Of Mars and the Moon

I dreamed I was part of a mission to Mars.

Long, flowing landscapes of golden orange, grey, and tiny slivers of silver and blue.

I wanted to walk for days, for months, turning over stones, peeking beneath every ledge, peering into the deep valleys. I was as intersted in the shadows as I was the sunlit scapes and dunes.

I was the crew photographer, but reprimanded for not taking quality photos.

Too soon, we had to leave.

We stopped at the Moon on the return to Earth. Cold, barren, drab in contrast to Mars.

We stayed only for an afternoon.

I brought my lenses, but left the camera behind.

The adventure of a lifetime, come and gone.

The Run

Morning fog mixes with city pollution, the heavy haze filters the sun through white and brown.

Eager surfers wade into shallow water, others stretch, meditate, and welcome the sun.

A woman who each morning wears only a one-piece suit, no matter the weather, has already finished her routine swim.

Car park attendees tote florescent yellow striped vests over three layers of winter garb, waiting simultaneously for the heat of the sun and for the first patrons to arrive. Mercedes, BMW, Toyota and Ford. For me, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, this is a warm day spring day in Colorado.

On the beach, my bare feet press into the soft sand where the high tide delivered seaweed and shells hours before. Poorly paid employees of an unseen entity will labour in dress shoes and slacks to remove the undesirable debris.

I bend forward, barely able to reach my ankles, let alone toes. I welcome the pain that cascades through muscle in my back, shoulders, and lower legs. Heavy eyelids yet sleeping are flushed of excess blood, made lighter and more awake.

I commit to a half dozen simple moves borrowed from yoga, wondering if those who never stretch feel more or less ready for the run. As though my arms grew longer, or my legs less, I reach my toes, even press fingers into the sand.

In response to an invisible gun, I turn East and run.

Quick, light strides. The cool breeze at my back, my chest is a sail.

The front of my feet displace the quartz crystals, heels seldom leaving a mark. Head up, shoulders back, chest out. I look forward and around, the view compelling.

To my right the waves tumble over one another, competing to reach the shore. A half dozen attempts and then one spills over the others and well past where they had arrived before.

Feet, ankles, and lower legs now wet with salt tell me if the current comes from East or West, the temperature this day relatively warm.

I reach the first estuary outlet. Surface ripples the colour of tea reflect its depth. Soft waves of sand mirror those on the surface, the water only knee deep this time. I recall stream crossings in Colorado, Alaska, and Washington State, face upstream, and shuffle side to side to keep my balance.

Picking my way through the sharp shells deposited for a dozen meters on the other side, I again drop into my runner’s pace. Hard packed sand gives rebound to my mass for as much as it softens my stride.

The path before me is the one I have taken many times, and yet it is rebuilt twice with each orbit of the Moon around the Earth. I feel selfish, the labour of unseen hands prepare for me a totally new route for every run.

Perhaps someone will notice I have not renewed my membership to this facility, yet this morning I am unchallenged by those who claim payment due. Another kind of runner yet lies dormant in narcotic slumber.

Nearly four kilometres finds me at the second estuary outlet, a deeper, wider channel I have not yet attempted to cross. Its odour is strong, deep red from the natural oils of the local fauna or pollution I do not know.

I pause to enjoy the way in which the dunes have been reshaped over and over again. What was a meter high wall of sand just at the ocean’s edge is now a hundred meters wide, sickle shaped inlet whose serpentine channel moves brackish water in both directions.

Turning, I scan the dunes for potential confrontation, lean forward and begin the return. Conscious of my form, I open and close my hands, roll my shoulders, and make arcs with my arms. When my feet grow weary, heels again contacting sand, I emphasize the arc of my legs, draw knees higher, and increase my gate.

After the water crossing I am but several hundred meters from the bath house. More surfers have arrived. Instructors in pink and blue shirts over wet suits lead students to beach-side instruction. Lying on their belly they practice strokes.

I learn forward to pick up my pace, nearly double what was. Two hundred meters later I shift to my highest gear, pumping arms at my sides with knife blade hands slicing air. Bare feet force water to spray which soaks my shorts and lower shirt. Tender skin warms on the bottom of my feet. My lungs are pleased to meet the challenge and inhale larger, rhythmic volumes of moist atmosphere. My concerns for the day vanish as I am momentarily given the freedom of flight.

As the water moves from left to right, forward and back, the apparent speed at which I fly doubles then stalls and resumes.

Homeless men and women who have just finished bathing stop to look as I drop back to a jog just shy of their morning, temprary abode. I consider the luxury I have in my health and time to afford such a thing, knowing a warm shower awaits me behind locked door, key, and dry room.

The Dire State of GNOME

Tonight, I concluded the installation and configuration of Ubuntu 14.04, my first major upgrade since 10.04 in February 2011. I remain reluctant for major upgrades due to exactly what unfolded, a quagmire of manipulation of what was once a series of simple routines conducted entirely by user-friendly graphical interfaces or through automated services.

The default Unity desktop, while functional, is not in my experience designed for a workstation. If I wanted the look and feel of a tablet, I would not be using a laptop. In the following I share the procedures required, with the fair warning that even now, much of the basic functionality of 10.04 is yet missing or non-functional.

  1. Replace the Unity theme with a classic theme.

    Using the Ubuntu Software Center, install “GNOME Flashback” Window Manager. As of the time of this writing, there are 2 names for the same package presented in the Software Center. Either will work.

  2. Configure the Desktop panels to your liking (ALT-right-click for options).
  3. Modify the Applications menu (using the built-in Main Menu editor).

    If you move menu item from one sub-menu to another, unfortunately you cannot simply drag-n-drop. You must create a new button in the desired location. To do this, you must copy and paste the name and command line argument which launches that application. If you desire for the icon to match, navigate to /user/share/icons/Humanity/apps/48/ and locate the icon associated with that app (the one which matches the original).

  4. Fix the Places menu to open a file browser instead of Baobab Disk Analyzer.

    Seems to be the fault of the Flashback theme as it opens properly prior to installing this theme. Follow the directions provided at askubuntu.com:

    [as sudo or root] xdg-mime default nautilus.desktop inode/directory [ENTER]

  5. Customize the Places menu.

    Follow the directions provided at choorucode.com

    As your user, edit /home/[user]/.config/user-dirs.dirs but keeping the file format exactly as is presented. You may add or remove links to your preferred directories. However, I have had limited success in that I am unable to get a direct path to function. Therefore, I created a sym link (ln -s /[path]/ [link_name]) in my /home/[user]/ directory and then use this as the mount point for this configuration file. It seems very hit / miss. Certainly not robust nor straight-forward as it used to be in previous versions of Gnome.

  6. Add widgets and applications to the panel.

    Again, this is not nearly as simple as it once was in previous, far more user-friendly versions of Gnome. No longer can you simply right-click, but must add the ALT key. Widgets are simple to add, and applications which already reside in the Applications menu will add with relative ease. This is the only part of this entire experience that remains functional without invocation of the command line.

  7. Invoke auto-start for all applications which you desire to have running when you first log-in.

    Follow the directions provided at askubuntu.com The problem is that this does NOT take into consideration those applications which were running when you logged out. Again, this used to work perfectly in prior versions of Gnome, but for some reason this ideal functionality was removed. This article explains how to reinstate this functionality, but it assumes you have a full GNOME installation in order to have both gnome-session and the gconf-editor installed.

  8. Every time I restart, my desktop shrinks to a quarter of its full 1080×1920 size, moving all desktop items outside of that reduced space. I must re-select the background image to resize the desktop and then manually replace the desktop items. I have not found a solution to this.
  9. Every time I restart, I must manually place each application on its preferred desktop. I am hoping the installation of the full GNOME suite will resolve this (as mentioned above).

As the former CEO and developer of Yellow Dog Linux, I am disappointed. Ten years ago we delivered an operating system which was far more user friendly, more intelligently designed, with a far greater offering of time saving functionality and options for personal customisation. When I first switched to Ubuntu in early 2011, my last YDL PowerPC on its final legs, I was pleased by the dynamic design of the user interface, from install to log-out. Ubuntu 10.04 was a well crafted system with only a few, minor flaws.

My concern with Unity is less with the aesthetics of the interface, rather with the over-simplification of what appears to be an attempt to match the experience of a hybrid of Apple’s OSX and iOS. This is a total disregard for the ways in which a laptop or workstation is not a tablet. I choose Linux because it (use to) offer the ability to customize the means by which I use my computer.

Simple functionality that placed Ubuntu above OSX is simply missing. For instance, there is no reason that any user of any age, experience, or computer background would NOT desire to have an application relaunch on the same desktop, the same location as when it was last used. Removing the ability to modify menus is beyond frustrating, sending us back nearly a decade in desktop functionality. I have not spent this much time at the command line since the very early days of Yellow Dog Linux when the graphical installer was a revolution in Linux OS deployment and playing movies was worthy of a press release.

It saddens me to see that Ubuntu is following Apple’s lead in assuming the general userbase is growing less capable instead of moreso. When you spend 10, 12, 14 hrs a day engrossed in your computer, to have it custom tailored to your needs enables it to become an extension of you. Comfortable, quick to respond are the signatures of a positive OS experience. Replacing the desktop image does not constitute customizability, especially when that image must be reset with each and ever log-in.

QA anyone?!

The Haves and the Have-Nots

Today was my second day back in South Africa. I woke at 5:30 am and by 6:30 was on my way to the Office of Home Affairs. Two and a half hours later, the line only one hour long, I learned my visa remains unprocessed after some three months. I now have the email address of a clerk who promises to do her best to resolve this less than ideal situation.

I came back to Muizenberg, caught up on email, two hours sleep, and then a run on the beach before returning to Cape Town for dinner with classmate and master cook Nav, Bruce and his wife Linda, and the TEDx AIMS cast and crew.

It felt good to again be barefoot on the beach, splashing in the now frigid water. My usual round-trip of seven and half kilometers was the ideal distance to wake me up and wear me down.

On the run from the beach front to the second fresh water inlet, four guys, higher up on the sand called to me, “Sir. Sir.” I assumed they wanted to sell something and ignored them the first half dozen times. “Sir!” one yelled louder. I turned and he asked for the time. I pulled up my sleeves to reveal that I was not wearing a watch, shrugged, and said I didn’t know. Annoyed, I continued my run.

At the second river mouth, where fresh water meets the salty sea, I stopped to stretch and admire the many ways in which the water and wind had redesigned the sand since my last run more than one month prior.

An abrupt, one and a half meter cliff now stood where before there was only a gently rolling dune with sparse vegetation. The face had crumbled and remained unstable. I admired the work of water, gravity, and time.

Across the deep, heavy flow of the river were over one hundred sea gulls. One dropped something from its beak. Upon hitting the sand, two other gulls pecked at whatever it was that was dropped, but also found it of no interest.

I was pleased to be running again with legs that were without complaint and lungs that felt no pain after a month of limited physical exercise. I turned into the wind and started back, my feet dipping in and out of the water as the waves spilled across the sand in varied depths.

Just ten minutes into my return run, I noted on the horizon a runner coming toward me. I had just caught the reflection of a broken bottle, which is rare on this beach, and discarded it higher on the dune. When I came back down to the shore, I recognised the familiar outline of Adriaan, a tutor at AIMS, climber, and soft-spoken friend.

We had exchanged a text message earlier in the day, my announcing my return. I was pleased to find him on the beach, also barefoot and running.

We talked for a brief moment, turned to run together back to the second river, and then again ‘about for the home stretch. A few minutes in, the same four guys came toward us, again calling out, “Hey! Wait a minute!” I thought, What do they want this time?

It happened quickly, without time to consider what was unfolding. At first, all four were to our right, just a few meters up the beach. Then they broke into sets of two, and quickly approached me and Adriaan, arms out-stretched, grabbing.

We were being jumped.

They reached for Adriaan first, trying to hold him. One approached me and my heart raced. Everything I had visualized I would do in a situation like this, given that most everyone I know in this country has been mugged once or twice, fell away as adrenaline took flight.

None of my training in martial arts some twenty five years earlier mattered, no quick index finger to the throat, no sand in the eyes, no destabilising nor using their weight to my advantage. Nothing but an open brawl unfolded, one on me and two on Adriaan. The taller of the four remained at a distance, holding something in his hands.

I recalled an image of my life long friend and mentor Ron Spomer when he and I were cycling around the foothills of Moscow, Idaho. To the front of a small farm house a large dog barrelled from the porch, across the yard, through the gate and to our bikes. Ron immediately braked, jumped off his bike, his shorts, grey hiking socks, running shoes and pocket knife as his side fixed in my memory. He yelled and waved his arms charging directly at the snarling, barking animal. It turned, made itself small, and ran back into the yard. I was in disbelief at what I had just seen, my own heart yet pounding. Ron laughed as he climbed back onto his bike, saying “Kaister, you just gotta show ‘em you’re not afraid.”

I screaming what came to my mouth, making a stand and at the same time boosting my own confidence as Ron had done.

“What the fuck?! You want to fight?!” Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, no plan at all. It was the adrenaline yelling, my body along for the ride. The one closest, directly in front of me stopped circling for just a moment. He hesitated and turned and that was all I needed to see that I could invoke fear in him too.

“Come on! LET’S DO THIS! C-O-M-E O-N!” I screamed louder.

I hit him square in the face and he was caught off-guard, taking a few steps back. I turned, looking for Adriaan who was holding off his attacker knee deep in the cold water. I took a half dozen steps through the water toward him and turned my attention to his attacker. He faced me and I swung a few times, connecting with his arms. I swung again and again, over and over in order to not give him ample time to get into my space.

It’s funny what happens at times like this. The brain freezes frames in this live-action animation, analyzes them, and spits out strange ideas. I remember thinking his arms were really skinny, and his eyes really wide. I recall my fear of being hit, knowing full well that contrary to the movies one hit to the nose and I would not be able to see; to the temple and I could black out in the water. I knew to avoid grappling at all costs, for that is where knives took form and only experienced wrestlers would win.

Out of the corner of my eye the taller of the four held something in his hands, over his head, ready to throw. I never saw what he held nor did he throw it. A stone? A log? Later, Adriaan said one had a knife, but I am not certain who.

Adriaan moved out of the water, and out of my sight. I continued to engaged in a dance with same attacker to my front. He attempted to hit me, but never connected. I hit his face once or twice and he complained, surprised. The distance was too great to cause any harm. My intent was just to get the hell out of this mess.

Then I turned and saw Adriaan up on the beach, on his knees with hands in the air. The taller of three stood watch while the remaining two moved into check for valuables on his person. That’s all they wanted, money or a watch or cell phone.

I yelled to them, keeping an eye on the attacker who was to my rear as he worked his way up on the beach to join the others, “You fucking idiots! We don’t have anything! All of this for what?! –NOTHING!”

I felt horrible for I had failed to remain close to Adriaan. When I ran toward them, yelling again, they stood to face me. Adriaan wrestled free and got away, looking over his shoulder to see if they would pursue.

He arrived to my location and the four of them moved up and over the dunes as we turned to run back toward Muizenberg. I asked Adriaan if he was ok. He confirmed, as did I. We were lucky these guys were total amateurs, and we knew it.

This story is not about fighting. I am not bragging by any means, for anything I learned about self defense was forgotten a long time ago. Even then, in the late ’80s, I was not able to do anything more than duck, dodge, and throw a few punches if I had to.

I abhor violence. The older I grow, the less I am able to tolerate violence in the media, film, even conversation. I walk away from discussion about wielding guns to resolve a confrontation (a common topic in the U.S.). I don’t want violence in my body nor in my mind for it lingers like a nightmare that was all too real.

I know that what unfolded today was but a simple, unsuccessful mugging. The violence I have experienced in my life is nothing compared to that of children who grow up with abusive parents, of that which my adopted children Lindah and Bernard witnessed in and around their orphanage in the slums of Nakuru, Kenya; or those who live in Guatemala, Syria, or the Congo.

I call one of the safest countries in the world home. I spent my formative years in the Mid West without concern for sleeping at night, without concern for walking to school alone, nor even the need to lock doors. But given how I feel inside, how much it has affected me this day and for many to come, I cannot help but wonder if the American culture does not celebrate violence for the very lack of it in our personal lives, a kind of tease to a dance that no one really wants to learn.

How many of us have faced someone at arms length, their face contorted, their fists intent to harm? It is not the same as a video game, I assure you. It is not like watching a movie. The last time I experienced this was in Chicago. I was 18 years old and a “24/7″ with the Guardian Angels citizen crime fighting organisation. We were posted in a transitional neighbourhood, working to drive the drug dealers and gangs out. A dozen men poured out of a local bar with weight lifter’s belts and wooden broom sticks, intent upon severely injuring each and every one of us.

To this day I yet remember the smell of my own fear, the sound of their voices as they threatened our lives, the crunching of gravel beneath my feet as I ran down the alley leaving my patrol members behind. We scattered. Sergei, the smallest of our patrol, fought until they beat him down and sent him to the hospital. To this day I regret leaving him behind.

Adriaan and I found three police officers where they always park, beneath the end of the boardwalk. Two were relatively uninterested, the third asked that we file a report. Apparently, there had been similar muggings for the past week on that stretch of beach. If they catch the muggers, they need a history to prosecute against. I will file mine in the morning.

Adriaan crossed under the boardwalk to return to his home. I sprinted the final few hundred meters, ankle deep in the water, fresh spray soaking what remained dry of my shirt and jacket. It was all I could do to not break down during the run back. My body was filled with adrenaline and pain. Not the pain of a bruised temple or cheek, but the pain of recognising that inside of me is a fury which can be activated too easily.

This will likely happen to me again, maybe a few times over the next two years as muggings are common in Cape Town as they once were in New York City, anywhere the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is glaring, a kind of demand for improved resource allocation.

Yet, this does not define Muizenberg nor does it change my enthusiasm for living here. Most everyone here has a similar story, under various circumstances.

Even now, I desire to find these guys, to capture their story on film. I want to know their names, how much money they make a week selling stolen items, and how they justify their actions. If I or Adriaan had been injured I may feel different, but at this moment their story needs to be heard for the situation to change, for everyone.

“A Telescope Opens the Mind to a Larger World”

“A Telescope Opens the Mind to a Larger World”
TEDx Frontrange, Loveland, Colorado
22 May 2014

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 In April of last year I was in rural Tanzania, working on a documentary film about Astronomy and how it instills a passion for science.

 

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 I was fortunate to meet Chuck from the US and Mponda from Tanzania at a secondary school outside of Arusha. Through the organization Telescopes to Tanzania, they introduce hands-on science education to the classroom.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Following an interview with several students and teachers, a young learner Catherine said, “Sir, may I ask you a few questions?”

I had just risen from my chair to break down my camera and tripod, and seated myself again, “Yes, of course.”

Catherine asked “Is it true, … that we live outside the Earth and not in it?”

I smiled, turning to the window, to the sun and clouds of the pending storm as assurance we were not underground. But Catherine was quite serious. Mponda, who was seated to my left, nodded, saying, “This is a serious question. You need to answer it.”

I said, “I apologize. Please, ask your question again.”

She made the shape of a ball with her hands and asked, “Do we live on top of the ball or inside it?”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Then I realized, and I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry–she believed we live inside a celestial sphere–an ancient concept in which the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars are all traversed in one ore more spheres made of an unknown substance, the entire universe contained in a very small ball.

I confirmed that we do in fact live “on the ball” and that the Earth is in orbit around the sun, and that our sun orbits the center of our galaxy. She nodded, showing obvious relief and then went on to ask questions about how we predict the weather and if she could learn to be an airplane pilot.

Catherine had looked through a telescope just one month earlier, and it had got her thinking, asking questions. Now, she was craving more.

Now, I assumed she had missed a few lectures, or was not paying attention in class.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 I later interviewed a geography teacher who having looked through a telescope for the first time a year earlier, saw the moons of Jupiter in the eyepiece. He recognized that they were in orbit, like the Earth around the Sun. It was then that he realized we live outside of the Earth, not inside it.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 He sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, “I see now that the other planets move around our Sun too, and our Sun orbits around the center of our galaxy. The galaxies,” he laughed the laugh of one who is about to say something profound, “there are so many galaxies we can’t even count them all,” he continued, “It makes me realize how very small we are.”

The phrase, “I see how small we really are,” was repeated over and over again by those I interviewed during the making of this film.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Elvirdo, a secondary learner in South Africa shared, “At first I thought that the Moon was inventing its own light. Then I learned the Moon is an object which reflects light and I wondered, where does this light come from?”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Willie, a retired psychologist and astronomer in upstate New York expressed, “The kids were blown away by what they could see through the telescope. If that can kindle some interest in science, then we have really done something.”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Laure, a French PhD Astronomer at UCT shared, “Unlike a microscope which helps us look to the parts of which we are made, a telescope helps us see something much bigger, the greater universe of which we are a part.”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Why does any of this matter?

We wake up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, drive to school or the office. Eight hours later we head to the gym or return home again, eat dinner, catch-up on Facebook and watch a few videos on YouTube. Day after day, week after week, year after year, we do this over and over again.

Knowing how the Universe was formed 13.5 billions years ago does not change the fact that our phone bills are due and taxes must be paid by April 15.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Let’s consider that right here, at the edge of this stage the earth just stopped. If I take one more step, I will drop off and never come back. What if beyond the western slope of the Rocky Mountains or off the coast of California there was a drop from which you would never return.

That world is filled with fear.

What if our entire world was in fact contained within a crystalline ball beyond which we could never travel? How would the stories we tell our children differ? What would be our hope for the future?

Fortunately, the work of Galileo, Haley and Newton proved the Earth is not contained within a celestial sphere, and that indeed, we are very small.

Astronomy is unique in that it engages all of the other sciences.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 When we look through a telescope we engage engineering and physics for what we see and how we see it. Telescopes make use of some of the most advanced technology on the planet.
 

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 When we look to our closest neighbor Mars we see polar caps and massive dust storms; what we believe to be ancient river beds and deep, carved canyons. Geology helps us understand what may have happened there based upon what we know happened here, on Earth.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 We look to the light of distant stars shining through nebulae and recognize the chemical signature of the elements we have here on Earth.

Did you know that ten years ago we sent a spacecraft through the tail of a comet and discovered an amino acid. To date, we have discovered more than 1800 planets in orbit around distant stars. We are able to analyze their atmospheres for chemical composition and average temperature.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Now, we are talking about biology and the potential that life is not unique to our home planet. In fact, it may not even have originated here at all!

There are an estimated 11 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, and more than 100 billion galaxies in this universe. It is impossible to have this discussion without discussing philosophy.

I want to share with you a short segment of the film which inspired this story.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 To be clear, a lack of understanding for our place in the cosmos is not unique to sub-Saharan Africa or those in under privileged school systems, but around the world with the highly educated too.
 

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 In your lifetime, we will become an interplanetary species, living, working, even reproducing on the planet Mars. This journey started 400 years ago with a very simple instrument.
 

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 I encourage you to make time to look through a telescope, and then embrace those conversations that unfold.

Thank you.

Humbled by the Waves

Enjoyed an apartment-warming lunch with a few of my classmates today: Lise, Michelle and her husband (my tutor) Emile, and Adriaan and Huly from AIMSEC.

Then I went surfing—and got my ass handed to me on a salty platter. Beat up. Smacked by my board. Smacked by the waves. Tumbled to the point of confusion. Just when I thought I was figuring it out, I could not even stand up. Bigger, faster than anything I had been in before, and I was once more a beginner.

I came into the beach, watching the experts, contemplating my ineptitude when my surfing instructor William walked up. He has beach blonde hair, dark skin, and bright blue eyes that seem to glow of their own accord. He is a prankster who loves a good story, shared or received. “Mister Kai! How are you today?” His whimsical, Afrikaans accent mixed with a jovial attitude always makes me smile.

I responded, “I fear I have forgotten everything you have taught me.”

“Young man, just what seems to be the problem?” He loves to taunt me with ‘young man’ to which I respond with ‘sir’ and the cycle continues.

I explained where I was failing. On the beach, he drew diagrams in the sand and walked me through a few adjustments in my stance, position on the board, and means of getting out, through the waves.

He had a free hour so we got back in the water and I followed him out, to the back line. I was exhausted, my arms without feeling. I got tossed, smacked, and tumbled. I paddled for fifteen minutes, maybe more. It was the fact that he did not wait for me, but sat comfortably on his board, always 30 meters ahead of me, waving, that I kept going. Later, he admitted to this tactic, and laughed.

William said, “Mister Kai! It’s time to stop drinking the Appleteiser and drink beer with the boys! You made it to the backline for the first time. Congratulations!” He shook my hand, both of us sitting on our boards a good 200 meters off-shore. I thought I was going to lose my lunch.

After a few minutes rest, I caught a wave (just barely) and rode it half way in. One of the seasoned pros rode a dozen waves to my one, flipping 360 over and over again on the crest. I went back out again, just once more, and then I was done. I rode a wave to shore, resting on my belly. I never tire of the sensation of flying over the water, a light mist spraying my face. The power of the water can destroy you, or carry you with a sense of grace.

Tactics for Productivity in a Distracting World

1) Exercise for at least 30 minutes each morning. This induces an increased metabolism, oxygenation of blood, focus and creative output for up to four hours.

2) Drink (a lot of) water, juice, or tea. Low sugar content. No caffeine if you can help it.

3) Have within your reach, readily available, low-calorie snack foods you can eat all day (unflavored popcorn, low-carb crackers (digestives), grapes, apple slices, etc.).

4) Turn off Facebook, Twitter, and email. Work off-line as much as possible. Sketch with a pen or pencil as much as your work will allow. Experiment with various forms of music to learn which ones support reading, research, writing, math, art, and organization / composition / publication.

5) Get up and move every 20-30 minutes. Walk around the room. Look out the window. Run a flight of stairs–unless you are in a really good grove–then keep going!

6) Switch locations when all focus is gone. Find a couch and curl up with your laptop. Head to a cafe. Sit on the beach with your notebook. Anything to bring a positive outlook back to your work paradigm.

7) If frustration / anger enter the game, do physical exercise which invokes limited pain to relieve the angst: yoga stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups on door jams–until the frustration is simply worn out.

8) Choose from your list of tasks based upon how you feel, what looks interesting. If you force yourself to do something that does not feel right, chances are it will not get done no matter how hard you try. In the end, you’ll beat yourself up for not doing it, only adding to the downward spiral. Embrace what you can do, what your brilliant mind is capable of in that moment, and build patterns of self-praise in order to build capacity for total, quality, creative output and subsequent joy.

9) Choose activities after work / outside of school which support a strong, focused start the next day. Each and every day is just too damn important to waste a single morning, afternoon or night not fully engaged. Personally, no social activity is worth the loss of even an hour of the next day for that could be THE day in which I write my best poem or make a cognitive leap toward the end goal of my research … or invent something that truly helps humanity. Why take the risk that I may miss that opportunity?

10) Give yourself permission to just walk away. It is sometimes better to not push through a period of total distraction or lack of focus, but to embrace that part of your day as available for something totally new. Go for a swim, a run, or to your favourite cafe. Go home early, take a hot bath, watch a movie, bake a batch of cookies or fresh bread. You’ll have a fresh start the next day, clean and clear and ready to dive in again.

Kalk Bay, a Photo Essay

Kai Staats: Girl on Sandstone, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Father and Son, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Woman Selling Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa
Kai Staats: Day at the Beach Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Wedding Procession, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Day at the Tide Pools Kalk Bay, South Africa IMG_2507 Kai Staats: Ice Cream, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Bottle, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Captain and Deck Hand, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Boat, Kalk Bay, South Africa
Kai Staats: Day at the Beach, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Kids, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Day at the Tide Pools Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Day at the Beach, Kalk Bay, South Africa

Kai Staats: Day at the Beach, Kalk Bay, South Africa The intensity of the sun and nearly silent wind inspires locals and tourists to this seaside town for what may be one of the last warm days of autumn. Shop owners stand by the front door, encouraging passers-by to venture inside for a drink, lunch, or a look around. Homeless kids welcome those with full stomach back onto the streets, asking for something to warm their insides in turn. Some simply point to their belly, their face and gestures needing no words. Others rattle sand and pebbles in an empty soda bottle, singing “Oh when the saints go marching in” out of tune and a few stanzas confused. Like fish in the sea, when one received food, the others swarm, begging, sometimes taking without asking from their friends.

The closest beach to downtown lies below the arch supported train bridge, at the bottom of the marina. That day the beach was used primarily by blacks and coloureds. A white man walked across the top, just behind me and to the left, saying “I don’t understand Why they don’t erect a fence, to keep those kids out. Just look at them.” Tents and umbrellas sheltered parents who keep careful watch over their children a play. Chicken and burgers grill over open coal fires, the smell of a meal in preparation enough to call those who wade play to shallower water. A seal breaches just off shore, a child laughs and tries to splash it. Too late, for the seal submerges again, releasing its breath an incredible distance from where it was last spotted.

Kai Staats: Seal, Kalk Bay, South Africa I stood from my kneeling position after taking a photo of a girl sitting among the sandstone formations (above) when a man with two small girls approached me. He asked for two or three minutes of my time. I assumed he would soon ask for money, the children a ploy. I didn’t mind the conversation, so I invited him to continue as we walked together, his young girls running forward and then waiting, criss-crossing between our legs once we caught up with them again.

He asked if there was money to be made in photography. “No,” I answered honestly, “it is far, far too hard a business to break into. I would not recommend it to anyone at this time. Too many people with high quality cameras, even if they are not the best photographers, they make it work.”

He continued, sharing his vision for a photography exhibition which tells the story of his people, the Malay, who were brought to this continent as slaves more than two hundred years ago. We continued to walk and I was engaged. I kept waiting for his request for money, but it never came. I asked questions. He shared. I learned a great deal. He was direct and well informed, his historic research impressive, to me.

I recognized the coincidence, that he should have approached me, one who is always seeking this very kind of story. As we neared the end of the beach I explained that I am documentary film maker and am interested in continuing the conversation. We exchanged contact information. I encouraged him to record his story in the coming weeks in order that we might prepare a rough script.

I then asked why he approached me. He answered, “I watched you, how you photographed. You took your time … that’s all.” Perhaps the story of his people displaced will generate something more far reaching than what he intended when he approached me. We’ll see …

Bringing Mars Rover Design Down to Earth

As published by Space.com
January 29, 2014

Kai Staats, documentary filmmaker and member of the MarsCrew134 team, contributed this article to SPACE.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I recall the first time I stepped into the red coveralls, pulled on the backpack, and with the help of a crew mate, closed the acrylic dome over my head to become part of MarsCrew134. Immediately, the sensation of a real expedition on the Martian terrain was suddenly made real. I could hear my own breathing, the cool air blowing across my face inside my helmet. The sound of those around me in the staging area was muffled and difficult to understand. Once outside, the glare of the Utah desert sun refracted in the scratches of the helmet’s visor, which has seen many Crews come and go over the years.

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is the second simulated Mars surface exploration habitat and analog research station, owned and operated by the Mars Society. Pioneered by Mars Society member Shannon Rupert, the society built MDRS outside of Hanksville, Utah, in the early 2000s.

NASA had used analogs for decades as a means of conducting research, testing equipment and conducting food and psychological tests to both improve methods of space travel and train astronauts — MDRS built upon that experience. In the years since Rupert envisioned the station, she has always remained fully engaged. Run entirely by a volunteer staff, it is a major endeavor, from managing the water supply, fuel, food, plumbing and generators to staffing a daily Mission Control from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. every night. Each MDRS team delivers no less than 27 reports each day, measuring water consumption and fuel, and providing engineering, medical, and greenhouse updates.

When in the field, I knew the hardware we wore only moved outside air into our lungs — there was nothing but a mechanical connection between the helmet and the modest, home-built suits, worn and in need of repair. Yet, there was a certain excitement, an anticipation of the first, mock, extra-vehicular activity (EVA) of the day, which was amplified by the effort required to open the station’s airlock door.

I helped Ewan Reid, a Canadian electrical engineer, roboticist and member of MarsCrew134 configure the carrying deck of the RoadNarrows Kuon rover: a prototype, large-scale, multipurpose, wheeled, payload platform. The rover carried our payload, a laptop coupled with a pair of cameras that provide stereo vision for terrain mapping. Quarter-twenty bolts, zip-ties with mounting-holes, and kite string serve as mounting points and tie-downs for a machine capable of moving four hundred pounds at twenty miles per hour. [Mock Mars Mission Photos: Life on a Simulated Red Planet ]

My gloves were thick (by design), making the use of any tools smaller than a hammer tricky — and tying knots in multi-strand, nylon cord nearly impossible. In our field excursion, the helmet visor fogged over and I was forced to wait for it to clear before completing the modification. We required more than one hour for what would have been fifteen minutes effort in a proper lab, or even a field exercise in which we were not wearing thick, simulated spacesuit gloves.

We powered on the rover, remote laptop and Xbox360 controller that served as the remote control for the rover, and … nothing. The Linux application which controls the rover provided by RoadNarrows yielded the proper response, echoing on-screen our controller key presses in succession, but the rover remained immobile.

Through hand radios, our stand-in for the remote communications that will be available to astronauts on Mars, Ewan and I discussed what we believed to be the cause of this lack of communication. We moved from hardware to operating system to application to driver, trying to determine the point of failure.

After a power cycle of both the hand-held laptop and the rover, the two hundred and seventy pound wheeled platform lurched forward with power to tow a truck (as RoadNarrows has demonstrated in the alley behind their Colorado shop). For safety, it is important to not stand near either end of this machine, for its shell is metal and wheels are designed to crawl over rough terrain.

The rover spun, hesitated and lurched forward with the push of the Xbox joystick, and then — nothing. No response, even after two power cycles. The harsh shadows of the setting sun alerted us to the little time remaining in the day, another come and gone too quickly on a simulated Mars.

Once inside the MDRS habitat — where we live, work, eat, and sleep — we communicated via email with RoadNarrows to learn the source of what is likely a wi-fi override, two devices fighting within the same frequency domain. The company instructed us on how to access the settings via the rover’s self-hosted website (the rover has its own on-board web interface), and we knew the next day we should be ready for a proper, long-range, terrain-mapping excursion.

This is field testing, where all solid systems break down and the real world steps in. This is why we are here. We cannot simply pick up our cell phones to call for assistance when there is a problem. We do not carry network-enabled tablets, nor can we overnight a part from Amazon. Outside of analogs in the polar regions, this is as real as it gets.

After the excursion, Reid and I manually rolled the rover back to its parking spot outside the green habitat and returned to the airlock, toolbox and laptops in hand. Twenty minutes later, the entire crew was walking around in indoor slippers, light shoes and flip-flops, greeting each other to learn about research and plans for the evening.

This is not faked. This is not a scripted story. This is not pretend. Each and every day we engage in real research with real challenges. Each day we learn something through our own projects, and through those of our colleagues.

The Mars Desert Research Station may be an analog, but it generates an opportunity for learning like few others on Earth … until we someday arrive at Mars.

To learn more about MarsCrew134, visit www.marscrew134.org.

The Memory of Silence

Tonight will be my very last night here at Buffalo Peak Ranch. This place has given me six months of peace, solitude, and healing. I have found what feels like who I truly am for the first time in my adult life. Such comfort with being me. Amazing.

There was a time when the entire planet was like this place, free from noise and congestion. Just fifty years ago we did not have the constant buzz of aircraft overhead. One hundred heard only sound of horses and wooden wheels. Two hundred, just five or six generations and we were not even to the Industrial Revolution.

Now, there are only a few places remaining on this globe which are free of human clutter. Audible, physical, tangible infiltration of every sense during our entire life, from first breath to last gasp.

We even have cliche terms such as “tune out” to pretend this noise is acceptable. I have failed to find the switch inside which disables the long term detriment to my soul. I now know, I have solid evidence that nothing, no amount of meditation or insulated walls or power vacations will ever replace the healing of nearly two hundred days and nights of perfect, natural silence.

I hope only that I am able to maintain this sense of solitude and peace inside, no matter where I travel. No matter the traffic, the rumble, the sirens, the tension in the density of viral human populations on this planet–I hope I will recall what it meant to watch the sun set and hear those sounds which never ever tire–the wind, the fall of rain, the occasional bugle of the elk and nightly call of the coyotes–the perfection of absolutely nothing.