Saturday, October 31, 2009


Photo of a radio dish outside Barrow, Alaska, taken last winter. Judge the size by the ladder!

I remembered taking this image on hearing a bit of Coleridge the other night, while watching "Proteus":

"And now there came both mist and snow
And it grew wondrous cold;
And ice, mast high, came floating by
As green as emerald."

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Evolution of Creativity

Liane Gabora writes some of the most though-provoking and thrilling things I've ever read. Her work on the evolution of creativity goes after the heart of the behavioral variation that has allowed hominids to survive for the last four million years. Below, an abstract from her paper, Revenge of the Neurds: Characterizing Creative Thought in terms of the Structure and Dynamics of Memory;

ABSTRACT: Empirical results suggest that defocusing attention results in primary process or associative thought, conducive to finding unusual connections, while focusing attention results in secondary process or analytic thought, conducive to rule-based operations.

Creativity appears to involve both. It is widely believed that it is possible to escape mental fixation by spontaneously and temporarily engaging in a more divergent or associative mode of thought. The resulting insight (if found) may be refined in a more analytic mode of thought.

The question addressed here is: how does the architecture of memory support these two modes of thought, and what is happening at the neural level when one shifts between them? Recent advances in neuroscience shed light on this. It was demonstrated that activated cell assemblies are composed of multiple ‘neural cliques’, groups of neurons that respond differentially to general or context-specific aspects of a situation. I refer to neural cliques that would not be included in the assembly if one were in an analytic mode, but would be if one were in an associative mode, as ‘neurds’.

It is posited that the shift to a more associative mode of thought conducive to insight is accomplished by recruiting neurds that respond to abstract or atypical subsymbolic microfeatures of the problem or situation. Since memory is distributed and content-addressable this fosters remindings and the forging of creative connections to potentially relevant items previously encoded in those neurons. Thus it is proposed that creative thought involves neither randomness, nor search through a space of predefined alternatives, but emerges naturally through the recruitment of neurds.

It is suggested this occurs when there is a need to resolve conceptual gaps in ones’ internal model of the world, and resolution involves context-driven actualization of the potentiality afforded by its fine-grained associative structure.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Eleven months after starting my research and assembly of materials, I'm close to having the prototype pressure suit assembled for testing.

Below, cutting old wrist cuffs off the suit.

Below, cleaning the PVC wrist wrings for suit union with pressure gloves:

Below, gluing PVC wrist wrings to suit;

Below, wrist wrings glued on and bound with hose clamps; the clamps will stay on for a week as the glue cures.

Below, the wrist ring glued on and secured with hose clamps, which will stay in place for a week as the glue cures.

Below, working on the neck seal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another Bard

Benjamin Bagby--one of a long line of bards--tells a tale.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Poor, forked radish."

Orson Welles, from 'F For Fake'

"Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world; and it's without a signature.


A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations.

Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes.

A fact of life... we're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced - but what of it? Go on singing.

Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

The wonderful phrase, "poor, forked radish", comes from Thomas Carlyle's essay "The Hero as Man of Letters (1846), quoted below:

Strip your Louis Quatorze of his king gear, and there is left nothing but a poor forked radish with a head fantastically carved.

Friday, October 9, 2009


From 'Exploring Animal' by Ben Finney and Eric Jones, a chapter in the book "Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience":

"Man is the animal that has professionalized exploration. It is the juvenile of most animal species who do the exploring...before settling down on a limited geographical range from which as adults they hardly stir. Modern man...follows a similar pattern of juvenile exploration--of the waterholes and sacred places of the desert or of the sights and experiences of touring Europe or backpacking in the Sierras--before settling down to the routine of adult life. Yet some adults do not give up their exploratory bent and in fact they make a career of it..."

"Ethologist Konrad Lorenz...notes how humans retain a range of juvenile behavioral traits into least some of us retain our childhood curiosity into maturity."

Below, a juvenile explorer of the skies, Amelia Earhart; the photo is from NASA history archives. I know, I know, they're not using 'juvenile' in a pejorative sense, it's just a little funny.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spiral Dive

In the first video, a pilot enters a thermal (rising air column), makes a mistake or two RE brake control, and his wing enters an uncontrollable down spiral; luckily he properly deploys his reserve parachute, which saves his life. Pilot Joe Parr does a good job of keeping his head in this situation. Note that at the last moment, though, of landing in the trees, he should stiffly grasp his own neck to prevent sharp branches from puncturing critical blood vessels.

You can recover from some spirals, though, in fact you can practice them, as seen below in a nice demonstration of inducing a dive and then recovering from it:

In Alaska, I won't have to worry about flying into thermals--all the air will be particularly and uniformly cold. Still, good lessons, including "Better to throw the reserve earlier rather than later."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Flight Preparations

The countdown;

72 days (1,742 hours) till I go to Alaska, and the pressure is beginning to be tangible. I've done so many expeditions now, and so many alone--this will be my sixth alone to the Arctic in Winter--that I know the feeling of 70 days out, of 30 days out, of 10 days out, and so on. 72 is close. I have to close doors, and start retreating from anything not related to survival. There are flight plans to make, charts to prepare, communications to sort out. Ammo to be sent to Alaska in a hazards box, with bear spray, as well as flares and smoke grenades. All the food to plan out and prepare and pack, but not so soon it spoils. Time to make the list of lists.

I need to do checks of every item. Right now I'm starting with my paragliding harness, flying clothes, and helmet. Below, a series of images of late-night inspections and modifications. Don't, Cameron, forget anything! Errors now will be magnified later.

I've just read about a British expedition who've just been rescued off a glacier in Patagonia. On the first week of their expedition a storm came up and ripped their tent, leaving them bare to the storm; then the tent blew away. Looking at their gear selection, I see a terrible choice for their tent, and that they were using standard, rather than reinforced, poles. Somehow, also, they seem to have lost their 60+-day food supply, which is baffling; in that kind of terrain you just can't let your pack--containing a spare stove, fuel, at least a week of rations, matches, candle, space blanket, communications device and so on--out of arm's reach. I mean you just don't do that. All things I've learned, and am still learning. Reminds me how 'thin' a lot of my proposals on the ice actually are. Reminds me to keep doing what I've been doing; my procedures have kept me alive. Every detail will be attended to.

Above, cutting foam block to customize the seat block, a 6-inch thick protection for the pelvis and coccyx.

Above, zipping in the seat block.

Above, preparing a foam-block spinal protection system to insert into my flight harness. Flexible and crushable blocks bend with my back, but protect the spine.

Above, the back protection, bound loosely together with duct tape; it is meant to be flexible, not rigid.

Above, mid-torso (below-ribcage) protection added to sides of the spine protection, and the whole system laid into the harness.

Above, zipping the back protection system into the flying harness.

Above, packing the reserve parachute used to make a safe descent in the event of wing collapse, or other disaster. I need to be at least 300 feet above the ground for this to be any use (it won't deploy fast enough, normally, below 300 feet). The last 100 or so feet of any landing are the most critical because you're too high to survive a fall and too low to expect the reserve to save you; so you set up those landings very, very carefully!

Above, reserve parachute release pin insertion; don't mess this up!

Above, manner of releasing reserve parachute; by forcefully yanking on the pink handle, the holdback pin is removed, allowing the fabric holdback panels to open, releasing the chute.

Above, locking reserve parachute riser with crescent wrench.

Above, reserve parachute riser attachment secured.

Above, harness prepped for flight. I sit in it so that I am facing the camera, with legs through the loops at the bottom. Inset shows buckle marked "Left Leg", as it's easy--especially when at 20 or 40 below, to want to hurry getting set up, and make a fundamental error in the suitup procedure.

Above, crash padding suit. Knees, hips and chest are given a little protection by crushable foam padding sewn into thermal undergarment layer.

Above, back side of crash padding garments.

Above, Tyvek oversuit; th is provides no insulation, but is an effective wind-screen shell layer. In the event of landing near a polar bear, the white color might give me some camouflage. The instrument on my right thigh is a variometer and altimeter--the variometer beeps aloud, the tone indicating the speed and direction of either ascent or descent.

Above, fromt view of flying harness and suit.

Above, right profile view of flying harness and suit. Pink reserve parachute handle is visible on right.

Above, back view of flying harness and suit. Pink reserve parachute handle is visible on right.

Above, this year's helmet. I've done away with the windscreen, replacing it with more versatile goggles (I've removed the windscreen from these goggles to prevent fogging; they still provide eye protection from crosswinds, but on the coldest days I will wear goggles with windscreen to prevent freezing the cornea). The rest of the helmet is just bare-bones now; a camera attachment velcro on the top, and a voice recorder on the side, but I have yet to attach main light and the ground-spotting laser.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Synopsis, and Steven Hawking

Book pitches require you to write a synopsis, and that's the hardest thing to do; it has to be short (back-of-the-book-cover short), engaging, a little provocative, concise and accurate; it has to tell the publisher, first and foremost, that people will buy this book (publishing is, like it or not, a business). Here's the synopsis for my space-colonization book, provisionally titled Distant Lands Unknown;

While doomsayers focus on preserving humanity in the short term, one fact about our universe should chill everyone's blood: eventually, the sun is going expand and incinerate the Earth. There is only one way for our species to survive, and that is to colonize space and move away from our solar system.

But mention ‘space colonization’ and many roll their eyes; it’s a technocratic project focused on rockets and robots; it’s too expensive; it’s unnatural; we have too many problems to sort out here on Earth.

Distant Lands Unknown, an anthropological perspective on human space colonization, argues that on the contrary, staying on Earth will cost us everything; and that colonizing space will be a natural continuation of our four-million year history of exploration and adaptation to new environments.

Distant Lands Unknown humanizes space colonization by putting it into the context of human evolution at large. Using dozens of examples from the four-million year history of human expansion into new environments, the author focuses on two staggering tales of human colonization—the prehistoric colonization of the Pacific islands and the high Arctic—to show that space exploration is no more ‘about’ rockets and robots than Arctic colonization was ‘about’ igloos, or Polynesian colonization was 'about' voyaging canoes.

Still a little rough, but you get the idea.

Another, shorter one, requested by my prospective publisher;

The sun is eventually going to burn out, so unless humanity colonizes space we will become extinct. The time has come to begin colonizing space, and this book explains why space colonization isn’t about rockets and robots, it’s about humans doing what we’ve been doing for four million years--finding new places to live.

And, below, some good advice from Steven Hawking, from an item in New Scientist:

Eventually, Hawking said, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars.

No such planets are known so far. But even if only 1% of the 1000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system's neighbourhood, he said.

"We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim," he said. "By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years."

Humanity can afford to battle earthly problems like climate change and still have plenty of resources left over for colonising space, Hawking said.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Too beautiful for any words I can conjur. Video by NASA, music by Rune Foshaug of Norway.

This is where I want to be--out past everything, passing giant planets, not talking, just moving out past everything, looking, absorbing, getting away from human ego. Yet here we are, confined to Earth, gunning each other down at record pace. Well, at least we have sent out Voyagers I and II, for well over 30 years they've been out there, sailing; they still occasionally send in data to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Next year I'll go to JPL, in the capacity of a writer, and see how all this works.

One viewer's comments really struck me:

"...this is everything that is right in the world. Everything that truly matters is right here, eventually coming to one's thoughts if they sit long enough and watch and listen."