News from Mars: Beam Me to Mars

marsIn the latest ambitious plan to make space exploration accessible to the general public, Uwingu has unveiled a new campaign where people can send messages and pictures to the Red Planet. It’s called “Beam Me to Mars”, and the company is inviting people to contribute, for a fee, to a “digital shout-out” that will send messages from Earth to Mars on Nov. 28 — the 50th anniversary of Mars exploration.

The first successful Mars mission, NASA’s Mariner 4 – launched on Nov. 28, 1964 – performed the first flyby of the Red Planet and returned the first pictures of the Martian surface. This was the first time that images were captured of another planet and returned from deep space. and their depiction of a cratered, seemingly dead world largely changed the view of the scientific community on life on Mars.

beam-me-to-mars-uwinguAccording to representative from Uwingu, “Beam Me to Mars” celebrates that landmark effort in a new and original way by inspiring people to get on board with Martian exploration. Other goals include raising lots of money to fund space science, exploration and education (Uwingu’s stated chief purpose) and letting policymakers know how important space exploration is to their constituents.

As CEO Alan Sterm, a planetary scientist and former NASA science chief, said in an interview with Space.com:

We want it to inspire people. There has never been an opportunity before for people of Earth to shout out across the solar system their hopes and wishes for space exploration, for the future of mankind — for any of that… We want to make an impression on leaders. The more messages, the bigger impression it makes. If this thing goes viral, and it becomes the thing to do, then it’ll make a huge impression.

ESO2For $4.95, people can beam their name (or someone else’s) to Mars, whereas $9.95 gets people a chance to beam a name and a 100-character message. $19.95 gets a 1,000-character note instead of the shorter one, and for those willing to spend $99 will be able to send their name, a long message and an image of their choosing. All messages submitted for “Beam Me to Mars” will also be hand-delivered to Congress, NASA and the United Nations.

Submissions must be made via uwingu.com by Nov. 5. And the company – whose name means “sky” in Swahili – and its transmission partner, communications provider Universal Space Network, will use radio telescopes to beam the messages at Mars on Nov. 28 at the rate of 1 million bits per second. The transmission, traveling at the speed of light, will reach the Red Planet on that day in just 15 minutes.

mariner-4-poster-art.enFor comparison, it took Mariner 4 more than seven months to get to Mars a half-century ago. The probe didn’t touch down, but its historic flyby in July 1965 provided the first up-close look at the surface of another planet from deep space. Mariner 4’s observations revealed that Mars is a dry and mostly desolate world, dashing the hopes of those who had viewed it as a world crisscrossed by canals and populated by little green men.

Already, several celebrities have signed on to the campaign, including actors Seth Green and wife Clare Grant, George (“Sulu”) Takei of Star Trek fame and his husband Brad, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, astronaut and former ISS commander Chris Hadfield, commercial astronaut Richard Garriott, former NASA senior executive Lori Garver, Pulitzer winning author and playwright Dava Sobel, and Author and screenwriter Homer Hickam.

Uwingu-CelebritiesThis is not the first Mars effort for Uwingu, which was founded in 2012. In February, the company launched its “People’s Map of Mars,” asking the public to name Red Planet landmarks for a small fee. To date, people have named more than 12,000 Mars craters, and Uwingu has set aside more than $100,000 for grants. And when it comes to getting the general public involved with space science and travel, they are merely one amongst many. The age of public space exploration is near, people!

Sources: space.com, uwingu.com, (2)

Flash Forward Is Done!

FlashForward_2After many months on the back burner, I finally took a big step while house-sitting for my family this weekend and completed Flash Forward. For those who don’t know, this book is an anthology of short sci-fi stories I did back in April of 2013, with a few additions from both before and after. All told, it works out to 19 short stories, 140 pages, and just over 51,000 words.

For some time, I had been wanting to do some fiction that explored the world of emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, autonomous machines, space exploration and the coming Technological Singularity. And a project involving a short story a day for 26 days was just the excuse I needed. After collecting the resulting stories together, I grouped them into three parts based on common time period and theme.

transhumanismPart I: Transitions deals with the near future, where climate change, militarized borders, and explosive growth in portables, social media, and synthetic foods will have a major effect on life. Part II: Convergence deals with the ensuing decades, where space exploration, artificial intelligence, digital sentience, and extropianism will become the norm and fundamentally alter what it is to live, work, and be human.

And Part III: Infinitum finishes things off, looking to the distant future where the seed of humanity is planted amongst the distant stars and our species passes the existential singularity. It was fun to write, but what I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time is the chance to hold a physical copy. Somehow, that’s always the best moment of the whole creative process for me. Seeing the book in print, as a real, physical thing you can touch and leaf through.

hyperspace4And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to edit, a million and one ideas for critical revision to consider, and a whole heap of what Aldous Huxley referred to as “Chronic Remorse” to deal with. Writing, huh? There’s a reason not everybody does it!

Movie Trailer: “Batkid Begins”

Batkid_beginsOnce in awhile, a story comes along that warms your heart and restores your faith in humanity. And after reading and writing so much about morally ambiguous things or scary developments, this is one that I was happy to share! This past November, in what was an online media circus,  25,000 people showed up to watch a five year-old boy cruise around San Fransisco in a Batman costume and a Lamborghini with the logo on the hood.

After doing battle with his enemies – which included the Riddler and the Penguin – “Batkid” was taken to City Hall where he received the key to the city from the mayor. The city spent $105,000 on the event – covering things like speakers, a big screen at city hall, and cleanup crews – and everyone from Barack Obama to Britney Spears expressed their heartwarming support for the costume-clad Batkid.

Batkid_begins2This massive effort, which was a viral media sensation, was orchestrated by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for Miles Scott, a five-year who has spent half his life struggling with leukemia. Having finished his course of chemotherapy, it was Scott’s dream to be Batman for a day. And now, a documentary called Batkid Begins, is retelling the story of Batkid, the Scott family, and how one kid’s wish went viral.

Director Dana Nachman has already raised nearly $40,000 (of her goal of $100,000) on Indiegogo to fund production. A one-time journalist, Nachman has made three films prior to this that were, in her own words, quite dark. As she explains:

I was looking for my next film to be uplifting. I didn’t even know about Batkid until after it happened, and I blown away that I had missed it, and was just so touched by the outpouring of support for this child.

Through a friend at NBC, where she formerly worked, Nachman was able to get a meeting with Make-a-Wish, which had already been approached by others wanting to do Batkid documentaries. Though Scott’s family had been reticent to do much press surrounding the Batkid event, they offered to work with Nachman on the film. After making their son’s wish come true, the Scott family hopes to raise awareness about the Foundation and the work it does.

Batkid_begins3The three-act story will start with a focus on Scott and his experiences, segueing into the lead-up to the event itself as it went viral and everyone scrambled to keep up with the momentum. The third act will focus on the event itself, which involved Miles rescuing a damsel in distress from the train tracks, stopping the Penguin from kidnapping the San Francisco Giants seal mascot, and getting the key to the city from the mayor.

And though it might have seemed like the event was a media circus all on its own, it actually had quite the helping hand. The event went viral thanks in large part to the Clever Girls Collective, a content and social media agency that volunteered its time. As Nachman explained:

To me what’s interesting is that everyone approached for the [Batkid event] said, ‘Yes, I’ll participate and I’ll make it even cooler by doing this, this, and this.’ That’s the message of the film to me: ‘Yes, and.’ If I had my dream, that would be the title of it, but I think it’s a little too esoteric.

Batkid_begins1The $100,000 in funding that Nachman hopes to collect on Indiegogo will help out with animations, a soundtrack, and other production assets. A rough cut will be ready by the one-year anniversary of the Batkid event (this coming November), and the film will likely premiere early next year.I don’t know about you, but… a young boy who had a brush with death getting to live out his dream of being a superhero? I’m certainly going to see it! You got Miles Scott!

And in the meantime, check out the trailer for this heartwarming documentary below:


Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)

Mission to Europa: NASA now Taking Suggestions

europa_moon_IoJupiter’s moon of Europa has been the subject of much speculation and intrigue ever since it was first discovered by Galileo in 1610. In addition to having visible sources of (frozen) surface water and a tenuous oxygen atmosphere, it is also believed to boast interior oceans that could very well support life. As evidence for this mounts, plans to explore Europa using robot landers, miners, submersibles, or even manned missions have been floated by various sources.

However, it was this past December when astronomers announced that water plumes erupting 161 kilometers (100 miles) high from the moon’s icy south pole that things really took a turn. It was the best evidence to date that Europa, heated internally by the powerful tidal forces generated by Jupiter’s gravity, has a deep subsurface ocean. In part because of this, NASA recently issued a Request for Information (RFI) to science and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to the enigmatic moon. Any ideas need to address fundamental questions about the subsurface ocean and the search for life beyond Earth.

europa-lander-2This is not the first time that NASA has toyed with the idea of investigating the Jovian moon for signs of life. Last summer, an article by NASA scientists was published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology, which was entitled “Science Potential from a Europa Lander“. This article set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved. At the time, the article indicated NASA’s ongoing interest, but this latest call for public participation shows that the idea is being taken more seriously.

This is positive news considering that NASA’s planned JIMO mission – Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter, which was cancelled in 2005 – would be taking place by this time next year. Originally slated for launch between May and January of 2015/16, the mission involved sending a probe to Jupiter by 2021, which would then deploy landers to Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa for a series of 30 day studies. At the end of the mission in 2025, the vehicle would be parked in a stable orbit around Europa.

JIMO_Europa_Lander_MissionJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, had the following to say in a recent press release:

This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost… Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth. The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.

By opening the mission up to public input, it also appears that NASA is acknowledging the nature of space travel in the modern age. As has demonstrated with Chris Hadfield’s mission aboard the ISS, the Curiosity rover, as well as private ventures such as Mars One, Inspiration Mars, and Objective Europa  – the future of space exploration and scientific study will involve a degree of social media and public participation never before seen.

europa_reportThe RFI’s focus is for concepts for a mission that costs less than $1 billion, but will cover five key scientific objectives that are necessary to improve our understanding of this potentially habitable moon. Primarily, the mission will need to:

  1. Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  2. Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  3. Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  4. Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
  5. Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

Although Europa has been visited by spacecraft and imaged distantly by Hubble, more detailed research is necessary to understand the complexities of this moon and its potential for life. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 was the only mission to visit Europa, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times. Ergo, if we’re ever to determine conclusively whether or not life exists there, we’re going to have to put boots (robotic or human) onto the surface and start digging!

To read the full Decadal Survey report on NASA’s website, click here.

Sources: universetoday.com, IO9.com, science.nasa.gov

A Kinder, Gentler Internet: California’s “Erase Button”

cyber bullyingIn the early nineties, the internet was greeted with immense optimism and anticipation. Scarcely a week went by without some major personality – Al Gore and Bill Gates come to mind – championing its development, saying it would bring the world together and lead to “the information age”. After just a few years, these predictions were being mocked by just about everyone on the planet who had access.

Rehtaeh_ParsonsYes, despite all that has been made possible by the internet, the heady optimism that was present in those early days seem horribly naive by today’s standards. In addition to making virtually any database accessible to anyone, the world wide web has also enabled child pornographers, hate speech, conspiracy theorists and misinformation like never before.

What’s more, a person’s online presence opens them to new means of identity theft, cyberbullying, and all kinds of trolling and harassment. Who can forget the cases of Amanda Todd or Rethaeh (Heather) Parsons? Two young women who committed suicide due to relentless and disgusting bullying that was able to take place because there simply was no way to stop it all.

amanda_toddsuicide.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterboxAnd with the ever expanding online presence of children and youths on the internet, and little to no controls to monitor their behavior, there are many campaigns out there that hope to reign in the offenders and protect the users. But there are those who have gone a step further, seeking to put in place comprehensive safeguards so that trollish behavior and hurtful comments can be stopped before it becomes a permanent part of the digital stream.

One such person is California Governor Jerry Brown, who recently signed a bill into law that requires all websites to provide an online “erase button” for anyone under 18 years of age. The stated purpose of the law is to help protect teens from bullying, embarrassment and harm to job and college applications from online posts they later regret. The law, which is designated SB568, was officially passed on Sept. 23rd and will go into effect Jan 1st, 2015.

kid-laptop-156577609_610x406Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based non-profit organization that advocates child safety and family issues, was a major supporter of the bill. In a recent interview, CEO James Steyer explained the logic behind it and how it will benefit youths:

Kids and teens frequently self-reveal before they self-reflect. In today’s digital age, mistakes can stay with and haunt kids for their entire life. This bill is a big step forward for privacy rights, especially since California has more tech companies than any other state.

The law is not without merit, as a 2012 Kaplan survey conducted on college admissions counselors shows. In that study, nearly a quarter of the counselors interviewed said they checked applicants’ social profiles as part of the admission process. Of those counselors, 35% said what they found – i.e. vulgarities, alcohol consumption, “illegal activities” – negatively affected their applicants’ admissions chances.

smartphoneteensBut of course, the bill has its share of opponents as well. Of those who voted against it, concerns that the law will burden websites with developing policies for different states appeared to be paramount. Naturally, those who support the bill hope it will spread, thus creating a uniform law that will remove the need to monitor the internet on a state-by-state basis.

At present, major social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine already allow users of any age to delete their posts, photos and comments. California’s “eraser button” law requires that all websites with users in the state follow this policy from now on. And given the presence of Silicon Valley and the fact that California has one of the highest per capita usages of the internet in the country, other states are sure to follow.

facebook-privacyThe new law also prohibits youth-oriented websites or those that know they have users who are minors from advertising products that are illegal to underage kids, such as guns, alcohol and tobacco. Little wonder then why it was also supported by organizations like Children NOW, Crime Victims United, the Child Abuse Prevention Center and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

In addition to being a legal precedent, this new law represents a culmination of special interests and concerns that have been growing in size and intensity since the internet was first unveiled. And given the recent rise in parental concerns over cyberbullying and teen suicides connected to online harassment, its hardly surprising that something of this nature was passed.

Sources: news.cnet.com, cbc.ca, huffingtonpost.com

The Future is Here: Holovision and PointGrab!

holovisionNothing spells future quite like a life-size hologram in your living room, does it? And much like flying cars and personal jetpacks (though these too are in development), holographics has been one promise that appears to be slow in materializing. However, thanks to the work of California-based company known as Provision, this promise is approaching reality.

Their invention is known as the  Holovision, a life-size holographic projector that uses what is called aerial or volumetric imaging – a way of producing 3D images without special glasses, lenses or slits. It uses a digital LCD screen and a concave mirror to produce the illusion of a 3D image floating outside the projector, and can produce clearer images without generating multiple views or causing dizziness or nausea.

holovision-0For some time now, Provision has been making 3D projectors as marketing tools, but is now running a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising US$950,000 to fund the development of new technology for the projector, with hopes of unveiling it next year. Currently, the company’s largest projector can only produce an 18-in (45.7-cm) image, but the goal is to create one 6 feet (1.8 m) tall that projects 7 ft (2.1 m) from the screen and is visible within a 100-degree arc.

This will require developing new optics and a new light source. But once this is achieved, Provision plans to miniaturize the system to the size of a toaster for the game console market before expanding to applications in education, medicine, video conferencing and other fields. Just imagine, phone conversations or Skyping where you get to talk to a life-size representation of the person! I know one person who would be thrilled about this, though I imagine he’d want a bigger projector for himself…

ESB_emperorThe Kickstarter campaign runs through August 14 and the public debut of the system is scheduled for March, 2014. So far, the project has collected $13,112, a mere 1% of its total goal. However, they are just getting started, and have seven months to go. So if you’ve got money and want holographics to become a permanent part of gaming, teleconferencing and social media, invest now!

In a similar vein, gesture control, something that has also been explored heavily in science fiction, appears to be getting a boost as well. For those who do not own an Xbox Kinect or are unfamiliar with the technology (or just haven’t seen Minority Report), gesture control is essentially a motion capture technology that monitors a person’s movements and gestures as an interface.

minority-reportAnd it is companies like PointGrab that are looking to make this type of interface the norm for computing, relying on a technology known as Hybrid Action Recognition (HAR). Unlike previous gesture recognitions software, the company claims that the updated version that they recently launched is 98% accurate and takes advantage of numerous advances that will make the technology mainstream.

The biggest advance comes in the form of being able to tell the difference between intentional movement, such as putting your fingers to your lips to mute a TV or computer, and unintentional gestures, such as scratching your lip. In addition, PointGrab has updated its machine learning algorithms to accommodate more environmental factors, such as different lighting conditions and hand sizes, to improve accuracy.

gesture-controlAccording to Assaf Gad, vice president of marketing and product for PointGrab, its all about accommodation. And this is really just the beginning:

We don’t want to teach people how to interact with devices. The devices have to be smart enough to analyze the body language of user and act accordingly.

Based in Israel, PointGrab has been working on gesture recognition interfaces since 2008. Two other Israeli companies, Eyesight and Extreme Reality, are also developing gesture and body movement recognition software platforms that work with a variety of devices equipped with standard 2D cameras. In addition, Leap Motion just introduced a hardware controller for enabling gesture control, and Microsoft’s Xbox One will enable control of more than games with its updated Kinect technology.

eyeSight-3D-Gesture-ControlAnd according to Gad, this is really just the beginning. Soon gesture control will be integrated with other emerging technologies to create much more intelligent interfaces:

I see it as good sign that we are in the right place to change way people interact. In the near future, we’ll see more solutions that combine voice and gesture, as well as 3D.

An exciting prospect, and very futuristic! Now if only someone would get on those damn flying cars already. It’s the 21st century, we were promised flying cars! And be sure to enjoy this video of the PointGrab software in action:


Sources: dvice.com, news.cnet, kickstarter.com

Want to See Your Home from the ISS?

ISSA Vancouver-based company recently announced that it would be streaming images from the ISS to Earth, giving people a rare glimpse of what astronauts in orbit see on a daily basis. In an age where space travel is becoming increasingly public, thanks in part to social media, it now appears that at least one company want to get in on the ground floor of making space more accessible.

Scott Larson, CEO of Urthecast (get it?), said in a recent interview with CBC’s Curt Petrovich how his company is making this happen. This past Sunday, Urthecast launched a platform to the space station aboard the unmanned Russian Progress M-20M spacecraft as part of a delivery of 2.4 tonnes of supplies – including food, water, fuel and scientific equipment.

urthecaste.gifThis platform will soon be attached to the outside of the station and augmented with two HD cameras that will allow people to see things on Earth as small as one meter wide. One will be fixed will take a continuous video panorama of Earth 50 kilometers wide as the space station orbits Earth while the other will be a pointable one that customers will be able to aim at a particular spot on Earth, for a price.

These cameras will be launched aboard a different Progress flight on Nov. 20 and attached to the platform upon arrival. Though Urthecast has not specified what kind of fees will be involved for those looking to download pics of Earth, it has claimed that it intends to sell the video to corporations, governments and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations for a wide range of need.

urthecaste_cameraHowever, these customers will not include the military since the apparatus will be on the International Space Station, which by law can only be used for “peaceful purposes”. Canadian law also requires the company to shut off the cameras as they pass over sensitive targets, if requested to do so by the federal government. Nevertheless, at least some investors are confident the company will make money of this idea. Since it first went public last month, Urthecast has raised some $46 million.

As part of what the company calls the “world’s first near-live HD video feed of Earth”, their cameras are expected to cover the planet between the latitudes of 51 degrees north (covering northern Canada, Russia and Scandinavia) and 51 degrees south (the southern tip of Chile and Argentina, South Africa and Australia). Once captured, the images will be downloaded to ground stations on Earth and be made available just a few hours later.

earth-from-ISSSo, between the accuracy of the cameras and the range they have to survey the planet, people will be able to capture images of their homes, neighborhoods, and even people that are accurate to a single meter. My advice? Get a portable device, lie down in your driveway, and then punch in your coordinates. And be sure to wave for a long time, so that when you download your images, you can see you waving back at yourself!

In the meantime, check out this video produced by Urthecast, and be sure to check out the company’s website to see how you can get in on this.

Sources: cbc.ca, extremetech.com, urthecast.com