Thanks for a Great Time at WebVisions 2011!

I want to thank everyone who came to see me speak at WebVisions 2011 last week. I had a great time teaching the intricacies of web typography to the 35 people at my Wednesday session and talking about the ins and out of selling progressive enhancement to the around 200 people at my Thursday session.

If you were there, please take a few moments to rate my performance.

Thus Spoke Jason for the Week of 2011-05-27

Thus Spoke Jason for the Week of 2011-05-20

Thus Spoke Jason for the Week of 2011-05-13

50 Years of Americans in Space: Remembering Alan Shepard

Originally published in GeekDad»

Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 before launch

Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 before launch

Alan Shepard, was close, so, close — he ventured into space 50 years ago today, the first American in space, but a little less than a month too late to be the first human being in space. That honor went to the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

As the saying goes, “Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes.” Still, it’s important to remember the achievement of America’s first man in space on May 5, 1961 on board the Freedom 7 — an achievement that would eventually lead to the first moon landing. It’s debatable which was the more significant accomplishment (first person in space or first person on the Moon), but no one can argue with the bravery or pioneering spirit of all any of the Astronauts and Cosmonauts risking their lives to take those first steps away from Mother Earth.
For Shepard, this was the culmination of years of rigorous training and a selection process that chose him from amongst the hundreds of other test pilots vying for the distinction to be chosen as one of those with the “right stuff.”
The countdown for the Freedom 7 flight started at 8:30PM the night before, but Shepard did not enter the capsule until 5:15 AM on May 5th, 2 hours before the “planned” take off time, but the lift off would not happen until 9:20 AM. This was the period when Shepard is supposed to have coined what would become know as Shepard’s Prayer “Dear Lord, please don’t let me f--- up”, although Shepard claims the exact words to be “Don’t f--- up, Shepard…” (Do I see a possible orthodoxy war in the far future between Shepard Fundamentalist and Reformist sects?).

MOON SHOT: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landing by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, Updated by Jay Barbree
With an estimated 45 million people watching him on TV in the United States, he lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Shepard did not achieve orbit as Gagarin did, but he did control his own ship whereas Gagarin was basically just a passenger along on an automated ride. Shepard was able to position his ship, practicing different maneuvers, before finally splash-landing in the Atlantic ocean having traveled 302 miles in just over 15 minutes.
It’s also important to remember Shepard’s other great accomplishment: Besides being the first American in space, Shepard was also the fifth man to walk on the moon, clocking the longest moon walk and also becoming the first (and, as far we know, only) human to play golf on another world.
Before he died in 1998, he and fellow Mercury Astronaut Deke Slayton (who served as Director of Flight Crew Operations throughout the Apollo program) recorded their first-hand experiences in the book MOON SHOT: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landing, which is being re-released as an enhanced ebook for the 50th anniversary of his momentous journey. The new version has been updated by noted journalist Jay Barbree, who has covered every American space flight. In the new edition, Barbree includes never-before known or told stories of Apollo missions, embedded video, and Barbree’s thoughts on the state of the American space program today.
Below, you can enjoy the commemorative video NASA has put together to celebrate the occasion.

David Edwards Is Out of the Lab to Find Art in Science: The GeekDad Interview

Originally published in Wire GeekDad»

David Edwards, Author of The Lab

David Edwards, Author of The Lab

There is a lot of lip-service given these days to the importance of innovation in our society. You often hear that we live in an “innovation economy,” or that we can innovate our way out of a crisis— implying that innovation is something that spontaneously happens with little or no effort. True innovation rarely comes so simply. It is most often the result of the intersecting of two or more seemingly separate and often disparate ideas (you got your chocolate in my peanut butter). We may be banking our future on innovation, but our educational system is not set up around innovation. No, you can’t teach innovation, but you can foster an environment of innovation while learning. Instead, disciplines are taught in independent silos called “classes” with little or no overlap.

David Edwards wants to change that. In his recent book The Lab, David explores the frontiers of learning to promote the theory that innovation comes when we worry less about the scientific “disciplines” involved and more about the desired outcome. In other words, figure out what you need to do and then what scientific tools you need to bring to bear on the problem to solve it.
David has a history of combining art and science in new ways both as a teacher at Harvard University and as founder and director of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. For example, one of the most striking examples he gives is how he and a class of his solved the problem of being able to quickly and cleanly transport water for people in areas without running water. To create the device — called “The Pumpkin” — David and his students at Harvard combined biology and engineering to create a device inspired by the way in which living cells transport water.
A few other of his innovations include:

  • La Whaf — A way of “eating” by inhaling liquid droplets
  • La Whif — Breathable chocolate, coffee, and even vitamins.
  • Andrea — A system that uses plants to clean indoor air.

I had a chance to talk with David through email and ask him about education, art, science, and raising kids.
GeekDad: Science and art — like science and religion — are popularly shown as being at odds and incompatible— truth can’t be beautiful — but in your book, The Lab, you argue that laboratories have to erase “conventional boundaries between art and science.” Why are those boundaries a problem?

David Edwards: Obviously we value a work of art, a MET performance of The Nose of Shostakovich, very differently than we value a work of science, like the discovery of the latest Mersenne Prime, as valuable works of the human mind art and science appeal for different reasons. What interests me in the context of laboratories, a general term I give to environments that “curate” the creative process, is less, however, the “works” of art and science than the creative processes by which we get them, the one being aesthetic, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, guided by images, true in that it is inalienable in some way from the human condition — the other being scientific, analytical, guided by equations, able to simplify a complex world to problems that can be solved, true in that it is reproducible.
GD: What would a world be like where the boundaries did not exist?
DE: These two processes, “art” in the sense that we imagine how Beethoven “lived” and thought and “science” in the sense that we imagine how Einstein “lived” and thought, actually merge in the creative process, and that fascinates me. In the process of discovery, whether with purely artistic, scientific, or some other ends, discoverers — how I think of creators — dream, and analyze, induce and deduce, are comfortable with uncertainty and are capable of reducing a complex world to resolvable problems and meaningful solutions. Creative lives are like this.

GD: So, what’s happening to the creatives in our society?
DE: With the specialization of knowledge, we now teach, learn, and perform within environments that are specialized to promote dreaming, or to promote analysis, or to promote questioning, or to promote solutions, but these environments are murderous to creative thought, a good reason why the most creative minds often flee institutional environments.
GD: Is the Internet helping to dissolve these boundaries?
DE: Perhaps largely as a result of the Internet Revolution, the “information providing” value of institutions has suddenly been overrun by the “innovation providing” value of institutions. And our institutions remain too focused on the old value model. The boundaries between art and science, as processes of creative thought, become a major obstacle to institutions and society adapting to the conditions of the 21st century. Remove these barriers and the anxiety many now feel facing a future that is so full of uncertainty will be replaced by the freedom a creator feels in a world where dreams can matter.

GD: How long do you think it will take our current mindset about creativity to change?
DE: I think it is indeed a transition that is taking place with the generation that is growing up today. We look at the young today and are shocked by what often seems to be an attention deficit problem. One thing however that strikes me in teaching at Harvard University is how young people, who have grown up surfing the Internet, moving in a matter of seconds from “recombinant RNA” to “Jackson Pollack,” don’t feel the same knowledge restrictions previous generations grew up with, actually recognize, experimentally, the great value of leaping from one culture to the next, feeling your way forward in innocence, discovering.
GD: Many seem to despair a culture where the novice and uninformed have the same access to many-to-many communication as the professional and studied. Do you see this as a problem, and how do you think we are dealing with it?
DE: I actually think that in the world we live in today we find the sources of information, the communities, which suit us, and, yes, I do agree that disastrously uninformed souls can influence millions, billions probably, but I’m not sure that the elite, the most educated and informed, ever had much more influence on human affairs than they do today. What has really changed is that we all, as individuals, have tremendously more outreach than we did. What we say – and do – is amplified. But the elite have always dialogued with the elite. What to do? Making innocence an asset, as it is for an infant, who learns so quickly, may be a goal, and guiding the elite toward more creating, along with the observing, might be another. I keep coming back to the contemporary power of the creative mind.

GD: For some, inventing new ways to carry water may seem like re-inventing the wheel, but you led a class that did just that over nachos and salsa at the Border Café in Harvard Square (I have to admit, I always found their Margaritas to be an excellent creative lubricant when I visited Boston). How did you bring science and design together to build a better, safer way to move water around?
DE: Getting drinkable water from its source to those in need of it without wasting it is a growing problem, of course. In biology the canonical transporter of water is the biological cell. We thought a few years ago that we might be able to learn from the cell to carry water more efficiently. This led eventually to an object that we’re making right now called The Pumpkin, because it sort of resembles a pumpkin when it is all curled up. The Pumpkin is, in one form, an interesting hand bag that doubles as a thermos. You can pull your lunch out of it like you can drink from it. But it also can expand in size, and carry increasing volumes of water, so that you can carry 10 or more liters of water strapped around your shoulder, or around your neck and torso. In developing world environments or disaster relief situations where water transport is a major challenge and head transport often occurs, The Pumpkin is designed to get lots of water safely to where it needs to go without messing up the neck and spinal cord, without making you drag something over tough terrain. Anyway the biological cell is a little like this — a lunch box that expands to carry lots of water or a little, depending on what you need.
GD: How have you been able to apply your own view of creativity to raising your children? Do you ever experiment ideas on them?
DE: My children — and I talk about them in my book — teach me more about creativity than I do them, I’m sure. If anything I may feel more peace than some in watching my three little boys learn in the rough and tumble way they learn. Yes, they were the first kids in the world who “whiffed” chocolate, the first kids probably who “ate bottles.” Since they are growing up in a very formal French school, I suppose having the father who comes home with Le Whif has marked them especially, hopefully an immunization against the worst outcome of a very fine if rigid educational system.

Doctor Who Recap: “The Day of the Moon”

Originally published in Wired’s GeekDad»

Doctor Who: The Day of the Moon

Doctor Who: "The Day of the Moon"

Spoiler alert: While we will discuss what happened in last Saturday’s episode, we’ll avoid talking about any future plot details.

Despite giving us a good-old fashioned cliff hanger at the end of “The Impossible Astronaut” — Amy taking a shot at the little girl in the big astronaut suite — the follow-up episode does not pick up directly where it left off. Instead, we jump several months ahead with Amy, Rory, and River on the lam while the Doctor has been imprisoned — in Area 51, naturally — and then jump back and forth with flash back to fill in the pieces. The team’s new “ally,” secret agent Canton — ably played by Battlestar Galactica actor Mark Sheppard — is hunting them down across the US. Their mission is to see how extensive is the infestation of the Silence. The answer: they are everywhere and have been her for millennia.
So, how do you defeat an enemy who is everywhere but you can’t remember as soon as you look away? (First Steven Moffat gave us the Weeping Angels who turn to stone when you are looking at them; now Moffat gives us the Silence who, essentially, cease to exist as soon as you look away. It seems as if Moffat has been reading a lot of the french philosopher Michel Foucault, who also had a thing about the power of the gaze.) According to the Doctor “We’re not fighting an alien invasion, we’re leading a revolution.” The Doctor’s solution turns out to be ingenious and direct: feed all of humanity a subliminal message to rise up against their oppressors, played at a moment that almost all of humanity will be watching: Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.

River: Apollo 11’s your secret weapon?
Doctor: No, no, it’s not Apollo 11. That would be silly. It’s Neil Armstrong’s foot.

But that all happens later in the episode. After rescuing the Doctor from a cell made of Zero Balanced Dwarf Star alloy (that’s right up there with “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow!”), the team has to split up again to track down leads while the Doctor goes on a secret mission to “NASA” (i.e. Cape Canaveral) to place something in Apollo 11 capsule that will allow them to broadcast their alien subversion message.
Oh, and Amy’s not pregnant. Or, well maybe she is. Or she’s not. We can’t be too sure, but that’s what happens with the timey wimey wibbly wobbly… stuff. This entire episode is told in flash-forwards, flashbacks, and I think there are even a few flash-sideways.

Amy from the Day of the Moon

Pond or Scully? You decide.

…which is I think how Amy and Canton arrive at Graystalk Hall Orphanage, looking for the small girl in the space suite. The caretaker for this orphanage, a Mr. Refrew, is obviously unhinged, and the entire house is filled with graffiti, saying things like “Get Out,” and… OK, this whole part of the episode is incredibly X-Files — with Amy looking particularly Scully-eque — and loads of seeming non-sequiturs like an unknown woman with an artificial eye at a door saying “No I think she’s just dreaming.”
This is one episode you will have to watch a few times through to make complete sense of.
Unlike most Doctor Who episodes, this story does not tie together very neatly at the end. Although it looks as if the Silence has been defeated, it’s clear that there is a lot more to this story. The end of this episode leaves us with seemingly more questions than it actually answered:

  • How and why were The Silence manipulating events last season?
  • Why does The Silence need the girl?
  • Why is the girl in the space suite and how does she get out?
  • Why does The Silence need a space suite?
  • Did the person in the space suit (we’ll assume it’s the girl) really kill the Doctor?
  • According to the life support software, the girl is human, but incredibly strong. But she’s regenerating at the end of the episode, so she must be a Time Lord, right?
  • Is Amy pregnant? If so, is the little girl her child? If so, The Doctor her father? If not, is Rory? If he is, does that mean that Rory is not an Auton? Earth girls may be easy but I don’t think a lump of plastic could get one pregnant.
  • If the girl is a Time Lord, which one is she? The Doctor’s daughter with Amy? The Doctor’s female clone from the episode “The Doctor’s Daughter”? Could it even be Romanadvoratrelundar, last seen stranded in eSpace? I can hope, can’t I?

Obviously “To Be Continued.”
Great lines from this episode:

Amy: Is this very important flirting, because I feel I should be higher on the list right now.

River: What are you doing?!?
Doctor: Helping!
River: You have a screwdriver. Go Build a cabinet!
Doctor: That’s really rude!

Rory: So, what kind of doctor are you?
River: Archeology… love a tomb.

Doctor: You could let me fly it…
River: …or we could go where we’re supposed to.

Next time: Pirates and Mermaids!