reproduce with others who are like them and in relative proximity – traveling from one part of the ring to another was doable, but not simple. It’s simply difficult for me to understand why such a strict adherence to seven distinct racial lines would or could have been maintained in the first few generations on Cleft.

* * *

What happened to the Mars expedition? I suppose we are meant to assume that whether they got to Mars or not, given the upheaval of the Break and the inability of the Mars mission to subsist for more than a year or so, that they were simply lost. Certainly, the people of A.5000 would have been able to find out whether a human mission to Mars had ever made it there, and it’s never mentioned.

* * *

What is the story of the Pingers’ Epic? How did they manage to change themselves so (relatively) quickly? How many of them are there? What kind of society do they have? Could they have communicated to the people of the Great Chain if they’d wanted to? It is all clearly a book unto itself, not that we should presume that such a thing will ever come into being. I suspect it’s one of those things that Stephenson is just going to leave there for us to wonder about. But given all we hear about how the Cloud Ark was more of a pacifying story for a doomed population than a genuine long-term plan, it does seem like the underwater gambit could perhaps have been not a Plan B, but a Plan A; the actual best hope for humanity that was better-designed and better-prepared.

* * *

President Julia Bliss Fletcher. It’s not entirely clear whether she was always cynical and conniving, but as I always say, one doesn’t become President of the United States without being at least partially sociopathic and messianic. Compound the unspeakable stress and pressure of leading a nation of humans that are all about to die, along with the loss of her own family, and the need to drop nuclear bombs on fellow humans, it’s easy to see how muted or dormant tendencies may have blossomed when the shit really hit the fan (or the Moon really hit the Earth).

That said, as the only successful unauthorized stowaway to Cloud Ark (I don’t count Sean Probst who had his own operation going and immediately sacrificed himself for the larger cause), I’m flummoxed by the leeway granted Julia by Izzy’s command structure. Certainly, bigger problems existed, and surely no one wanted to cause more grief and confusion by “jailing” the just-until-recently President of the Newly Pulverized United States. Still, it seems to me that her obviously violent and desperate route to the Cloud Ark should have led to far more scrutiny of her activities, and that she would face some form of justice for her (and call it what it is) crime. Perhaps none of that would have mattered, and she’d have caused the chaos that she did one way or the other. In a way, Julia was like a second Agent.

An Agent that allowed someone like Aiïda to really fuck things up. Of course with the population of all humanity reduced to eight, I can understand why she was allowed to remain free and alive, but I can’t help but think that considering all the horrible things she’d done, and her obvious hyper-aggressiveness and hostility toward the others, that she might have been considered too great a risk and too great a threat, and done away with before the regeneration of the species got going. Again, I get the need for genetic diversity, but it’s not as thought they really took advantage of that diversity, and who knew when she might snap and just kill everyone?

I also wonder why Moria couldn’t have found a way to carry on Luisa’s genetic lineage along with the others, perhaps with one of the other women acting as a surrogate. Seems a waste of perfectly good DNA.

* * *

And what the hell was the Agent, anyway? This is another one of those things that I’m comfortable not being told – it’s not a story about why the Moon blows up, but what happens next. But of course you can’t help but wonder if the answer will reveal itself throughout the entire book. It never does. Some poking around the web tells me that several folks theorize that the Agent is related to events in my favorite novel, Stephenson’s Anathem, which certainly could be the case. One of the mind-bending things about Anathem is how its multiverse setting could have tendrils into myriad stories. The way Julians are described in Seveneves remind me of the first “aliens” the people of Arbre encounter in Anathem, and if any race was going to make sure they got good seats on the multidimensional spaceship, it was going to be the Julians.

* * *

I was pleasantly surprised by how Stephenson made some of the characters so obviously analogous to known figures in real life. Doc Dubois was, to me anyway, clearly meant to mirror Neal deGrasse Tyson, and Camila was of course a take on Malala Yousafzai (though of weaker character than the real Malala, too easily overcome by charismatic personalities). The eminent scientist near the beginning to addresses the world at the Crater Lake event was probably meant to resemble a less-debilitated Stephen Hawking (and perhaps Dr. Hu Noah was as well?). And if Sean Probst wasn’t Elon Musk I’ll eat my hat.

I also think Stephenson often puts himself into his books (think Dodge in Reamde or Erasmus in Anathem), and it seemed to me that this time he was personified by Rufus. But that’s just a guess. I should say I don’t think Julia is meant to be an analog to Hillary Clinton at all: no one could accuse Clinton of being able to form a cult based on her charisma.

* * *

When Moirans “go epi” and experience changes in their phenotypes, to what extent are they really entirely different people? Kath Two is said to have “died” when the transformation to Kathree begins, but is that accurate or a kind of shorthand? They don’t eject all their memories, it seems, so perhaps it’s not dissimilar to the Trill on Star Trek, continuing on with new identities, anchored somehow with the memories of “another person” that you used to be.

* * *

Oh, there’s so much more. Will the Spacers, Diggers, and Pingers eventually interbreed? Who are the Owners? What is the full story of Sonar Taxlaw (perhaps the best-named character of all time), and what will her life be like now? Are there efforts underway to terraform Mars or other asteroids and moons? When do we get a Seveneves Sid Meier-style turn-based strategy game, and will it run on my current Mac?

And here’s a thing that strikes me about Stephenson more broadly. In all of the books of his I’ve read, as “out there” as his science fiction might get, one thing holds true: The aliens are always us. Be they from parallel universe, hiding in mines, adapting to the deep sea, existing in a virtual world, or simply an ocean apart in preindustrial times, we never need non-human extraterrestrials to “alienate” us. Humanity serves exceedingly well as its own threat, its own contrast, and its own focus of awe.

When emerging from the world of this book, I have a powerful sense of Earth’s fragility. Not just in the sense of what might slam into the planet, but of the permanence (or lack thereof) of the everyday objects around me. I have a sense of gravity as something not to be taken for granted, an ecosystem that is so battered and yet so resilient, and an entire universe that is such a relatively short distance “up.” The stark plausibility of this end-of-the-world scenario (like that of Station Eleven which I’ve also recently read) fills me with a kind of dread for how temporary our situation here on Earth inevitably is, and even if it doesn’t happen for millennia, how it really all could be taken away in one macro or microcosmic event. It made me want to hug my kids, not just for our shared precarious position in existence, but also for the incredible potential they possess to make things like orbital habitats for billions of people possible.

I didn’t want this book to end. I want much more of this story. To help alleviate that pain, I think I’ll dive back into Anathem.

We Didn’t Find Any Type 3s Because There Aren’t Any: Imagining Galactic Civilizations

Photo credit: longan drink / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Where all the galactic empires at???

This is actually not a ridiculous question. Lee Billings, an excellent science writer who specializes in the search-for-aliens beat, had a piece in Scientific American last month in which he speaks to Pennsylvania State University’s Jason Wright, an astronomer who did a novel kind of search. Rather than listen for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, a la SETI, his team instead took the temperature of about 100,000 galaxies to look for evidence of Type 3 civilizations, defined as a civilization that harvests all the energy from all the stars in an entire galaxy.

For perspective, Type 1 on this scale, the Kardashev Scale, is a civilization that has harvested all energy and resources from its home planet, and a Type 2 being one that consumes all the energy from a star. (I think it’s been posited somewhere that the Federation of Star Trek is about a Type 2, the Borg approach Type 3 status, while we contemporary humans live in a Type 0.7 civilization or so.) One guess is that this would be done by use of a “Dyson Sphere,” encapsulating an entire star in some sort of structure that harvests 100 percent of its energy. A Type 3 would do the same thing, but to an entire galaxy.

You think you’d notice something like that going on, right? Right. And they can’t find any.

“On Kardashev’s scale, a type 3 civilization uses energy equal to all the starlight produced by one galaxy,” Wright says. That would equate to an infrared-bright galaxy seemingly bereft of stars. “We looked at the nearest, largest 100,000 galaxies we could find in the [WISE] Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] catalogue and we never saw that. One hundred thousand galaxies and not one had that signature. We didn’t find any type 3s in our sample because there aren’t any.”

Even if advanced civilizations do not build Dyson spheres, Wright’s null result also applies to any other energy-intensive “astroengineering” taking place at galactic scales.

I suppose this is somewhat discouraging, but it also isn’t all that surprising. My little brain can barely process even the imaginary idea of a civilization of such scope and power, so the fact that none turned up in a big survey doesn’t shock me. I don’t know if 100,000 galaxies counts as a statistically viable sample of all the galaxies in the universe, but I’d have to guess that if there were any Type 3s out there, they’d be so rare as to elude even such wide nets.

And, frankly, if there’s a civilization that’s powerful enough to eat up a galaxy, and close enough for us to detect it, I’d be a little worried that this civ might get an appetite for a Milky Way.

But Wright says they’re just not there, at all. Fine. But even if he’s right, it only rules out one kind of pan-galactic civ. There may be more than one way to rule a galaxy:

Drawing from Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quip that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” in 2011 the science fiction author Karl Schroeder coined an all-too-plausible reason for the apparent absence of aliens: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” In this view the future of technology would not consist of star-hopping civilizations spreading like wildfire through galaxies, disassembling planets and smothering suns, but rather of slow-growing cultures becoming more and more integrated with their natural environments, striving for ever-greater efficiencies and coming ever-closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. Simply put, profligate galaxy-spanning empires are unsustainable and therefore we do not see them. “SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products,” Schroeder has written. “Waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals—we merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.”

14782846905_fee65df786_oIf there’s anything about the idea of things like Dyson Spheres that doesn’t ring true to me as a prospect for future tech, it’s how utterly industrial it is. It comes from a time when what we thought of as high-tech was giant computer mainframes and huge, powerful rockets. Freeman Dyson came up with the idea before we even had Star Wars and Star Trek, which themselves imagined a future with behemoth city-like starships, gargantuan space stations, and near-instant terraforming of worlds (and, eventually, the hyper-industrial Borg). For the idea of a Dyson Sphere, we have a massive industrial enterprise, the ultimate public works project, with structures of presumably enormous size and power forming a lattice or shell around an entire star or galaxy, sucking up the energy and venting out the waste.

It just seems, well, a little low-tech, doesn’t it?

I can’t speak to its relative probability, but Karl Schroeder’s view of a an advanced civilization integrating with, rather than consuming, its habitat makes more sense, especially if said civilization has managed to last long enough to get to this advanced stage. Any civilization that’s been machining its way up the Kardashev Scale might be more likely to exhaust its available resources more quickly, as opposed to a civilization that emphasizes equilibrium over growth. In this scenario, tech is small, geared to consume as little energy as possible, and population levels are more or less static, and there exists no drive to be fruitful, multiply, and conquer.

For Kardashev’s sake, how would we distinguish these two lines of civilizational ascent? Perhaps the numbers (Types 1 through 3 and so on) represent a Kardashev Industrial Scale, based on production and growth, while the other is the Kardashev Integrative Scale (or the Schroeder Scale?) based on ecological equilibrium and cultural advancement, signified with letters (Types A, B, C, and so on, where we modern humans would be very much sub-A).

Of course, we’d never be able to detect civs advanced on the Integrative Scale, unless they wanted to be detected, or reached out to us themselves. And since a hallmark of their advanced state is their utter lack of waste, it’s hard to see why they’d want to.

Smug hippies.

Here Come the Apologetics from “Some” Mars One Candidates

The true believers of Mars One have begun to respond to the criticism the program is facing, most specifically from the excellent investigative work of Elmo Keep, whose pieces I have now cited twice on this blog. Yesterday, I wrote about how Keep’s reporting reveals that Mars One is beginning to look less like a noble scientific enterprise, and more like a profit-seeking rapture cult.
Today, I am directed to a rebuttal piece that is part group-response from Mars One candidates, and part personal response from candidate Oscar Mathews Correa. I’ll get into a few of its specifics in a bit, but it’s more or less what you’d expect, an attempt to correct or put in context the problems that Keep’s reporting has raised.

Now, to be entirely clear, I should say that the first part of the article is allegedly by a group of Mars One candidates, as no names are given. Rather, it is attributed to, literally, “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates.” So right off the bat we’re in sketchy territory, as no specific person is willing to put their name to it (other than Correa, I assume).

The very first problem with this piece is that it calls Keep’s criticisms a “conspiracy theory” right in the title, when in fact it’s the opposite. Keep implies no conspiracy, there are no wheels-within-wheels nor powerful, shadowy entities pulling any strings. If there were, the program would be more successful. But one could certainly infer (as I do) a scam. It is more accurate to say that the rebuttal’s authors are perceiving a conspiracy against them, when of course none exists.

Let’s cover some of the points made by “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates” in the first part of the article. This will by no means be exhaustive, but touch on some of the points that stood out to me. In Keep’s latest article, former candidate Joseph Roche says that Mars One’s training and expertise requirements fall well below those required of NASA astronauts. To which the “Some” respond:

The Mars One project is very different to a typical NASA mission, and therefore has very different requirements for its astronaut candidates. The Mars One candidates would be primarily colonists, not pilots. It is likely that course corrections and landing procedures will be automated — for uncrewed as well as crewed spacecraft.

There will be 10 years of training between selection and launch, which absolutely does compare to NASA’s level and depth of training. This training might cover emergency manual control of spacecraft if applicable.

“It is likely that…” and “This training might cover…” – why don’t they know? A program designed to send colonists to Mars for the rest of their lives doesn’t know what it will train them for? Or is it that the “Some” haven’t been told? Why not?

Keep reports that the alleged primary source of funding (which would have to be enormous since we’re talking about colonists on freaking Mars), supposedly a TV production company, bailed on the program. The “Some” say all is well, because:

The primary source of finance is to be an investment firm in the first stages of the mission (leading up to and including the first manned mission). The documentary and live broadcast aspects of the project are expected to bring in revenue at later stages of the project. Mars One is in talks with both an investment firm and a new production company to take over the documentary aspect of the project. Collaboration with Endemol [the original production company] was reportedly ended as they were unable to reach an agreement over the terms of the contract.

Which investment firm? What firm on Earth is willing to be the primary source of billions of dollars for this vague project? And it is vague, even in how the “Some” describe it. Funds are always “expected,” and Mars One is always “in talks” (remember the “meetings” from my Underpants Gnomes post). It’s all a lot of promised milestones, none of which have been reached, and by their own admission, at least one has fallen through. Why is this all so murky?

That’s my overall impression of the rebuttal from the “Some”: It’s airy and hangs its assertions on “talks” and expectations, with little to nothing that is solid, decided, or in place.

Moving on to the second half of the piece, we have Correa’s personal response (which is itself apparently an extract from another article somewhere else). Like the “Some” response, it doesn’t begin well either:

That rascally Elmo Keep is at it again.

“Rascally”? Yeah, I’m really ready to take this person seriously. Note, too, that Correa refers to Elmo Keep as “Elmo” and not by her surname, as through they’re buddies.

Correa, overall, seems to believe that the bad impression now being given by Mars One is the result of some “missteps in public relations,” not to any problems with the facts of the program.

He plays a cheap emotional trick early in his response by putting a lot of emphasis on the early medical screenings undergone by candidates, as though this made up for the thin application and paltry interview process, and drops in that the medical screenings “surprisingly revealed some candidates with cancer, potentially saving their lives.” You see? Mars One is already saving lives! Just with its application process! Only a monster could object to saving people’s lives from cancer.

Correa seems to me to be fixated on the supposed agendas of various parties rather than the legitimate criticisms of the program. He writes:

For example, in one televised interview done in the Miami broadcast area (en Español), a NASA engineer attempted to refute some MarsOne mission plan elements by saying we would never get to Mars until we could land 40 metric tons on the surface. This is not true. Yet he receives airtime because he works at NASA, and of course they have their nascent “Mars missions begin on the ISS” agenda to promote.

Ah ha! You see! It’s a conspiracy by NASA who want to stop the Mars One mission from succeeding, because what they really want to make sure humans get to Mars the NASA way.

And yes, he receives airtime because he works at NASA. Because he actually has a chance of knowing what he’s talking about. He might actually bring facts, expertise, and experience to the discussion.

Unlike, well, “Some.”

I wonder if we’ll see more of this. This particular article isn’t egregious, but it smacks of defensiveness, released to fill the dead air coming from the Mars One organization, and its lack of substance only increases my already-deep skepticism of the project. More worrying is how it reads like religious apologetics. They believe it will all work out, because it’s been promised. And the promised land itself, Mars, beckons so strongly, and feels to them to be so close.

I hope too many people don’t get screwed too badly.

Mars One is Amway-Meets-Heaven’s Gate

In November I wrote about an investigative piece by Elmo Keep on the Mars One initiative, which is supposed to be screening candidates for a one-way mission to Mars in the next decade. Go read that post to get caught up. (And read all of Keep’s original article, which is amazing.)
In my post, I compared Mars One to the Underpants Gnomes of South Park:

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

In other words, Keep’s reporting showed that at best, Mars One is a well-intentioned idea, as I put it, built like a house of cards. At worst, it’s a weird and cynical scam, the goal of which is unclear.

Alas, I think the needle may be tilting strongly toward the latter.

Keep is back with a follow-up piece, in which she profiles Mars One candidate (and top-100 “finalist”) Dr. Joseph Roche. What he reveals is that Mars One is less of an Underpants Gnome project, and more of a for-profit cult. From Keep’s piece:

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

It’s disgusting, isn’t it? Get people to sign up to be “chosen” for a mythology-worthy (and mythical) voyage to martyr themselves for science and the human race and whatnot, and thereby pressure them to pay into draping themselves in the brand, and funneling their own money back to the project. The candidates, one presumes, really want to be chosen for the mission, to be seen as enthusiastic, committed, and worthy, so they buy into the “points” system as a way to show their devotion. It sounds like Amway meets Heaven’s Gate, or a short-term Scientology. It’s a snake oil rapture story dressed up as noble science.

And as Keep points out, the mainstream media coverage of Mars One has been almost entirely uncritical. How can it be that there’s been only one journalist who’s bothered to do more than be awestruck by the project’s audacity?

Religion often promises immortality and, at its worst, preys upon people’s need to feel a part of something greater than themselves, all for the enrichment and empowerment of those pulling the strings. Mars One thinks it found a way to do that without the need for a deity, without an invisible heaven. Instead, it just pinpointed Paradise as the dusty red planet 140,000,000 miles away, and held out its collection plate.