If Not Progress, What? If Not Mars, Where?

Last month two events led me to do some thinking about manned exploration of Mars.

Billionaire investor Dennis Tito, under the Inspiration Mars Foundation umbrella, announced plans to launch a 1.4 year manned circumnavigation of Mars in 2018. I had the enviable assignment of writing our official position for The Mars Initiative, a fundraising organization I helped found in 2012. (If you marsglobe1x200haven’t had the chance yet, please review the rest of the website, as well as my post.)

The IMF announcement catalyzed some necessary discussions within TMI that will remain ongoing for several months. IMF’s agenda is ambitious, particularly the timeline and the margin for safety and testing. In the broader community most people are skeptical about whether the mission can be achieved, and a few are adamant that it cannot be achieved. I think it is achievable, and failure of one attempt will not prove this assertion false (n=1 is not a sufficient sample). This mission could not have been conceived two years ago because the necessary commercial developments had not yet occurred. The project operates under a tight schedule constraint, and execution risks abound.

In 2003 I was one of the original founding members of the Dallas Chapter of The Mars Society, which last year successfully hosted their national convention. I continue to host and update their website. Then and now, getting involved in Mars-related organizations seemed like something interesting to do that not many other people were doing. It wasn’t until I wrote the following words that the magnitude started to sink in:

IMF is inspiring multiple generations to prepare immediately for humanity’s genesis as a multi-planetary species.

I feel I have to put that into context.

  • 2 million years ago: The Homo genus first used stone tools.
  • 1.8 million years ago: Homo erectus first left Africa, probably used more complex tools and fire.
  • 75,000 to 125,000 years ago: Modern humans migrated once again from Africa and replaced the indigenous Homo populations. 1
  • 5,000 years ago: Humans first harvested energy for transportation–via the wind sail.
  • 200 years ago: Humans began systematically converting chemical energy into locomotion.
  • 1961: The first human left the atmosphere (and returned safely), using chemical energy.

In addition to energy, the organizational systems and technological environment (i.e. Kevin Kelly’s technium) enabled such accomplishments.

On a planet that is 4.5 billion years old in a galaxy that is 13 billion years old, the recent rapid pace of social and technological development is remarkable. There are 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy. We are rapidly discovering planets around many of them. In the end there may be at least as many planets in our galaxy, and tens or hundreds of millions that are approximately like Earth. I think it is safe to conclude that life exists all throughout our galaxy.

The existence of complex life like that found on Earth is more dubious. The existence of complex social and technological systems like that of modern homo sapiens is even more in doubt. Amid vast numbers, and vast timescales, the current progress of our species is truly remarkable.

In the first paragraph I mentioned there were two events. The second of was the opportunity to complete the reading of Robert Zubrin’s new mini-book, Mars Direct. Much like his earlier books, it outlined a plan to put humans on Mars in one decade. MarsDirectIn addition it echoed the criticisms made in his previous books of the the political and administrative dysfunctions that have stifled the plan over the last thirty years.

The next step for homo sapiens is to become a multi-planetary species. Indeed the entire progress of humanity almost seems to have led us to this goal, if such a thing would be possible accidentally. The necessary social and technological prerequisites have already been developed. The flame and passion for exploration thrives, as does our ability to engage in collective action for group benefit. For the last 5 decades, humanity has been one to two decades away from achieving its first steps towards that goal of putting its first representatives on another planet.

It is frustrating, therefore, to witness that ways and means that we have convinced ourselves that squandering progress was in our collective best interests.

There is nothing magical about Mars. It is simply a rocky body with 40% the mass of Earth and an atmosphere that provides some protection from and redistribution of solar radiation at the surface. Unlike the Moon, Mars contains the requisite atmosphere and resources to sustain an self-sufficient and permanent human civilization. The technologies will take longer than one to two decades, but their development will inevitably provide benefits back on Earth. It is important to note that humanity faces time pressures that are similar to those Inspiration Mars faces–expanded from years into decades or centuries. I won’t turn this into a tract on the dangers of nuclear weapons, global climate instability, or accidentally misplaced asteroids. These dangers are all real enough.

The remarkable achievements of humanity are a but the smallest spark, and they are not guaranteed to endure. Making sure they endure, and building on them is our responsibility.

1 DNA evidence now suggests some modern non-African humans in Europe and Asia contain DNA not found in our more immediate African progenitors, as a result of interbreeding with these earlier Homo populations. 

Skeptic’s Guide to Weight Loss

In the last two years have reduced my weight from 103kg to 93kg, most of that in the last 6 months. My goal is 83kg (183 lbs).

Unfortunately, there is lots of bad information about how to lose weight. My formula, which I have also used successfully in the past, is based on simple principles.

Principle 1: All that matters is number of calories consumed. IMG_1613There is no consistent evidence that any of the following factors matter:

  • Amount of carbohydrates (i.e. low carb fads)
  • Time of day
  • Fruit combined with other foods

These factors can affect overall health and satisfaction, but not weight loss. The only thing that matters is how many calories you eat.

Principle 2: Exercise is about health, not weight loss. I do walk and run everyday. Exercise is important for health, happiness, and longevity, but it is not a factor in weight loss (due to muscle gain and skeletal strengthening, the opposite may occur). 15 minutes of running burns about 150-200 calories–less than a Snicker’s bar. Walking for 1 hour burns about twice that–less than a Double Caramel Mochachino at Starbucks. You cannot substitute extra calories for exercise, as a treat for good behavior, and expect to lose weight.

In general, I do not allow myself to offset calories burned through exercise for additional food intake. To guard against this, I track my exercise at the end of the day, after I am done eating.

IMG_1614Principle 3: Mindfulness of food intake is important for weight loss. There is significant evidence that tracking your consumption reduces intake. Methods may include taking a photo of everything you eat, writing down all food in a log before eating, or tracking calories in a log or spreadsheet. Tracking your weight daily also improves mindfulness.

I use a free application for the iPhone called Lose It. It tracks food with each meal, shows me daily and weekly summaries, remembers what I entered previously, contains a database of common foods, and lets me enter custom foods. Lose It also sets goals and tracks your weight (the premium version, which I don’t own, does a better job of this.)

Principle 4: Balanced nutrition is important for health. For me a healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, plant protein (supplement), carbohydrates, and plenty of water. The allure of vegetables for weight loss is obvious: they are nutritious and tasteful while low in calories. The same can be said of chicken and some foods high in proteins (I won’t debate right now the health effects and social effects of animal consumption).

The allure of grains (rice, wheat, corn, soy) for social planners is equally obvious: they are cheap and high in calories. Although I differ with low carb diet plans, the rationale is obvious: carbs contain a lot of calories. The extent of this becomes obvious when you start tracking your calories.

My weight loss plan includes a daily calorie goal set by Lose It. In the last several weeks I have used it consistently and successfully. However, there is a downside: hunger. You have to push through the hunger, but over time it has gone down as my stomach size has adjusted. Many diets pretend to cheat hunger using psychological techniques. Substituting protein for carbohydrates probably helps, but too much may be dangerous for health. Other techniques may work, but most probably won’t, and they are generally not worth the price you pay.

Three times in the last three months I have created “cheat days” when I stop tracking my calories. This was due to burn out, fatigue, hunger, or simple inconvenience (i.e. a party). The occasional cheat day does not seem to have affected my weight loss schedule. Because of my smaller stomach or reduced appetite, my idea of binging is much smaller than it used to be.

Water on Mount Fuji

I realized in my previous post I neglected one topic: water.

Prior to the trip I believed it was better to bring up (and down) too much water than not enough.

I have changed my mind for two reasons. Water is heavy. And water or other liquids can easily be purchased along the route.

The two of us carried 2 x 2L bottled water, 2 x 1L bottles filtered tap-water, and 2 x 500mL bottles of amino water (tastes like a sports drink). This was a total of 3.5L per person.

We drank about 2.5L per person and returned with one of the 2L bottled water unopened. Cleaning up today I realized how much extra weight I carried around, and my shoulders felt it.

We found the amino water more refreshing and drinkable than the pure water. However, I would feel uncomfortable without some pure water. Most hikers can safely get away 2L per person. If you find you are consuming more, you can easily purchase more anywhere along the trail, including the summit.

However, be careful on the descent, because there are fewer shops along the descending trail.

Below is a non-Flash version of our experience.

Fuji-san Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station at EveryTrail

EveryTrail – Find hiking trails in California and beyond


Lessons Learned: Mt. Fuji August 3-4

My son and I successfully completed our hike up Mt. Fuji this weekend. After a day of recovery I am now ready to share a few pearls of wisdom.

Hiking in this location is more difficult than other hikes around Japan, due to a combination of a) steep incline, b) thin atmosphere, and c) slippery footing. The thin atmosphere can cause altitude sickness (高山病), which may include headaches and chest pains in heart and lungs. The cans of compressed oxygen are reported to help here, though i didn’t use one on either trip up Fuji-san. A bottle of ibuprofen or paracetamol should be carried for headaches.

The slippery footing does slow your walking speed and increases effort to climb. On the way down it can cause treacherous footwork and falls. I stumbled several times and fell once. I found it best to keep the knees bent and shift weight load to the hiking poles. The quads were very store a day later, however.

Fuji-san Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station

The hike mostly went according our revised plan. We needed about 6 hours to get from 5th Station (5合目) to 8th Station (8合目) Fujisan Hotel. We needed another 3 hours to the summit (頂上). Going up took longer than expected, but the descent took about 4.5 hours, as expected. You will be delayed by frequent rest breaks and traffic choke points at several points along the trails, particularly at the hotels and near the (non-free) restrooms. There are fewer choke points during the descent.

I originally planned for a one-day trip (日帰り). In retrospect this was unrealistic for an 11 year old. A hotel stay around stations 8 or 9 was very refreshing. I was impressed with the efficiency that Fujisan Hotel getting you in and out. The staff were helpful and friendly. I would avoid the meals, if possible.

Unless you really need to see the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji, I would avoid. This is the most heavily trafficked period on the mountain. We woke up at 1am to catch the sunrise, but I would have preferred to sleep in a few more hours and avoid the crowds. Similarly I would avoid the Subaru Line / Yoshida Route for the same reason. However, the Subashiri Route converges at 8.

The entire Fuji-san experience is much more crowded and commercialized now than I recall 15 years ago. There are frequent hotels and shops along the trail, including at the summit. These detract from the experience, because they are eyesores and because they create traffic choke points.

My son said insists he never wants to do that again. Unless my daughter demands company up her own Fuji-san hiking experience, I do not plan to do it again either. Twice is exactly once too many.


Climbing Mt. Fuji

Updated 7/25: My son and I are planning to climb Fuji-san late next week. I climbed once about 15 years ago. This time is for the kids (one of them anyway).

I thought I finished planning this morning, and I reserved the bus from Shinjuku, in a day trip that would get us home by midnight. However, further discussions have nixed these plans:

  • My son really wants to be on top to watch the sunrise.
  • My wife really wants us to stay on the Yoshida trail, which handles 65% of the summer traffic and has the most first-aid facilities.

We are tentatively planning to head to Kawaguchiko Station the evening of Thursday 8/2, find a place to stay nearby, sleep in late, and head up to station 5 (五合目) early Friday evening. We hike up at night, get some rest at or near the top, and watch the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji. We will arrive at Station 5 on Friday 8/3 around noon on the Keio Dentstsu Bus from Shinjuku. After getting some food and adjusting to altitude for 1-2 hours, we will head up to Station 8. We booked 2 spots at the Fujisan Hotel so we can rest for a few hours and, if necessary, escape the rain. Two hours before sunrise we will hike the remaining 1.5 hours to the peak.

If all goes well we will descend Saturday morning to Station 5 and catch the 11:00am bus to Shinjuku. We will be home by Saturday afternoon.

We are preparing at least the following:


  • Hiking boots
  • Rain gear
  • Gloves
  • Extra change of clothes


  • Walking poles (2 each)
  • Headlamps
  • Extra batteries
  • Water-resistant housing for the iPhone
  • iPhone charger (Eneloop)
  • Small can of compressed oxygen
  • Small towels


  • Clif Bars
  • Onigiri
  • Plenty of water
  • Amino acid jelly
  • Candy

Please let me know if you have any further advice or recommendations.

The faith (and doubts) of our fathers

The Economist’s December 17th article The faith (and doubts) of our fathers was the most nuanced and accurate an article on the subject as I have seen.

The “founding fathers” did not speak with one voice. I love this quote: “They did not spend their time producing pearls of unanimously agreed wisdom.” Their quarrels were as bitter as those today.

There was broad consensus for the federal government to be secular. In modern days this should be the natural reaction to non-secular, Islamist governments. Of the founders their broad-based revulsion of the fusion of religious and political power was epitomized by ancient monarchies.

Less understood now is this “wall of separation” (Jefferson’s words) applied only to the federal government. State and local governments continued to provide overt support and sponsorship of religious activities. This was the compromise that achieved such broad consensus. In a law of unintended consequences, the fight to continue slavery led to the demise of this compromise. Constitutional Amendment XIII, “Slavery and Involuntary Servitude” ratified December 6, 1865, reads:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

When several confederate states fought implementation with their own state constitutional amendments, Amendment XIV, “Rights Guaranteed: Privileges and Immunities of Citizenship, Due Process, and Equal Protection”, was ratified on July 9, 1968.

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Thus states were prevented from maintaining the firewall between racial slaves and the Bill of Rights. They were also forced to erect a “wall of separation” between state governments and religious institutions.

I don’t wish to argue whether this was right, and I am not qualified to argue the finer points of this wall of separation. It exists regardless of the intent of the founders. Some would have welcomed it, and many would have abhorred it.

The important point is this: the wall of separation was not created to protect atheists from fervent believers (or vice-versa). It protected religious believers from other religious believers. It prevented the sectarian violence that has plagued states that lack such protections. Please Google “sectarian violence” for numerous examples of this phenomenon.

It isn’t clear how much of modern-day US would decay into sectarian violence lacking these protections. What’s clear is we don’t want to find out. Religious belief in the US thrives like in no other modern democracy. That should be good enough.