Kai Staats: writing

From the Road

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The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Everyone desires a safe space, a home base, a place to return to when everything else in life is unsettled. For some, this is a certain room in the family home. For others, a timeshare overlooking the waterfront in a far-away town tourists have not yet discovered. Some travel to the cities while others escape, seeking something a little less whelming.

I too have my safe places. Buffalo Peak Ranch in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, our family farm in rural Iowa, and Sutherland, South Africa. This past week I was given the opportunity to return to the South African Astronomical Observatory. The drive from Cape Town to the Sutherland site is, no matter how many times you have made the journey, an adventure, a flight through space and time despite the confines of this planet’s gravity.

Those at the point of departure provide assistance in loading your travel bags and wish you well. Upon arrival, the guest house staff greet you by name, no matter how long since your last visit, and provide the keys to your dormitory. With hushed voices and careful motion we unpack and settle in, for the astronomers are yet sleeping. As with African game preserves where human visitors peer out from protective blinds to watch the animal world unfold, astronomers use telescopes to watch the cosmos evolve, to observe both the mundane and the most spectacular stellar shows.

Those areas in the world in which dark night skies yet exist are a kind of sanctuary, a place where we are reminded of what it means to be inspired. From our unique vantage point in this cosmic wilderness blind, we see new-born stars, middle-aged nobles, and ancient giants intermixed with nebulae, supernova, and massive black holes. To witness one rapidly rotating, small but massive neutron star consuming it’s neighbour through a dance that lasts eons is to watch the lion consume the elephant in painfully slow motion, frame by inexorable frame.

What we observe is explained through the application of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. While the interaction between stellar bodies is anticipated, even considered routine, there remains the daunting, bewildering, difficult to explain phenomena which send researchers into overdrive for decades.

It is the data of the routine which confirms our formulae. It is the unexpected which keeps us hungry for more.

Upon arrival to the guest house at the observatory I was filled with emotionally charged memories of my grandparents’ farm in Iowa. The anticipation that builds with the first glimpse of the domes on the horizon is to crest the edge of the Pride of the Valley farm, the final stretch of the curving road, and ultimate descent into the complex of white buildings.

Inside, each piece of furniture has its place and orientation, the sofas, the chairs adorned by cloth covers too easily wrinkled and caught in the spaces between the cushions. Throw pillows are returned each day to their proper position. The pool table is showing its age, the felt torn and the legs less stable. One can complain, or enjoy the added challenge. The library has been stripped nearly bare as the journals are now entirely digital. Yet the aroma from the kitchen, the sound of the kettle boiling, the light wind buffeting the west-facing windows all say, ‘Welcome home!’.

By mid-afternoon intense conversations unfold as the engaged astronomers rise and those of us who retain fairly normal sleeping hours share the dining hall and common space. Steven, Retha, and I, the next day joined by Willie and Lisa covered more topics than I do recall, from the generation of water from humid air to the politics of South Africa, to data reduction and the application of Machine Learning against the wishes of those who are not yet ready to let go of their scripts and proved techniques.

With all telescopes at the SAAO observatory now capable of being remotely controlled, there is debate about the value of sending astronomers to these remote locations. For certain, the mechanical aspects of pointing the instrument to a distant object, capturing photons, and moving onto the next can be done without a being on-site. Yet, it is the draw of the dark night skies, the bliss of isolation, those moments of being only here, right now, that draw us into this place.

It is my experience and my hope that astronomers will continue to come to these places for the same reason we venture to witness the elephant and the lion, not on-screen. The sound of the wind whipping over the top of the open dome, the smell of the machine oil, the sensation that one has stepped into a spacecraft destined for anywhere cannot be reproduced through a remote connection.

Until the next visit to Sutherland, I will recall that for those brief four days, I enjoyed a return to one of my safe spaces, where both the routine and unexpected unfold every night.

By | 2017-09-16T15:02:03+00:00 September 16th, 2017|2017, Out of Africa|Comments Off on The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Counting Raindrops in Germany

Again I have promised myself to find sleep before 1 am. Again, I am awake, working to catch-up with my life after the intense experience of the International Space University, Space Studies Program in Cork, Ireland.

A moth flutters between the lamp shade and bulb. A distant jet passes overhead, by the sound neither arriving to nor departing from Frankfurt International Airport which is just a few kilometres distance from where I sit. This enclosed space provides the deeply nourishing aroma of untreated pine, floor, walls, and ceiling. An enclosed half gazebo is my resting spot each night, in the back yard of a family friend in Rüsselsheim, Germany.

Small spaces. Safe spaces. A room just big enough for a bed and table lamp, both resting on the floor; an area rug and place to place wet shoes. This is what feels right to me. Not the opposite of wrong, but right as in comfortable, natural, and satisfying.

We are so much driven to embrace thick walls, insulated ceilings, and windows that reflect heat and block sound that we forget what it means to fall to sleep to the wondrous sound of raindrops, falling, one by one.

By | 2017-08-30T18:52:15+00:00 August 30th, 2017|From the Road, The Written|Comments Off on Counting Raindrops in Germany

TensorFlow enabled Genetic Programming

GECCO ’17 Proceedings of the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference Companion

Abstract: “Genetic Programming, a kind of evolutionary computation and machine learning algorithm, is shown to benefit significantly from the application of vectorized data and the TensorFlow numerical computation library on both CPU and GPU architectures. The open source, Python Karoo GP is employed for a series of 190 tests across 6 platforms, with real-world datasets ranging from 18 to 5.5M data points. This body of tests demonstrates that datasets measured in tens and hundreds of data points see 2-15x improvement when moving from the scalar/SymPy configuration to the vector/TensorFlow configuration, with a single core performing on par or better than multiple CPU cores and CPUs. A dataset composed of 90,000 data points demonstrates a single vector/TensorFlow CPU core performing 875x better than 40 scalar/Sympy CPU cores. And a dataset containing 5.5M data points sees GPU configurations out-performing CPU configurations on average by 1.3x.”

My first 1st-author paper is published! Thank you Lee, Eddie, Marco, Arun, and Iuri for your input, support, and collaboration. –kai

By | 2017-08-05T18:31:13+00:00 August 5th, 2017|Ramblings of a Researcher|Comments Off on TensorFlow enabled Genetic Programming

The Seasons of our Emotions

There are as many faces as there are emotions, each powerful for what it conveys. Yet we wear them as though for the first time, unaware of their power to affect those we love.

If our smiles are the heat of summer and tears the rain of spring. If our naked bodies wrapped in blankets are autumn preparing for winter, then we can embrace each season as an integral part of the cycle, and look forward to what each brings.

By | 2017-08-05T06:16:48+00:00 August 5th, 2017|The Written|Comments Off on The Seasons of our Emotions

Counting Raindrops in Ireland

From the passenger seat of this rented Opal, I watch seagulls contend for strings of seaweed and scraps of bait tossed overboard from a passing fishing vessel, the only one to enter Reen Harbour this Sunday morning.

Two dozen small ships are anchored here, in the neck of this natural safe haven. Some old, rusty buckets that have seen many storms; some new, clearly more for sport and weekend fun than generating income.

Michael, the principal guide of yesterday’s kayaking tour directed my attention to an otherwise elusive, black hulled, single mast sailing boat which is, he shared, simply gorgeous on the inside. The owner purchased the hull in another country and had it towed here, to Castletownshend, Ireland for an overhaul. A master craftsman, he has meticulously refurbished the interior to a degree that was best expressed by Michael as a whistle rather than words.

It is the owner’s intend to sail to Iceland, but recent poor weather has kept him here for a few weeks more. I was shocked to learn of this intent, for the boat appears quite small, with a square stern and equally vertical bow, it does now appear to the layman’s eyes the kind of ship one would take into then open, northern seas.

I slept here last night, in this rental car, after my second guided paddle for the day. Michael, his partner Caroline, and Patrick are passionate about their line of work, as they take customers onto the water two times a day, five, six, sometimes seven days a week. They carefully interweave the experience of exploring this harbour by kayak with history, biology, and a lesson in mindfulness training.

Michael suggests that we let go of all that we brought with us. In a tag-team fashion, Michael continues, “find your child’s imagination again,” for in that place lie the ghosts of history come alive in the silhouettes on-shore and the unknown treasures in the depths below.

We paddled through pockets of brilliant bioluminescence, pockets of phytoplankton that have by day stored the sun’s energy in order to release it again at night. Caroline shared that some 90 percent of the ocean’s lifeforms are able to produce visible light. The reasons for this communication are not yet fully understood.

The wake of a kayak, the twist of a paddle, even the flick of fingertips across the surface of the water invokes a magical light show. Michael snatched a net of seaweed and demonstrated how one could invoke a cacophony of illumination, hundreds of points of light popping on and off again.

We returned to shore just after midnight, but I was reluctant to exit my boat. I could have remained adrift ’till sunrise, content to watch, to listen, to take innumerable more deep breaths. The chilled, salty air of the coastal Irish night drew me into the comfort of my borrowed comforter which this morning continued to hold me tight.

The windscreen is littered with raindrops from the most recent ladened clouds. I have rolled the side windows up and down a few times already in concert with the passing clouds. The sun has shone but for a few minutes, only to retreat again to its own safe haven, a harbour for a celestial body relatively unknown in this land.

By | 2017-07-30T10:37:31+00:00 July 30th, 2017|From the Road|Comments Off on Counting Raindrops in Ireland

Faster, easier, better.

What is this fascination with faster, easier, better?

I have heard it said that biology is lazy, that all creatures pursue that which requires the least energy expenditure. Perhaps entropy is the true guiding force, the omnipotent, intelligent designer, the deity which laughs when we grow to despise all but the very softest lap of luxury.

Have we not learned from our ancestors? Civilizations collapse when wealth exceeds labor.

How readily we forget, how easily we fail to recall, it is a challenge which grants us a sense of accomplishment, not arrival to the destination unencumbered.

By | 2017-06-10T00:56:07+00:00 June 10th, 2017|Critical Thinker, Humans & Technology|Comments Off on Faster, easier, better.

When I sell my vision

Research has its moments of upset, intrigue, and thrill.

But for this past six months these moments are lost to the effort of writing.

Proposal followed by proposal, I am a salesman with a briefcase full of ideas. Some new. Some old. Some revised. Some bold. If my visions for a better tomorrow are a good match to your funding of today, then we will enter into a partnership in which I am paid to investigate, experiment, and to play.

By | 2017-06-10T00:12:27+00:00 May 31st, 2017|Ramblings of a Researcher|Comments Off on When I sell my vision

Where Superstition welcomes the wary mind

Superstitions, by Kai Staats

Saguaro Blossom, Superstitions, by Kai Staats Spider Trap, Superstitions, by Kai Staats Wounded Saguaro, Superstitions, by Kai Staats Cholla Forest, Superstitions, by Kai Staats

Ocotillo, Superstitions, by Kai Staats As summer presses spring into a cooler memory, I find balance between the increasing heat and discomfort in the city with nights and mornings on the edge of the Superstition Wilderness.

Just one hour from downtown Phoenix, no matter if I arrive at dusk, well after sunset, or midnight, I am always eager to step out of my Subaru onto the rock of the turn-out where I frequently car-camp. The sound of crickets welcomes me to sleep. Birdsong wakes me to the rising run and immediate warmth that it brings.

Superstitions, by Kai Staats With daytime highs at 105F, the nights here remain cool. Boots on my feet by 6 AM, I walk cross-country, navigating between needles, hooks, barbs, and stones easily overturned.

Feeding the young, Superstitions, by Kai Staats

With every step comes a surprise, something new to discover and observe. I join wrens, hawks, lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, spiders and coyotes on the trail. There are homes made among the rubble of old mine shafts, in the hollow spaces of saguaro, and spanning the paths in hope of catching a small passer by. I fetch a light stick to tease a spider from its home, but it retreats back into its den when my large figure looms. A pair of hawks ride thermals, changing direction with effortless adjustment to the feathers on the very tip of their wings. A quick dive and recovered altitude suggests a potential meal escaped their talons, for now.

Campfire, Superstitions, by Kai Staats The only sounds are those of the breeze, a distant jet, and the rustle of needles, leaves, and stones under lizards feet as creatures scurry at my approach, or to stay cool against the warming sun. The aromas of creosote and cactus blooms mix with the ash of last night’s fire and I am, for this morning, at peace.

By | 2017-05-29T01:26:38+00:00 May 24th, 2017|From the Road|Comments Off on Where Superstition welcomes the wary mind

The Ultimate Camping Subaru

Your Office in the Woods
When we think of car camping, we often picture a tent or open air sun shade, cooler, cook stove, folding chairs, and mountain bikes atop an SUV or minivan. Car camping allows ready access to beautiful, even if not terribly remote places.

But for me, car camping is what I do when I need to quickly get away from the insanity of the city, even if I continue working. With 4G mobile data, the speeds are sufficient for email, web research, multi-channel conference calls, and the upload of draft film edits. So, why sit in a stuffy office in a stuffy building with stuffy people when you can instead be working from your favourite campsite?

Exactly. So, all we need is power.

To work from the primary car battery is not a good idea. Yes, it functions, but standard lead acid batteries are designed for short, high amperage discharge to start your car, not the continuous drain of a low-wattage cell phone charger or laptop power adapter. While AGM batteries are becoming more common, and deliver both the power to start your car and consistent supply for electronics, concern remains for monitoring your battery to make certain you can start your car again. If you are all alone in the middle of the National Forest, running your car every 2-3 hours might be ok. But if in a campground, the fumes are annoying, the sound obnoxious. Why not go solar?!

This photo essay is how I converted my 2000 Subaru Forester into the ultimate camping car with a continuous supply of 110V power, day or night, supplied by 100% renewable nuclear fusion—the sun.

Each of the following are available from Amazon, save the battery and 12V power socket which I purchase from a local auto parts dealer:

  • Renogy 100 Watts 12 Volts Monocrystalline Solar Panel
  • Renogy AK-20FT-10 10AWG Adaptor Kit Solar Cable PV with MC4 (F/M) Connectors
  • Renogy TOOL-MC4 Solar Panel Mc4 Assembly Tool
  • Morningstar Sunsaver TrakStar 15 Amp MPPT Charge Controller 12V/24V
  • Renogy Solar Panel Mounting Z Bracket Set of 4 Units RV Boat Off Grid Roof
  • [brand] 12V / 7AH AGM battery
  • 12V power socket with mounting bracket

Design & Planning
What these photos and this essay do not convey is the amount of time spent in measuring, sketching, measuring again, and planning the layout of this project. One does not just drill holes in the roof a car, even a 16 year old car, without some careful consideration.

I likely spent equal time in Ace Hardware, working with one of the helpful employees to find the best way to accomplish the task at hand, as I did implementing each task.

This project required 3-4 hours a day for 5 days, or roughly 20 hours start to finish.

Solar Subaru: remove panels by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: lower roof panel by Kai Staats

Solar Subaru: drilling holes by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: drilling holes by Kai Staats

If you can find a way to bring the cables from the solar panel into the car interior without drilling holes, by all means do this. You thereby avoid potential water damage and of course, drilling holes in the roof of your car.

On my prior 2003 Outback Sport, I was able to do this because the solar panel I applied was lower wattage and therefore used thinner electrical cables. With this 100W panel, I stuck with the suggested 10g wire which with its thick insulation was pinched by the opening and closing of the rear hatch. So, drill holes I did.

If you must drill holes, remove all interior panels required to lower (or remove) the ceiling panel, allowing access to the metal of the roof, where the holes will be drilled. In selecting the location of the holes, I took into account the cross bar which I most certainly wanted to avoid, the placement of the panel and where the power leads terminate, and the physical constraints of the water proof adapters employed for the task.

I used a multipurpose hole saw which adapts to a drill bit. Let is spin at nearly full speed, press lightly, and be ready to catch the whole contraption before it punches through if you did not remove the interior panel. Else, you may accidentally drill through that too.

Solar Subaru: make water tight housing by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: insert water tight housing by Kai Staats

I experimented with a number of water tight fittings at the hardware store before I discovered these nifty right-angle adapters which have both a removable plate for helping the wire make the bend, and a water tight fitting which when turned, closes around the wire at the end. The silicon rubber ring is a separate purchase. I had to ask the manager to look when the clerk was unable to find what I needed. Ultimately, they had the right one to both fit over the threads of the threaded fitting and seal to the roof of the car. I did not use any adhesive, and it is 100% water tight against the car wash, garden hose, and weather.

Of course, you want to select the hole saw to match the diameter of the threaded nut as close as is possible.

You will also note that I used a metal hack saw and 120 grit sand paper to reduce the depth of the threaded nut to a minimum profile so as to not press against the upper (hidden) side of the roof panel, allowing the thick solar cable to bend over the widest arc possible.

Solar Subaru: water tight cabling by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: panel mounts by Kai Staats

The final installation is both professional in its appearance (if you consider plumbing parts on the roof of your Subaru to be professional), low profile for minimum air resistance, and water tight (see above, left). Once the cables are routed above the ceiling panel and down the interior of one of the two rear beams, you are ready to replace all the interior panels.

Solar Subaru: panel mounts by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: remove roof struts by Kai Staats

The mounting of the solar panel will be specific to your vehicle. I found a way to use the existing roof rails (above, right) in which I drilled holes and inserted bolts from the bottom up. Using lock washers, I was able to fit thread dowel nuts onto the bolts, creating a surface onto which the panel brackets rest. When the wing nut is tightened, the panel is completely snug, not the slightest vibration.

All of this took a significant amount of careful measurement, so take our time, check all measurements twice, and do it right the first time.

Solar Subaru: panel brackets by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: panel mounts by Kai Staats

Solar Subaru: panel hing by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: panel up by Kai Staats

Mounting the panel itself was a bit tricky. I used the brackets ordered along with the panel, but in a way they were not intended. Designed to attach to the side of the panels, I drilled new holes along the ends, again carefully measuring so as to fit perfectly to the bolts which press through the roof rails. The only messy effort is the need to make the holes in the mounting brackets slightly oblong so as to accommodate the angle of the panel when it lowers onto the bolts.

The hinge serves two functions: to allow the raising and lowering of the panel for work on the wiring or cleaning the roof without removal, and to angle the panel to face the sun. I now carry a short wooden stick which readily props the panel to approximately 45 degrees. Eventually, I would like to attach a metal “kickstand” with a set of angles built-in.

Solar Subaru: panel flat by Kai Staats

The final product is solid, low-profile, and even allows for full use of my roof rack, unobstructed.

Solar Subaru: finished by Kai Staats Solar Subaru: finished by Kai Staats

In the rear-left side pocket I drilled holes to route the positive (+) and negative (-) electrical cables from the panel into the interior space, to the AGM motorcycle battery. The charge controller is mounted to the wall of the pocket (which was a bit tricky, given that no glue would stick to the vinyl). I used T-nuts designed for wood working, applying 3 small screws per T-nut but careful to not strip the forced threading in the thin plastic wall of the pocket. Again, this is specific to my installation.

The new 12V power socket was affixed using the same T-nuts and a total of 6 small screws, 3 per T-nut.

The end result is A/C power whenever I need it.

The AGM motorcycle battery is ample (without the sun up) to provide one full charge of my Apple PowerBook Pro. Seems low, but when I run the numbers it makes wattage sense. It is incredible how much power is stored in Lithium-Ion batteries but at 1/10 the physical volume of the AGM. For now, it serves its purpose perfectly, providing power to get through the evening hours and into the night with my laptop and cell phone charging, a low-wattage LED work light. By day, I have all the power I need.

I now have a completely separate electrical system which leaves my car’s primary battery to start the car. Should it ever die, I simply run a cable from the original rear power socket to the new socket I installed, positive-to-positive, negative-to-negative (parallel wiring) and I can charge the dead battery from the rooftop solar PV panel.

By | 2017-05-23T13:04:58+00:00 May 23rd, 2017|From the Road, Humans & Technology|Comments Off on The Ultimate Camping Subaru

Over the Edge

When we live in fear, we see only failure.
When we fail, we protect ourselves.
When we are protected, we feel afraid.

And we spiral down,
      until we have pushed the one thing we hold dear




By | 2017-05-09T01:27:19+00:00 May 9th, 2017|The Written|Comments Off on Over the Edge