Writings elsewhere, part the first


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It’s the 20th anniversary of Nickelodeon’s “Guts” today, which means I convinced one of my fine editors at work to let me rank the best Nickelodeon game shows. If you’re so inclined, you can check it out here.


A panicked examination of: DARPA’s lumbering murderbot


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  • For Chrissakes, like the one that could run fast wasn’t enough. Now you’ve got one that can cross rough terrain. My plan of hiding out in the forest is going to have to go through some revisions. New plan: treehouse?
  • Earlier versions of the Big Dog were really, really loud. The thing emitted a grating whine that somewhat decreased its utility as an instrument of war. This one? Much, much quieter. I’m not saying this thing is going to be a robot ninja, but I’m not cool with it creeping up behind me while I’m sitting outside, reading Infinite Jest and drinking port and being insufferable.
  • Great, now I’m thinking of a robot ninja. Mortal Kombat has a robot ninja, and one of his fatalities has him self-destruct, blowing up the entire world in the process. Robot ninjas are a bad idea, no matter how cool you think they might be.
  • DARPA have gotten very cute with the Big Dog before, putting out videos like “Big Dog Weaponized” in which they cheekily strap a set of steer horns to the front of it. and send it mock-charging at nerd-matadors. I will all-but-guarantee you that you’ll see that same title re-used again in a video five years down the line, only this time “Weaponized” will mean “we strapped a minigun and two side-mounted rocket launchers to it”. Version 2.0 will have a heat sensor so Big Dog can find you and your family huddled under the rubble of your house, which was destroyed in the Robot Apocalypse. Version 3.0 will come in black.
  • Let’s talk a little bit about the Uncanny Valley. It’s a concept in robotics that states that a person’s affection for a synthetic object will increase in direct proportion to how realistic said object looks, up until a point. Once it gets to that point, our attitudes toward it almost universally plummet. If we make it even more realistic, that objection disappears. That drop in affection, on a graph, looks like a valley, hence the name. The reason behind this is in dispute, but we think it has something to do with what we emphasize. If you have, say, one of those cute dancing robots, your mind focuses on how it’s like a living being. Look at it dance! It’s so cute! Just like I would dance!
  • On the other hand, if you have something like this: You start noticing how it’s not like a living being. It doesn’t sweat, your mind notes, with a racing panic. Its movements are jerky and unnatural. There is no soul behind its dead, robotic eyes. It reminds you of a corpse, except it’s moving. Basically, it trips all the sensors our brain has for identifying things that freak us out. This was largely the problem with the movie The Polar Express, incidentally. We love Tom Hanks, but an animated not-realistic-enough Tom Hanks is basically a charming zombie.
  • The Big Dog is obviously a robot, at least at this stage of its development. In at least one sense, however, it’s creeping very close to the Uncanny Valley. Take a look at this early prototype, in a test of how well it can navigate icy terrain (skip to about 53 seconds in): When its legs start to splay about, desperately attempting to find purchase on slippery ground, I feel two things in equal measure. One is a bit of sympathy for what I perceive as an animal in distress. The other is terror and no small amount of hatred. Its legs are real, but they’re not alive. They’re attached to a motor. My brain wants me to smash bad thing with rock.
  • Still, hey, robots are pretty cool, huh?

Kharak is Burning: Homeworld’s masterstroke mission


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I found my old copy of Homeworld, Relic Entertainment’s 1999 space simulator and a dark horse candidate for Greatest Game Ever Made. Somehow, the CD still works on my computer, so I’ve been playing it off and on over the past few weeks. For a game that’s over a decade old, it still looks pretty damned good, and the actual gameplay holds up well. I love rediscovering old games — you get to approach them from a more mature perspective, which means you’ll notice themes and motifs you may have missed as a callow, acne-ridden nerd.

Not that I was ever that, mind you. I was a geek. Big difference.

Homeworld starts you off as the commander of your race’s first attempt at faster-than-light travel. Your home planet, called Kharak, is slowly dying — it’s mostly desert and there’s not much around in terms of resources — but fortunately for you, some explorers discovered the remains of an ancient starship buried beneath the desert. The starship had faster-than-light technology, and a map showing you the location of your actual homeworld, on the other side of the galaxy. Your people gathered up their remaining resources and built a big ol’ mothership, with the intent of traveling across the cosmos and discovering your mysterious origins.

The first mission is standard real-time strategy introductory fare; you learn to control your units, make your way around the map, and so on. It has this optimistic, giddy feel to it — like the Apollo program writ large. As your mothership detaches from its gargantuan scaffold for the first time, there’s a real sense of accomplishment, which is odd considering this happens before you have any input at all. Kharak is in the background of this scene, and despite the fact that it’s obviously a harsh planet, it serves as an anchor for the player. You’ve just been introduced to this planet, but you know what it represents: home.

Your hyperspace test goes well, and you jump out to a ship about a light-year away that you had sent on a long-range precursor mission. The scenery is largely the same (you can see the same constellations and nebulae in the sky as in the previous mission) save for one key difference — you can see your home star as a faint, slightly brighter-than-normal speck in the distance. Homeworld’s skyboxes are quite beautiful, but their particular genius is in how they give a certain structure to the emptiness of space. One series of missions has you winding your way farther and farther into a mysterious nebula, the center of which looms larger and larger in your viewscreen until you’re entirely enveloped in it. Another places the Mothership in the middle of a gargantuan, half-completed Dyson sphere, the scale of which produced the most intense feeling of insignificance I’ve ever felt while playing a game. It’s a very simple thing, but more than anything else, it’s responsible for Homeworld’s unique feel.

The second mission ends with the discovery that you’re not only not alone in the galaxy, but that you’re not particularly welcome. Your advance ship has been destroyed by alien raiders, and you head back to Kharak to regroup and plan your next move.

When you exit hyperspace at the start of the third mission, you’re confronted by this:

No lie: when I first saw this scene as a teenager, I teared up a bit. I’d blame misplaced hormones, but even now, when I’m older and know it’s coming, it’s incredibly affecting.

All the moving parts of this scene work together so well. The music, an adapted “Adagio for Strings”, is nothing if not the collected sense of loss and longing in audio form. Your two main characters — Fleet Command and Fleet Intelligence, who up until this point have formed a kind of nurturing mother/stern father duo — are nearly overcome by despair, even as they issue orders and assess the situation.  As you scroll the screen around trying to make sense of the situation, you’re confronted with a nightmare version of the opening, optimistic skybox — Kharak is still in the background, but now it’s being eaten alive by fire. You’ve barely started the game, and already it’s punched you right in the gut and let you know just how alone you are.

There’s an additional aspect to this mission, one of those sublime and rare little moments where the developers managed to show what games are really capable of as an art form. Before you can even properly mourn Kharak, Fleet Intelligence draws your attention to a small group of ships still in-system. These ships are the rearguard of the fleet that destroyed Kharak, and they’re in the process of attacking six gigantic trays, each of which contain 100,000 of your fellows in cryogenic stasis. They were designed to sleep through your Mothership’s initial journey to your homeworld, but right now, as Fleet Command urgently notes, they’re all that’s left of your entire species.

Now, you have to do two things here: capture one of the four attacking ships in order to interrogate its crew, and save at least one of the six cryo trays, so your species can rebuild. The number of trays you save, in gameplay terms, is irrelevant; to the best of my knowledge, you don’t get any additional resources or bonuses if you go six-for-six. From my own experience, and in talking about this game around the internet, there seems to be only one approach to this mission: save every single cryo-tray. Even to this day, losing just one of them on that mission will cause me to curse and restart. Any other outcome feels like a failure.

Had Relic not done a masterful job of setting this moment up through the past few missions, it wouldn’t have held nearly the emotional weight that it does. It’s really a masterful stroke — all your affection for Kharak is immediately transferred onto these six featureless hunks of metal, under fire from those who would genocide your whole race. In a movie, you’d be rooting for the Mothership to come to the rescue, but in a game, it’s only up to you. In what other medium could you worry about letting down what you see on the screen?

Omni Memoriam


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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
–H.P. Lovecraft (kind of a weirdo and a racist, but definitely right in this particular case)

Out of all the realistic places to run into a person you went on one date with, a wiffleball tournament has to be among the worst.

It was something like nine thousand degrees out on this shadeless field, so I had turned the t-shirt they gave us at the signup tent into a makeshift keffiyeh/turban. They even let me dip it in some of the ice water they were using to cool the (overpriced) drinks down, so I was both absurdly-attired and soaked. It was about that time that I saw her: dressed all in black, a very expensive camera around her neck. She looked different (and, come to think of it, so did I), but neither of us so different that we weren’t obviously the people we’d been back then. She’d mentioned on our date that she was a photographer, and it looked like she was there documenting the tournament, probably for the local paper. We’d gone on the aforementioned single date about eight months prior, and while it went reasonably well — she seemed to have it together, life-wise — there really wasn’t that much chemistry there. I texted once or twice more, but our conversations were limited, and it wound down quickly and uneventfully. I probably hadn’t thought about her since then in anything more than a cursory sense.

Still, she was good people, so I resolved to say hi. My team (undoubtedly the most multicultural one at the tournament, we had named ourselves the “Illegal Emigrants”) had just finished a game and were sitting by the field, watching two other teams face off. I noticed she’d started taking pictures of those teams, and was about to walk over when she started heading towards me.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you happen to know that person’s name?”

She indicated the guy at bat. She’d just taken a picture of him, and it’s part of a photographer’s job to identify her subject for the caption.

I turned to look at her. What do you say to someone who you recognize but has no idea who you are?

Not being recognized itself is exceptionally rare (‘cause I’m so charming and handsome, see?), but I have a bit of a problem when it comes to recall. I really don’t want to sound conceited, but it’s nearly impossible in this case, so I’ll just state it outright: I have an exceptional memory.

It’s not eidetic by any means — I’ve watched news segments on the occasional person who can recall every detail of every hour they’ve spent on this Earth, and I’m nowhere near where they are. I can empathize with them, however, because while it’s not a curse or a burden, it’s just so damned inconvenient sometimes.

It can make me seem awfully invested in things I’ve not otherwise considered in ages. I was talking with a friend once about college, and she mentioned that she went to Bowdoin. A normal person would ask normal person questions like “how did you like it” and “what did you major in” and so on.

Here’s what I did: immediately this rogue Google search ran my head of every time I’ve heard the word “Bowdoin” in my whole life. It took me right back to an eighth-grade class trip to Gettysburg, where I marched up Little Round Top while a tour guide lectured me and my classmates on the heroic bayonet charge of the 20th Maine, who held the flank of the entire Union Army and turned back a ferocious Confederate attack. The commander of the Maine ended up becoming quite famous, despite the fact that he was, in civilian life, a — oh wait, that’s where I’ve heard it.

“Bowdoin — Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain went there, right? Became president after the Civil War was over?”

The look I got, I swear. I know that look. I get that look all the time.

This still sounds conceited, doesn’t it? I’ll admit that it comes out to be a net positive. I rock at trivia, for one, and it really helps when I feel the need to hold forth on something interesting, which is … pretty much all the time. Having an exceptional memory is pretty great, but what about when it stops being memory and morphs into an inability to forget?

Here is a partial list of things that I will never be able to scrub from my mind, their every detail inked in my head like a bad tattoo: the time I got a real easy question about baseball wrong in a middle school trivia contest and the entire class laughed at me for what seemed like days. The time I took a called strike three with the bases loaded and two outs in the last inning in a Little League championship game, despite the fact that it crossed the plate at my ankles and was clearly a ball, thank you very much umpire with a green cast on his right arm. Literally every time I have ever screwed up in any way at work or school. The sound my great-grandmother made when they closed the lid of my great-grandfather’s coffin for the last time.

Sometimes one of these memories will grab me and shut my life down for hours. A good memory can set off fireworks behind your eyes in the quietest moments, but it can lash your mind to your every embarrassment and indignity and, frankly, ruin your whole damn day.

So, I downplay it. I let people I’ve met years ago reintroduce themselves to me. I keep my mouth shut when someone mentions an obscure name that triggers a whole biography. I look for more subtle ways of letting people know about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

And, when a person I went on a date with once nearly a year ago asks me a question with no recognition behind it, I don’t laugh, reintroduce myself, and ask her about one of the million things she told me about herself that, prompted by her appearance, are leaping about my tongue like pop rocks.


“I’m sorry, ma’am. He told me his name earlier, but I don’t recall.”

A panicked examination of DARPA’s sprinting deathbot


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My least-favorite thoughts I had while watching this video, in no particular order:

  • That robot is being developed by DARPA, which stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. As usual with the government, that name tells you everything and nothing at once. You figure, OK, DARPA probably develops new military technologies, and you’d be right. They’re just particularly imaginative about what constitutes “new” — it’s less “make an awesome new gun” than “create powered military exoskeletons (definitely)” or “actually make a flying armored car (seriously)” or “make a plane that flies a million billion miles an hour and has working jaws on the front (probably not, but don’t mention it around any of the DARPA guys). It’s a robot that runs, but it’s not going to JUST be a robot that runs, if you catch my drift.
  • Robot’s awkward gait transforming into a confident gallop right around the 20-mile-per-hour mark is incredibly unsettling and suggests to me that the thing is actively learning how to be a better, faster, stronger death robot.
  • Most animals have wide, soft-padded feet. Robot has what appears to be monomolecular stabbing needles for feet.
  • You know — you just know — that they’re going to put a knife on it.
  • Sound of robot’s skittering feet brings to mind what a spider would sound like if it were the size of, say, a well-fed pig.
  • Realization that freaking DARPA is probably working on a gigantic spider robot as we speak.
  • Robots can’t climb stairs, right? Need to find the nearest tall tower and prep for the Robot Apocalypse.
  • God DAMMIT.
  • Thanks a lot, DARPA.

Killing your inner creeper


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I have these dating filters, right?

They’re not foolproof, I promise. They’re not going to make your life perfect. Terrible things could still happen to you, and probably will! I’ve had this fucking cough all this week, and my filters did absolutely nothing to prevent it.

Right, so, say you’re in contact with a person you’re interested in. You can be in several different stages of the relationship, but generally, let’s say that these filters work in any situation prior to some kind of official relationship declaration. You could have gone on a few dates already, or you could be in the stages of setting one up, or you could have just sent this person an OkCupid message and are doing that horrible ritual of jumping at your phone every time it buzzes for the next few days, only to find out that it’s just your turn in Words With Friends or whatever. I know, I do it too.

The situation is: the person you’re interested in has stopped responding.


This is just the worst, isn’t it? Clearly, you’re a radiant and charming person of the world. Why can’t this other person recognize your inherent sexiness and sleep with you immediately? I mean, wait, not that. Why won’t they write you back? They must not have received your text. Time to send them like five more, each one getting more and more desperate and incoherent, until you end up appearing on this site as its most-read post. You could do that.

Don’t do that. I’ve never done that, because before I got to the point where doing that was a possibility, I came up with my handy-dandy filter system.

Do this instead:

The reason said person has stopped responding to you can be broadly summarized in three categories, with a fourth corollary that takes aspects of the first three. They are as follows:

1) It’s a problem with you
Maybe you misspelled something in that text. Maybe you talked with your mouth full of food during that date. Maybe you adhere to the philosophical principles of Ayn Rand and believe compassion is a weakness and love is a financial transaction. Maybe you’re just not that interesting. Take heart! Lots of people have these very same problems, and the great thing about them is that they’re all fixable*. That means you can work on them and mitigate, eliminate, or mask them the next time around. Which won’t be with the person who’s not responding to you, because you blew that chance. Don’t worry about it. Maybe you’ll meet them around after you’ve undergone your little bout of self-improvement, and they’ll be totally impressed and actually send you a text this time around. Even if they don’t, you should still stop talking with your mouth full of food, because that is just gross.

*Problems that are not fixable: generally, anything that could get you ten or more years in prison or dragged before the War Crimes tribunal at The Hague.

If it’s not a problem with you, then:

2) It’s a problem with them
So you’ve gone over your prior interactions in your head, and try as you might, you can’t find anything you did that was so utterly offensive or off-putting that the person you’re interested in had no choice but to sever contact. The next possibility is that it’s just a problem with them.

Look, with the possible exception of Mr. Rogers, who is dead, we are none of us perfect. Some people idealize the person they’re interested in, but that person’s got flaws too, right? Perhaps they have commitment issues. They could have a superiority complex. They could have an inferiority complex. They could have been too busy planning the robbery of a local orphanage to write you back. They could be a Space Fascist. I don’t know! You don’t either.

It’s not your problem.

That’s the great thing about it — it’s not your problem. You don’t need to worry about it. You might have dodged a bullet.

If it’s not a problem with them, then:

3) It’s just a fundamental incompatibility
Obviously you don’t believe this, because you still want the other person to text you back, but again, no one is perfect and there is no such thing as omniscience. The other person may simply have noticed something you haven’t yet. You could be really conservative, she could be really liberal. You have a faux-hawk, he can’t stand that particular haircut. You talked past one another but neither of you ended the first date early, because that would have been rude. He really wanted to message you back, but you’re just too far away from him, and he didn’t want to give you false hope, so he kept silent.

These aren’t problems. They’re obstacles to you two getting together, sure, but they’re not problems. They’re just … things that happened. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about them, but the good thing is that they’re unique to that one person. You don’t need to do anything except move on.

4) The corollary
They’re seeing someone else instead.

This sucks. No dancing around it — what it is is a form of losing, and no one likes losing. I’m not going to say that you should feel great about it, but what you should be is gracious, because it’s really just a slightly less-tolerable version of the first three rules, in any configuration or combination. You’re not this other person, but that doesn’t mean you’re worse than them*, it just means this single person out of the world’s seven billion people finds them more attractive than you. The thing is, this is true in hundreds or thousands of situations. The only difference here is that you’re particularly aware of this one. I feel you, man. Or lady. What you need to remember is that it won’t be true in every case for everyone.

*You might objectively be worse than them, but again: fixable unless you’re truly horrid.

So, the next time you’re in this particular situation, put it through these filters. If you find any of them to be remotely applicable in your case, then hold off on sending that next text. Maybe — MAYBE — if you’ve actually gone on a date with them, and they haven’t responded to the last thing you’ve sent, then you can send one more, so long as it’s not cloying or bitter or otherwise horrid and embarrassing. Just let it go. You are in a hole that is half a foot deep but happens to be two feet above an active river of nuclear runoff. Go dig somewhere else.

Life as a Beardless Man


Day Zero
During my regular course of trimming my beard — an action I can only ascribe to my vanity establishing a beachhead in its never-ending war against my genetics — a non-critical trimming accident forced me to shave off the whole damn thing. Reminder to self: check that your trimmer attachment is actually, like, attached before swiping at your cheeks like a follicle Grim Reaper. I briefly considered turning the resultant mass into a goatee (verdict: too douchey) or a mustache (verdict: already visually enough of a hipster, thanks much), but both options would delay the return of my beard further than necessary. I would need a clean slate. Fortunately, said genetics are relentless and profligate. I anticipate full re-bearding by week’s end.

Day One
I have encountered several perils as a result of my unwanted shaving. Turning my head has become a hazard, as it is missing several pounds of hair — the strength required to move such a mass is now unneeded, and has very nearly resulted in several debilitating neck strains. I quit football specifically to avoid such injuries. Despite the fact that it is over 90 degrees outside, my face is frigging freezing. On the plus side, a bunch of people got up on stage and danced to a song I sung at karaoke last night. The implications this has for my previous hypothesis (that beards make a man look dignified and not at all intimidating) are … problematic. To preserve my mental health and sense of self, I have decided to attribute said dancing to a subconscious attempt to make up for the lack of beard, thereby resulting in my voice attaining a certain sweetness and purity that I can only usually pull off if someone accuses me of being off-key.

I am never off-key.

Day Two
A heretofore-unforeseen problem — my current glasses were chosen in large part due to the way they complemented and molded the effect of my beard. They added a dash of sophistication to what was an otherwise rugged and slightly dissolute look. The glasses now verge on fey, and to my utter horror, actually make me look MORE like a hipster than they ever did without the beard. This realization has caused me to despair — the sight of a mirror makes me recoil as if stung. I almost didn’t wear my green Chuck Taylors this morning, that’s how bad it’s been.

I wore the red ones instead. I also have powder blue Chucks and purple Chucks. Somewhere in my closet, there is an old pair of slate-blue Chucks that I don’t wear anymore because they don’t grab nearly enough attention. I was wearing Chuck Taylors before they were cool, just to let you know. Somebody make it stop.

Day Three
It’s difficult to regrow a beard without the proper mindset; beards are a commitment roughly equivalent to raising a particularly intelligent dog, or mildly stupid child. Properly trained, they add to a man’s profile; left to their own devices, they become feral and uncouth. To that end, I have employed several motivational techniques, chief among them the rewatching of HBO’s “Deadwood”, due to its array of full and lush beards. This has had the side effect of causing my swearing to increase in volume and floridness, but engaging in such a Brobdingnagian undertaking requires a full fuckin’ heart, with no time for squeamishness at the fuckin’ precipice.

Day Four
I have a playoff dodgeball game tomorrow. Normally, I’d be all fired up to throw things at people, but my lack of beard has me worried. The popular perception of beard length is that it corresponds with a certain surplus of physical strength, but I’ve not yet tested this in a dodgeball environment. Will my normal barrage of well-aimed, nigh-uncatchable throws merely wilt from my beardless person? Or will I be a kind of reverse-Samson, bringing the walls of the gym down with every foam rubber missile? I feel like it’ll be somewhere in the middle, but that could be the lack of beard talking. I feel like I can take no strong stands so long as I’m in between beard and no beard. My acquaintance Dr. Aaron Perlut, head of the American Mustache Institute, describes beards as a “spousal compromise”, but his opinion is to be distrusted — he is not an impartial observer. A man committed to a style of facial hair is a man of honor — whether he be clean-shaven, mustached, or bearded. It’s the ones who can’t decided — stubblers — that you have to worry about.

Day Five
The neckbeard is the beard’s nuclear runoff, a necessary but distasteful consequence of the power of hirsuteness. Neckbeards must be trimmed dutifully and ruthlessly, lest they drag the whole beard down into something less than what a gentleman would wear. I nearly forgot to do this yesterday — the result being a sudden but powerful craving for Cheetos and a World of Warcraft account. A quick wielding of my razor prevented this catastrophe, but I have to report that a dark impulse nearly caused me to extend my facial depilation northward. Clearly there is more at play here than a mere (mere?) beard. I may be in contest for my very soul.

Day Six
We lost our playoff dodgeball game, but my arm strength was undiminished, so that hypothesis has been discarded. I thought my tactical acumen may have been affected, but a hellaciously smooth-cheeked win in Birthday Laser Tag on Friday night means that military genius may be present in the beardless (Patton, Caesar) as well as the hirsute (Hannibal [probably], William Tecumseh Sherman [definitely]). Regardless, a beard may provide benefits in the realm of athletic intimidation, as this video of French rugby player Sebastien Chabal possibly murdering a man demonstrates.

Day Seven
Tony Soprano (no beard) once said that “Remember When” is the lowest form of conversation. While I’m inclined to agree, my only solace on the one-week anniversary of my beard’s noble sacrifice is looking at pictures of myself with beards past. There’s the scraggly early-college look, the lumberjack late-college look, the more dignified short trim of years past. All have brought tears to my eyes — tears which roll nearly-unimpeded down my insufficiently-wooly cheeks. I’d like to share one such beard with you — the one I wore in my brief period as a cross-dressing Communist professional wrestler named Mother Russia, who ran for Northwestern student council president many years ago. He got 43 votes, proving that democracy is a lie.


I am so very close to getting that back. This song has been playing in my head non-stop. I am so very close.

Day Eight
A dream:

I am standing on the prow of a Viking longship. I am the captain. We have traveled many weeks out across the North Sea, and now we are about to reach Brittania. There is much plunder here. I turn and face my men. They are all bearded — red and brown and black and yellow, ice clinging to each bristle. None of their helmets have horns. Horned helmets are a historical falsehood. Why would you want horns on your helmet? Someone hits the horns, it’ll knock your helmet off. Someone grabs hold of the horns, they can wrench your head around all they want. Horns are stupid. The Vikings would laugh at any man with horns on his helmet, or no beard.

I catch a reflection of my face in the freshly-polished noseguard of my own hornless helmet. My beard is as full and as thick and as metrosexually trimmed as contemporary Viking culture will allow. I roar at my men. They roar back. We sack the abbey of Lindisfarne. Life is good for a bearded man in any era.

Day Nine
Today, I trimmed my beard. I made sure the trimmer was properly attached to the buzzer. My neckbeard is properly contained.

I think everything’s going to be all right.



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The moon landings were the kind of defiant audacity that should knock you on your ass just for the fact that we attempted them in the first place. Consider: Apollo 1 failed in the worst way possible, burning up on the launchpad and killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. This is the kind of tragedy that quails our courage and consigns good ideas to that part of the map marked “here be dragons”, but the spirit of the time would not allow it to close off our hearts to the moon. Flight director Gene Kranz said in a speech to Mission Control that NASA’s response to the accident was to embody the words Tough and Competent — that is, accountable and thorough in their approach to every subsequent mission. It was an engineer’s credo.

Neil Armstrong was an engineer — he would, in his later life, teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati — and a test pilot. This put him in a unique position of being able to figure out exactly why the thing he had been flying had tried to kill him. Engines would explode, or stop working, or work a bit too well, and Armstrong would calmly work the problem until he fixed it or the problem became unworkable. They chose him to fly all kinds of planes with “X” in their designation (for “experimental”), planes which seemed to rattle to pieces from the sheer excitement of what they were designed to do. Armstrong flew the X-15, the fastest manned aircraft ever built. On one of his flights, an error in his descent caused him to overshoot the airfield at 2,000 miles an hour — no big deal for Armstrong, who calmly turned his death rocket around and threaded his way between the trees to safety. Neil Armstrong flew planes at 4,000 miles an hour, at 200,000 feet, big round number planes that spoke of a big brave future.

We make drones, now. They have pilots, but those pilots sit in a computer bay thousands of miles away, watching through cameras. If the connection is broken, the drones simply fly in circles, lazily waiting for orders. They have names like Predator and Reaper and Switchblade. Neil Armstrong flew craft called Shooting Star and Starfighter and Gemini.

The science-hero was a staple of early pulp novels — heroes like Indiana Jones or Doc Brass who used their educations as often as their fists*. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the moon landing into their own pulp novel — they very slightly overshot their original landing area, which would have sent them into a touchdown zone filled with boulders and assorted debris. Armstrong made a call to land the module manually, which he did with Aldrin making speed and fuel calculations in his head. Two men, all alone in a rocket ship, testing their knowledge and nerve against the world’s most stressful math problem. You can try a simulation of it here. It’s not easy.

*Aldrin once punched out a moon landing conspiracy theorist. I hope he lives forever.

Armstrong and Aldrin left behind several things when they blasted off the surface of the moon, back to a rendezvous with Michael Collins in the Command Module. One of those things was an Apollo 1 mission patch, emblazoned with Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s names. We responded to death with bravery and science and no small amount of sentiment.

Neil Armstrong is dead, after accomplishing everything a man could dream to accomplish. Our space program, in a world where an Xbox carries more processing power than Mission Control’s best computers, is reduced to probes and drones and piggybacking off Russian rockets. We owe it to him and Aldrin and the astronauts of Apollo 1 much more than that. Our tragedies should always be followed by triumph. We owe them the moon, again. We owe them Mars. We owe them the solar system and beyond. We owe them the universe.