Friday, December 19, 2014

Ukraine - 2014 in review

This article originally published in the California Tech November 26 2014.

Ukraine - 2014 in review

Casey Handmer

In November 2013, Ukraine's then president Viktor Yanukovych, playing EU and Russia off each other in an attempt to secure necessary foreign investment to counter nine years of economic stagnation following the 2004 Orange Revolution, reneged on an agreement for stronger economic and political ties with the EU in favor of Russia. Ukraine's capital, Kiev, is located in the more pro-EU western side of the country, and protests broke out.

By February 2014, the Maidan square protests had intensified. A series of violent escalations blamed variously on the U.S., NATO, Ukraine, Russia, and the Illuminati culminated in Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine for Russia, followed by the instatement of a provisional government, the reversion of the constitution to an earlier state, and new presidential elections. Yanukovych's private palaces were opened to the press and public, underscoring Ukraine's ongoing struggle with official corruption and releasing thousands of private records to public knowledge and analysis.

Yanukovych could not be described as a uniformly pro-Russian agent, but his loss in favor of parliamentary power sent shockwaves through the Russian military establishment, particularly since Ukraine's ongoing lease of port facilities in Crimea's Sebastopol are of vital importance to the Russian Black Sea fleet.

This concern led to the shadow annexation of Crimea shortly afterwards. Begun by pro-Russia paramilitary forces, many led by veterans of the Bosnian conflict in the mid 1990s, green-clad troops lacking identifying insignias or names rapidly seeded Crimea.. Their presence catalyzed the peaceful co-option or withdrawal of the Ukraine military presence in the Crimean peninsula, which subsequently declared de facto independence. On March 16, a referendum was held in which residents were asked to choose between aligning with Russia or adopting Crimea's 1992 constitution, in which it was a semi-autonomous state within the Soviet union. The status quo was not an option. In classic Russian style, 79% of residents voted to become part of Russia despite a 38% turnout.

Meanwhile, the far eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (known collectively as Donbass) had seen pro-Russia unrest, culminating in the occupation of several government buildings. At the time, these buildings formed the net total of land administered by the (internationally unrecognized) Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR), but that was about to change. A series of pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine protests occurred but, as in Crimea the general desire was the maintenance of peace. Ethnically Russian and Ukrainian people have lived peacefully side by side in Donbass for decades.

A steady trickle of troops and equipment reinforcing the pro-Russian DPR and LPR arrived across the border. Despite Russia's official insistence that Ukraine's internal issues had nothing to do with them, these troops were less disciplined than the ones now formally acknowledged to have intervened in Crimea, and numerous cases of GPS-tagged Facebook photos show Russian soldiers "on the wrong side of the border." These incursions were opposed by Ukraine's army, and were localized to a few towns and cities within a few miles of Russia's border.

By July 14, the separatists had gotten hold of Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missiles and wasted no time defending their airspace. Over the next few days, they publicly announced shooting down several Ukraine military An-26 aircraft, including one on July 17. Shortly after it became obvious that July 17's shoot down was actually of MH17, making a bad year worse for Malaysia Airlines.

Ukraine's internal struggles now became an international issue. With the international finger pointed at Russia, a series of spectacular backpedals occurred, during which it was claimed MH17 was shot down by Ukraine-operated fighter jets after being deliberately diverted into the conflict zone by corrupted European air traffic control, presumably to frame Russia. As usual, Russia's line is that all the weapons used by separatists were captured from Ukraine's army. Expert analysis has been unable to support these suggestions, finding instead no shortage of evidence that they had never been purchased or used by Ukraine. Russia's national media is every bit as uncritical and parochial as that of the U.S., however, so the deployment of such crude propaganda is still highly effective.

Through late July, separatists continued to lose ground as their promised full-scale Russian invasion force, massing at the border for months, failed to materialize. By mid-August, Ukraine looked poised to crush the last remnants of the rebels. However, by Aug. 23, reporting on MH17 had died down enough that Russia launched a "humanitarian intervention," rapidly retaking and holding roughly half of the Donbass region.

By early September, Ukraine pursued a ceasefire with the separatists, though Russia still officially denied involvement. On Sept. 13, a convoy from Russia arrived uninspected, undermining the already shaky ceasefire. Russia stated the convoy contained humanitarian supplies.

The humanitarian crisis surrounding the conflict is real enough, however. Much of Donbass will have insufficient food this winter due to economic and agricultural disruptions concordant with fighting all summer. For that reason, fighting since has focused on a number of known supply depots. Many countries keep large supply depots at logistic hubs in case of disaster. Luhansk and Donetsk airports are two such cases. Both large, modern international airports were occupied by Ukraine's army. Both airports have since been utterly destroyed by Russian artillery, though Donetsk's ruins are still defended by a band of fighters dubbed "the cyborgs" for their seemingly invincible, death-proof nature. That said, around 5,000 people, mainly military, have died since the September ceasefire at Donetsk airport and a few other hot spots in the otherwise cooling conflict. Mysteriously, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which oversees the ceasefire from white SUVs, seems never to be around when the bullets are flying.

Russia's original goal, stoked by a carefully maintained information bubble around key leaders, seems to have been the rapid annexation of Donbass and surrounding oblasts much like Crimea, totaling perhaps a third of Ukraine. Today, it is thought that the goal is to forge a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, either through or around Mariupol. Mariupol, once broadly pro-Russia, is now heavily fortified. It is clear that in this conflict, however, Russia has all the time, money, and weapons in the world. A rapid or decisive victory is unnecessary. Ultimately, Russia may support the reintegration of separatist regions into a new federalized Ukraine with semi-autonomy under a new constitution that would ensure Russia's ongoing influence in Ukraine's domestic politics. This outcome may be even better than wresting away some contentious and now shell-shocked territory.

Throughout the conflict, pro-Ukraine forces have openly requested military support from NATO and/or the EU. In particular, many U.S. commentators have suggested helping to arm Ukraine's army to provide the firepower needed to oppose Russia's artillery. Cooler heads have wisely suggested that doing so would provide material proof that Russia has needed to support its narrative of persecution by NATO, and thus far Western governments have resisted showering Ukraine with weapons. A less fraught suggestion is instead to shower Ukraine's NATO member allies and neighbors such as Bosnia with U.S.-made weapons so they can sell their Russian-made systems (with which the soldiers are already familiar) to Ukraine at a very reasonable price whilst avoiding accusations of direct interference.

In November 2014, the conflict is still very much ongoing. On Nov. 2, the separatist regions held elections. Ukraine stated such elections were in violation of the Minsk protocol, wherein Ukraine obtained independence at the end of the Soviet Union in return for giving up its substantial nuclear arsenal and permitting the Russian navy base in Crimea. On Nov. 7, NATO reported that Russia has deployed nuclear-capable weapons to Crimea. Current estimates place 7,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, and about 50,000 on the internationally recognized border. Through mid-November around 80 military vehicles (tanks, mobile artillery, etc.) have been moving through the separatist regions. It is unclear how the future will play out, or how well the separatist regions will weather the coming winter.

Maps showing occupied territory on August 15 and August 28 (at end of article).

These pictures are intended to bracket the section discussing the post MH17 Russian military surge. They are sourced from, but the writer is not the originator. They contain attribution information on the bottom, to website: This is the Ukraine government National Security/Defence website. Complete list of maps:

August 15 and August 28.


Film review: Citizenfour moving, unsettling

Review originally published in the California Tech November 8 2014.

Film review: Citizenfour moving, unsettling

Casey Handmer

Films frequently aim to evoke an emotional response. Some of the best thriller or horror films provoke a shocking visceral reaction that stays with the viewer for hours or days. Even in the depths of fear, disgust, or anxiety, it is possible to undermine suspension of disbelief by reminding oneself that the film is, afterall, fiction.

Recently, I saw the documentary thriller Citizenfour. At nearly two hours, the twisted, compact plot unwinds like tightly coiled clockwork. Telling the story of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, suspense builds organically, an inexorable tide of paranoia and suspicion that cannot be wished away. Fiction this is not.

The film was produced and shot by the award winning American journalist Laura Poitras, who, present from the very first, has thoroughly documented the entire saga. Some months after 'citizenfour' first made contact, a still-anonymous Snowden gave Poitras and another journalist, Glenn Greenwald, directions to meet in Hong Kong. Meeting in a hotel lobby, Greenwald and Poitras were shocked at their source's young age. As soon as Snowden's door closed, Poitras' camera began to roll.

For the next hour, the audience is confined with the principal protagonists in the tiny,  claustrophobic hotel room. Scarcely larger than the bed it contains, overlooking a park in the central business district, we first meet Snowden explaining what he is doing and why. Eerily calm, his almost painfully skinny physique curled up on the bed while fielding endless questions from Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, the film is a masterclass in closed-room mystery and paranoia.

Much has been written of and about Snowden, and this is not the place to rehash those discussions. Earning universal critical acclaim, the film has also offered Snowden critics an authentic and first-hand view of the vilified American, delivering deep insight into his knowledge and persona. Despite near certainty that his hours of freedom are likely in double digits, Snowden appears calm and patient, all the more impressive considering Greenwald and MacAskill's astounding level of ignorance when it came to technical matters.

As we now know, Snowden managed to escape Hong Kong only to become trapped in Russia. Nevertheless, with help from Wikileaks he has, unlike Chelsea Manning, retained his liberty and his ability to participate in the ongoing discussion that is tending ever so slightly away from his worst fears of technologically-enabled totalitarianism.

For the vast majority of Poitras' audience, my fellow theatergoers, the film is about politics, about trust in government, about oversight, and about the process of modern journalism. For the technically literate, however, I took away a different message. Communications technology does not just appear. It is created by engineers. Caltech students become leaders, innovators, inventors. Today, if there is any capability for ordinary people to avoid dragnet surveillance, it's because today's technical innovators, hobbyists, and developers have created some privacy enabling methods ex nihilo. Today, if we have any idea about illegal classified government activities, it's because technical people with access and conscience have leaked the information to relevant journalists. Scientists are usually trained to think of knowledge and technology as apolitical, but this is only ever the case under the most relaxed assumptions.

Competing in the Physics Olympiad way back in 2005, the then head of the program told the assembled competitors that knowledge, and physics in particular, can be used for evil and it can be used for good. The subtext was obvious. Half the people in the room were the best and brightest from China, Russia, Iran, Israel, the USA, and other warlike nations, and physicists build the best bombs. While explosives are an essential component of a peaceful deterrent force, he insisted we must use physics for good. Science contains the tools of both technological emancipation and technological slavery. When we create new knowledge, it must never be without a consideration for its possible uses.

I know few people who could calmly throw away their entire life for the sake of telling ordinary people about morally questionable actions done in their name and with their tax revenue, but Snowden was clearly one such person. For him, and for anyone else in a similar position, this is by far the most difficult decision that a person will ever face in their entire professional or personal life. It may come tomorrow or decades in the future but, once encountered, cannot be avoided or ignored. Citizenfour is a terrific primer for thinking about that ultimate decision and the sort of created world in which you want to live.

Elon Musk’s twitter: Time to unveil the D

Originally published in the California Tech October 27 2014.

Elon Musk's twitter: Time to unveil the D

Casey Handmer

On Oct. 1, Elon Musk tweeted "... time to unveil the D ..." Unlike previous mysterious tweets, the substance of this one was guessed reasonably quickly. Two years after the release of the revolutionary Tesla Model S, an updated version is available.

D stands for dual motors. The current Model S has only one motor, and the fastest version, the P85+, does 0-60 in a staid, lumbering 4.2 seconds. If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that this is embarrassingly slow. More seriously, the dual motor approach is more efficient at a range of speeds and forms an important test of the powertrain for the upcoming Model X crossover.

The new model looks the same but can reach 60 mph from a standing start in 3.2 seconds, pulling an average of 0.9 gs. The number of road-legal cars that can do this can be counted on one hand. There's the Bugatti Veyron and a handful of other supercars which cost in excess of a million dollars. There are a few electric one-offs, including the Wrightspeed X-1 (2.9 seconds), the Rimac Concept 1/Volar E (2.8 seconds) and the White Zombie, a converted 1972 Datsun that reaches 60 mph in 1.8 seconds and dispatches the quarter mile in 10.24 seconds. But none of them seat five with cargo, and none are controlled by a giant touchscreen.

Also, none of them have autopilot. What? Tesla also unveiled their rapid (less than a year since starting) progress with car autopilot. Rather than aiming for complete autonomy, like Google or the DARPA grand challenge, Tesla has decided to pick a bunch of cheaper, more versatile sensors, then gradually upgrade the software that translates their input to car control. Tesla's sensor array includes GPS, forward-looking radar, omnidirectional ultrasound (sonar), and a forward looking camera. In combination, they work well enough to hold or change lanes, perform adaptive cruise control, check for cars or objects in blind spots, recognize speed limits, and automatically brake the car to avoid a collision. It remains to be seen how well this system works in practice, or how effective it actually is in combating driver fatigue and carelessness.

Image courtesy

What's the big deal with Tesla anyway? It's a relatively tiny startup that makes cars. Fancy, shiny, and extremely expensive cars. If there's one thing cities in the US don't need, it's more cars. Given that cars will continue to exist and make modern lifestyles possible, Tesla plans to introduce a cheaper mass market car in 2017, codenamed Model 3. Probably a scaled down Model S, it will rely on mass production and innovative battery construction to lower costs to around the $35,000 mark, which is quite affordable when you factor in reduced cost of ownership. To get there, Tesla is building a battery "Gigafactory" in Nevada. Tesla once chose the 18650 cell to exploit its ubiquity and availability - today producing 30,000 cars a year, Tesla consumes more than 60% of world supply. Getting battery costs below $100/kWh is seen as essential for their wide adoption, and certainly their use in more facets of life is part of the Tesla/SolarCity master plan. Solar generation can be buffered at every scale in a future smart grid with the introduction of in-home battery packs with incredible and affordable capacity.

In the more distant future, electric propulsion has the potential to revolutionize air transport too. Battery energy density need to improve by a factor of 3 to 10, and powering light planes or even long-haul flights electrically is certainly possible. But more than that - electric motors have a much higher power-to-weight ratio than almost any other type of engine. The explosion of toy quadcopters is a testament to this fact. An airplane with a power-to-weight ratio greater than one is capable of vertical takeoff and landing and, with appropriate turbine design, supersonic flight. For the first time, humans may fly in planes that aren't immediately analogous to birds.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Weekend adventures!

I felt it was time to have an adventuresome weekend. Photos:

On Friday, a co-conspirator R and I drove to the airport. Once there, we fueled the aeroplane and completed the preflight. A preflight inspection is performed to ensure the plane might not break apart. In this case, you just shake it really hard and as long as only non-vital components fall off, you're good.

Soon we were up in the air behind a hundred thundering horses and buzzing over Pasadena and Caltech. Then south towards Catalina island. We flew around the island, checked out our prospective hiking trail, flew over Avalon, then landed on the rather narrow airstrip. I went to chat to the dude in the control tower, bought a sandwich, and we got on our way.

Our chosen route was a short but sharp hike to the north, off the edge of the island. Descending more than 1600 feet in little more than a mile (1:3) gradient, it was one of the steepest off-trail hikes I've ever done. And it only got steeper towards the end. So steep, in fact, that in late November, the sun set by 2pm! Steep like the angle of repose of dirt. Any fall would have been a severely career limiting move.

We ate sandwiches, climbed, swam, skimmed stones, and gritted our teeth before climbing back up. I would say the return hike was really hard work, but the one I did the following day was pretty hard too. The first third was really steep, after that it was just a grind back up to the airport. 

The aeroplane started briskly, we taxied to the threshold and took off. Climbing to 3500 we settled into V21 and bug-smashed our way to Brackett airport, where we dodged some local traffic, executed a beautiful touch and go, then left for the practise area. As the sun set I demoed a few steep turns and not-so-steep turns for the full experience, then glided it back to the airstrip. 

We packed up, headed for the local Trader Joes, bought dinner, went climbing for a bit in the bouldering gym (I mainly climbed my unread email inbox), ate dinner, then dropped the car back at school.

I was asleep by 1am. At 3am, I was woken by my alarm, ate some breakfast, and joined second co-conspirator D to drive to Palm Springs, a mere 90 minutes away by the fastest expressways in the US. The plan was Cactus to Clouds, a 22 mile hike with over 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, and we were on the trail by 5am. By 7 we'd made substantial progress and the sun came up. By 9 we'd climbed the foothills enough to give us a view of the main false summit, at 8000 feet. By noon we crested that summit, got a hiking permit, and contemplated making a snowman from the patchy snow around. 

I finished my first liter of water, refilled the bottle, and we set out for the summit. We'd walked about 12 miles so far, it was another 5 to the summit and back. By this point, I was finding staying awake on so little sleep and breathing with a cold hard work and was managing an average speed of perhaps 2km/h. At 9700 feet I judged that reaching the summit and getting back before dark would not be possible, and I did not have enough warm gear with me. So I sent D (who is vastly more fit) on and curled up in a tree, in the sun, and decided instead to tackle the mountain of food I inexplicably decided to bring. In 90 minutes or so I ate most of it, the sun was beginning to set, the wind was picking up, and no sign of D. As I got cold I decided to start back to the ranger station, and before long D caught up, having caught summit fever close to the end.

We found the tram station, being the only four story building in the area, and eventually boarded the cable car back to the valley floor. Each gondola held 80 people and the floor rotated twice along the way. Ears popping regularly, the gondola took a LONG time to reach the end, and even there we were 2000 feet above where we had started. Cactus to Clouds is easily the most vertical feet I've ever walked in a day, even if I didn't make it to the top. 

Surprisingly, a day later I still haven't finished the food and my legs aren't too sore. But I digress. We took a cab back to D's car, drove back to Pasadena, made some dinner, then, lest you think I might sleep any time soon, we went back to Caltech to check out BigI.

BigI is short for Big Interhouse, a party the undergrads throw once every two years (or half a time per year?), wherein all houses team up and build one giant dance floor in each of the south houses' four courtyards. I remembered one four years ago in which Blacker and one other house built a giant submarine dance floor under a flooded pond with mechatronic godzilla and gundams. It was somewhat like Burning Man, if Burning Man was entirely people aged 21 and below and held on a single tennis court.

This time, Blacker/Lloyd had built a giant multilevel dance floor with a geodesic dome. Their nominated theme was space mining, so in their dining hall they had a large mural of jellyfish on Europa, a surprisingly Rosetta-like comet/asteroid dangling from the ceiling, a few autonomous robots crushing rocks, a spaceship mockup fitted with an actual jet engine, a few radar dishes here and there, and so on. Even in my insanely exhausted state I was quite impressed.

At last I dragged myself away from the spectacle, picked up my bike, and rode home. By 11pm I was tucked up in bed, a feat unheard of! And it was only Saturday.

On Sunday (today) I crawled out of bed at about noon, ate more hiking food, wrote an article for the school newspaper, organized photos, and otherwise strove to not exert myself at all. At last, I have succeeded.

Friday, November 7, 2014

M visits the USA, 2014

Photos, video: 

After years of anticipation and preparation, my brother M finally visited me here in the USA. Tacking on 4 days after a sold-out lecture tour in San Francisco concerning gooey medical stuff, I tried to ensure a full, awesome schedule. Below is my account of our adventures.

Thursday morning, 7am. Time to collect the car. I decided to make it an American SUV in honour of the occasion, and regretted it immediately and continuously ever since. For the record, the Chevrolet Captiva failed utterly to captivate. It did, however, hold a steady 80mph on the road to LAX, at least until the traffic blocked up. Eventually I found M hiding from the memorable post-asbestos architecture of United's original trim Terminal 7, and we proceeded to zoom back to Pasadena at a stately, bumper to bumper pace.

Exhausted after days of conferencing and the puddle-jumping flight from SFO, I permitted M 13.5 minutes of scheduled rest before we kitted up and zoomed off to JPL. JPL, or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the largest (of about 10) NASA centers. About 6000 mostly engineers design and build crazy awesome space robots, and I want to work there when/if I leave grad school. Basically all the Mars orbiters, landers and rovers have come from JPL. They also do a bunch of other really cool stuff, and I wanted to show M around. Fortunately I have a few friends who work there and were able to organize a tour (Thanks B.S.!). 

We started at the highbays, huge buildings where spacecraft are assembled before being trucked or flown to Cape Canaveral to be blasted into space. Most days. Sometimes they are blasted into tiny pieces instead. Then we checked out a vehicle testing building, the Mars yard (more testing), and the control room, where commands and data are exchanged with giant radio dishes and distant spacecraft. One of the coolest things is data coming in from Voyager, which takes 19 hours to cross the incredible distance (~140AU or sun-Earth distances) between it and the Earth. Finally, we checked out the von Karman auditorium and museum which is filled with life-size and scale models of various spacecraft that have explored the solar system. I've always wanted humans to explore, but the space robots are damn clever and do a pretty good job in the meantime.

We had to leave JPL and rapidly zoom to our next appointment, a car test drive at the new Tesla store in Pasadena. Our test-drive conductor, M, took pains to show off the features of the car. Unlike most car sales people, though, there's no pressure. It's all about 'electricity, yo!'. After a false start we found the expressway onramp and M put his foot down. In the back seat my retinas ricocheted around my skull as our entry-level model none-the-less rocketed us down the expressway at a speed that would make a Cessna 152 blush. We returned behind the Rose Bowl on a nice curvy road, pulling lateral accelerations of up to 0.9gs. Well, not quite. M ordinarily drives a rather nice, rather sporty car in Australia, so I was keen to get him behind the wheel of the future. Touch screens everywhere!

We bid goodbye to the Tesla store and headed for a nearby vegan restaurant. While the very opposite of vegan, I usually eat here in old town Pasadena, because I can eat cake and lasagna normally beyond my dietary restrictions. We wiped out 10^4 calories in record time. Next, a quick detour to Whole Foods to lighten our wallets, spot hipsters, ridicule woo literature, and buy some eating supplies. Groceries - that's what they're called!

Then back home, for a scheduled 2000 second break before jumping back into the car to drive back to the airport. Well, not quite. In a former cavernous 737 assembly hangar, the future has coalesced in the form of SpaceX. SpaceX, otherwise known as the private rocket manufacturer and NASA contractor that doesn't blow up rockets anymore, is the other venture by the owner of Tesla motors. Similar design principles come into play here - make it go FAST. We were met by another friend and Caltech alum (R.N., thankyou so much!) who showed us up and down the central visitor's corridor while answering a multitude of pointy questions with plenty of detail. We saw bits of hardware that flew in space, rocket engines being built, fairings, composites, Dragon spacecraft, tanks, friction stir welding machines, the whole bit. It's hard to describe, and photos are not permitted inside. Suffice to say the design is incredible. The rocket's metal is nominally 7mm thick (only!). However, in places that is too thick - more strength than is needed - so they have shaved the wall even thinner. Every pound counts. Even more exciting, SpaceX is actively striving to make the rocket reusable. If cars and planes could be used only once, flying or driving would be prohibitively expensive. So goes for rockets, and at $60m/launch, SpaceX's rocket is still damn cheap. I could go on...

The day had been long, so we drove back to Pasadena and stopped in at Yoshida's for some really good sushi, then drove back to Caltech for a music rehearsal. My acappella group Fluid Dynamics ( rehearses on Thursday evenings. Then we drove home. M seemed pretty tired, so I retired to the couch and spent 2 quality hours hacking a mathematica script to 3D print a set of pilot wings for M that symbolized medicine rather than physics. The key structural insight had occurred at SpaceX, but I have no idea if they will break apart or not. One hopes not!

The next morning we had a slow start, making it to Caltech around lunch time (rather fortuitously), and following that up with some quality drone flying and flight planning. We hammered out a brutal trip through the mountains, but as the day wore on the weather deteriorated and, with predictions of wind gusting to 50kts, it became clear that we would not be flying down the Owens Valley any time soon. We folded the charts and walked to the health center, where M met the various nurses who take care of us students and investigated our old surgery theatre. We returned home, suited up, called our dear mother who, one day ahead, was already celebrating her birthday, and drove into LA downtown. 

Arriving nearly 2 hours early, we parked strategically close to the carpark exit and walked down to Spring Street and made our way to the Last Bookstore, a pretty cool book store. And the last one, apparently. On the second floor of the converted bank are a series of artist's studios and a labyrinth made of the less salable stock. The vault houses crime fiction. We grabbed some dinner at the pirate-themed Redwood Bar and Grill (where the waitress toasted Halloween with us), then walked back up the hill to the Disney Hall. 

Finding our seats, getting extra attention from latecomers, we settled in to enjoy the spectacle. The legendary 1922 silent German film Nosferatu, accompanied by the Disney hall pipe organ, was a surprisingly organic and immersive experience. Taking about 100 minutes, we remarked on the organist's distinct lack of bloody stumps at the conclusion of the concert, and expertly wove our way to the parking garage, then once again tempted fate on the twisty 110 expressway back home. 

Two days down, two to go. Could we maintain the pace? We awoke on a cloudy, windy Saturday morning, and investigated the METARs and TAFs. We decided there was a good window to the west and, after a perfunctory breakfast, headed for the airport. There we fueled up the old faithful, taxied out, and took off. Growing up we imagined many things, but flying together through the American south west was not one of them! We flew west past downtown LA, out over Santa Monica, and descended along the coast past Malibu, Pt Mugu, Oxnard, and towards Santa Barbara. With the weather rapidly blowing in from the west, we weren't keen to land and get overtaken by a line of storms, so we turned around and retraced our steps back to El Monte. I encouraged M to try landing on a long glide as I often do, and, after misjudging the first attempt, we came around for another go, putting it down nicely on the upwind wheel. 

We taxied to the parking area and turned the plane off. We were trying to figure out how to radio (instead of call) the fuel guy when a bunch of search and rescue people showed up trying to track a beacon they had detected in the mountains. They confidently asserted it was ours! On occasion, the ELT beacon is triggered by a hard landing, but we had not hit that hard! We took off the rear bulkhead and had a look, but it was not transmitting. Next, they homed in on another club plane which seemed to be the culprit. After crawling into the tail, I was able to verify that it was indeed triggered, though by what is anyone's guess. That plane has had electrical problems, but the ELT is a completely separate electrical system!

Eventually we packed everything and drove to the Roma Deli, where we obtained sandwiches and pasta. Next, the CVS for some essential equipment M insisted that I own, including soap, shampoo, and other bourgeois frivolities. We proceeded to eat most of the pasta and all of the sandwiches, went back to school to engage in some competitive drone flying, then took our evening repast at a fine local establishment called Abricott. 

The last day. Sunday. The weather had cleared, but the planes were all booked for a flying fair! On closer inspection, the planes were booked from 10am. There was hope. Much to M's amusement and consternation, it's perfectly legal for me to fly at night, despite nothing like Australia's training requirements. (Fascists). 

We peeled ourselves from our respective berths at 4:30am and hied rapidly to the airport, where once again we strapped ourselves into a lightly engineered speeding death contraption with cutting edge 1950s propulsion technology and took off. I have come to the conclusion that GPSes take the fun out of navigation. Where fun can also mean terror and uncertainty. Behind 140 horses thundering across the sky we climbed to 9500 MSL and zoomed toward the south east, bouncing across the mountains at Palomar and descending in a broad, triumphant spiral into Anza Borrego desert. 

The sun now shone brightly at low angles on the dry, rocky, tectonically twisted terrain and we circled between points of interest, eventually flying across the Salton Sea to land at Calipatria. An accidental lake, the Salton Sea's surface is at -228 feet, so at times we could fly well below sea level, though M insisted that 10AGL was probably too close for comfort. We took a good look at the unfortunate resort town of Bombay Beach, then climbed to 10500 feet and zoomed north past Palm Springs, the twin peaks Jacinto and Gorgonio, and descended in steps across the LA basin to El Monte, where I executed (if that is the right word) a solid but unspectacular landing on Runway 1. We taxied directly to the flying fair, packed up our things, and left.

We were now confronted with a worrying problem. We'd accomplished too much and it wasn't even noon. My friend R joined us to play a rousing game of table tennis in my office's loading dock, followed by lunch, packing, and a lightning trip up Rubio canyon. The air, still clear after the rain, afforded an excellent view over the city all the way to Catalina Island, which awaits M's return to explore by air.

Back home we took a precautionary nap, then drove back to LAX for the last time. I dropped M in that most elegant, most refined of locations, we said our goodbyes, then I returned to Caltech. The traffic was so smooth I had time to buy a loaf of bread for dinner before going to rehearsal once more. That evening I poked and prodded various albums into shape, and passed out.

Next morning, I returned the car. M was gone. So were the clouds. Back to perfect weather, and just in the nick of time. 4 days of work lost, time to get on with it, and await the next visitor to once again pull out the stops and have a great time!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Geology field trip to Mono Lake

Every term I try to go on the Ge136 field trip. This class, a student seminar based cornucopia of learning, has taken me on trips throughout the American south west. This time was no exception.

On many of the classes we've driven straight up the Owens valley towards Lake Tahoe or similar. This time, we drove a lot less (only ~800 miles) and enjoyed some of the places slightly closer to home.

The trip began at 5:30am on Saturday. Surprisingly, everyone was there on time. We loaded the trucks and headed out via the 210, 5, and 14 as the sun roared over the horizon. Before long we were through Mojave and up onto the Garlock fault, where I gave my talk on the Rand Schist. We proceeded throughout the day, stopping for lunch and talks at the Alabama Hills and Lone Pine Fault, eventually reaching our campsite at Convict Lake around sunset. The glacial valley terminated in a coloured spire of rock displaying a particularly nice metamorphic roof pendant. 

It was incredibly windy. Windy enough that talking was difficult. We lashed our tents to relatively immovable objects and huddled around a beaten fire. Dinner, of chili with a secret ingredient, was filling and excellent. A and I walked down to the lake to attempt photography, but constant spray and tripods being unable to stay up in the wind led us to give up. We returned to the campsite and organised a mercy dash to a nearby hot spring. Two cars departed, but only ours managed to find a sufficiently empty hot spring in time. We relaxed under the open sky and discussed terraforming and other sciency stuff. A few meteors flew overhead.

At length, we returned to the campsite, I warmed my sleeping bag near the fire, then retired to the camp stretcher and bundled up against the cold. Taking a few long exposures required enough crunches to ensure I was thoroughly warm by the time I went to sleep. Having slept only 3 hours the night before and driven all day, I passed out extremely quickly.

The next morning, I woke, inverted my previous actions resulting in a dressed, upright Casey, packed my stuff, ate some breakfast, and we were on the road. We talked about dating of glacial moraines and eventually drove as far as Bodie, a ghost town north of Mono Lake. Booming and busting in 5 years, Bodie's remaining buildings (much of the town burned down historically) are remarkably well preserved. By this time the wind had died enough to allow an attempt at drone flying. We checked out the museum and some of the houses, while trying to imagine how it had been in 1880, bullets flying everywhere, gold dust in the air, constant noise and the thrum of possibility.

Later that day, we drove back to Mono Lake, shivered during the sunset while hearing talks on hydrology, history, volcanoes, microbiology, and so on. Soon after we departed through half-dead forests for our campsite nearby, set up and cooked spaghetti for dinner. The first sign of trouble came when cleaning off the tables we encountered patches of nice. That night, the temperature dropped to -8C/20F, which was so cold I put on some socks with my sandals. Waking up frequently to shiver afforded terrific opportunities to admire the stars, galaxies, meteors, and quality campfire singing. Eventually the sun rose, two dozen or so frozen icicles stumbled from the tents and trembled their way to the coffee pot and lightly burnt toast.

We packed and returned to Mono Lake, then some of the surrounding volcanic craters, and gradually made our way south via the Bishop tuff, some tasty road cuts, canyons, and another glacial valley with awesome marble metamorphic rocks and tungsten mines, and some hot springs. Soon it was time to head back and we zoomed down the 395 to get home by 9pm.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Article: Hong Kong Protests

This article originally appeared in the California Tech on Tuesday 21 October 2014.

Hong Kong is one of the most vibrant, prosperous cities in the world. Rising to power and prominence under British colonial rule, it was formally handed over to the People's Republic of China in 1997. Despite being part of China, Hong Kong has always enjoyed a privileged administrative status under the One Country, Two Systems model with a substantially different economic structure and a vibrant political life. Hong Kong is ruled by a Chief Executive (something like a governor) elected by an Election Committee of (today) 1200 entities, representing individuals, districts, large business interests and other organizations, and serve up to two consecutive 5 year terms. Not unlike the governing structure of a modern multinational corporation, economic power carries real political power.

In 2007, the then Chief Executive Donald Tsang published the Green Paper on Constitutional Development which was subsequently ratified by the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the relevant governmental body in mainland China. Since the end of British rule there have been only 3 Chief Executives. They preside in a responsive way over the rapidly developing economy and political climate, leading to a much more dynamic constitutional framework than that to which we are accustomed in the USA. This Green Paper was seen as a compromise between mainland China and the Pan-Democratic movement which enjoys the support of about 60% of the population, as it ruled out the possibility of a general election by universal suffrage in 2012, but allowed for the possibility of election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council (something like the US Senate) by universal suffrage in 2017, then a decade away.

Fast-forward to 2014, and it is now time for the National People's Congress (the Chinese governing assembly) to decide how to implement the recommendations of the Green Paper. To the original wording they added the stipulation that the Election Committee must preselect two or three candidates who 'love the country and love Hong Kong', and that any election by universal suffrage must contain institutional safeguards for this purpose. While all historically elected Chief Executives have been Nonpartisan (pro Beijing), a general election may upset this balance and lead to the legitimization of separatist policies. Beijing worries that this would set a dangerous precedent. The proposed vetting of candidates by >50% approval from the (mostly pro Beijing) Election Committee largely obviates this concern, as does the process by which Beijing must officially appoint the Chief Executive for the duration of their term.

It is thus important to realise that the resulting protests are not pro-democracy in the sense that Beijing is removing pre-existing rights, but that they are punting promised progress on the issue. Hong Kong has never had anything like representative democracy. It is also far from clear that a populist majority government would naturally serve the best interests of the people, who enjoy prosperity borne by the freewheeling economic nature of the city, a prosperity certain to be harmed in any chilling of relations with the mainland.

The resulting protest is not a singular group, but actually involves representatives of four distinct groups. The first participants in the protest were student led groups who announced and executed a weeklong class strike. Comprised of Scholarism, representing secondary school students, and Hong Kong Federation of Students, representing tertiary students, they began their protest by ditching school for a week to really get their point across. Of course, no longer in school, these students sought to occupy public spaces and subsequently had antagonistic encounters with police. While tame by the standards of the Arab Spring or even Occupy Wall Street, the use of pepper spray and tear gas against secondary school students galvanized the movement, leading to the accelerated involvement of the third group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a non violent local branch of the Occupy movement. The fourth movement, the pan-democracy camp, is an alliance of the many pro-democracy political factions in Hong Kong. They must be the most patient advocates of democracy in existence.

The student-led groups have stated their goals are

  • Universal suffrage.

  • Resignation of the incumbent Chief Executive CY Leung, partly in response to perceived disingenuous statements and actions as the protests proceeded.

  • The withdrawal of the decision of the National People's Congress.

  • The submission of a new electoral reform plan that includes civil nomination of candidates for the Chief Executive.

This is not your garden variety protest. International coverage focused on the largely peaceful nature of the protests. To date there has not been a single death, and a relatively tiny fraction of injuries. The protests, which have consisted of disruptive occupation of central arterial streets, have been exceptionally well organized, with guest lectures, homework, decentralized distribution of food, water, clothing, shelter, and the development of mobile medical facilities. Communication has also stepped up - lessons learned during Egypt's short-lived revolution now translate to dedicated apps for encrypted peer-to-peer mesh networks, although many participants' phones were also compromised by phishing attacks distributed by SMS. The protests became known as the Umbrella Movement due to the innovative use of umbrellas to deflect tear gas cannisters. Cannisters, protesters noted, often manufactured in the US.

As usual, mainstream media coverage has downplayed the size of the protests, especially in mainland China, but the protests regularly drew around 100,000 participants, easily occupying several blocks of the city with multi-leveled roads recognizable in the astonishingly prescient film Pacific Rim. Confrontations between police typically escalated to the firing of tear gas and arrests of dozens (but not hundreds) when protesters or police managed (often inadvertently) to surround each other. Arrested protesters have consistently been released soon after detention. As the protest has developed, protesters and police have generally interacted with a great deal of mutual respect, as the politically unaligned police clearly work long hours to keep the peace and have largely eschewed the earlier tactical error of appearing in riot gear and wielding batons. Perhaps the greatest strategic error and outbreak of violence occurred when police unfamiliar with social media were brought in from the mainland and beat up a bunch of school children, all recorded and instantly shared on the internet. This blunder is probably the single greatest contributor to the current detente, especially in contrast with the  overworked Hong Kong police, who have also protected the pro-democracy protesters from violent attacks by pro-business or Triads-linked counter protesters. As of this week, many protesters have returned to school, but still return to the streets in substantial numbers in rapid response to progress or lack thereof during ongoing negotiations.


What is the outcome? In many respects the protests have been atypical. Protesting about a proposed political process three years in advance is unprecedented. The key stakeholders, consisting of entrenched business interests aligned with Beijing, as well as a Beijing extremely wary of local movements for separatist or autonomous political innovation, are unlikely to budge. On the other hand, a new generation of youths educated with relatively unfiltered access to the internet and personal communication tools of extreme efficiency have a strong interest in gaining unfettered access to the political process both within Hong Kong and China more generally. Although the state has a jealously guarded monopoly on violence, it is likely that any suppressive response is likely to spawn matching unrest on the mainland, with the possibility of future Tiananmen Square-like trouble. Although the main sources of endemic unrest on the mainland - perceived economic inequality - are less relevant in Hong Kong, the possibility of a forged common cause is likely to lead to some tense meetings in the halls of power. At the least, token concessions carefully measured to avoid encouraging disruptive protest action are none-the-less likely to materialise in order to appease ongoing frustration in the youngest generation.

Perhaps the least terrible hypothetical outcome is the eventual formation of a second, lower house of government, a chamber of the people, elected by universal suffrage, to complement a senate-like body of the Election Committee and Legislative Council, where the Chief Executive becomes in essence a powerful Secretary of the Treasury. Meanwhile a Secretary of State elected by the lower house leads the government and bargains hard for Hong Kong's ongoing semi-autonomy and ensures that Hong Kong's continued prosperity is adequately shared. If moves in this general direction are not made officially, it is only a matter of time until app-based consensus gains enough legitimacy to claim a seat at the table of real power, with or without the approval of the existing governance structure.

Friday, October 17, 2014

NASA Commercial Crew Transport Capability: Winners and Loser

NB: This article originally appeared in the California Tech, the Caltech student newspaper, on Monday October 13 2014.

Starting in 2009, NASA began a process of selecting private companies to provide astronaut transport capabilities to low Earth orbit. Coinciding with the retirement of the space shuttle, the program is intended to maintain US crewed space capability, reduce dependence on the Russian space agency, cut costs, promote innovation, and allow NASA to focus on crewed deep space exploration, should they ever receive a mandate to do so.

Despite a substantial under-provision of funds from congress, the program has proceeded, with yearly reviews, designed in collaboration with the key players, to assess ongoing performance via 'Milestone goals' and keep the program focused. The biggest prize by far in this program is the development of the spacecraft, and by the beginning of 2014, three main contenders were still in play.

Boeing, the giant of US aerospace, has a long history of building rockets and space systems, including the Atlas V launch vehicle with United Launch Alliance. With tens of thousands of spare engineers and a deep understanding of the bid process, they proposed the CST-100, a very conservative capsule design based on proven technology.

SpaceX, the startup space company based in Hawthorne, has managed to bend the CCtCap process around their own development of the Dragon V2 capsule, a design with significantly more capability than called for during the process. With incredible design and manufacturing innovation, SpaceX is making waves in every part of the launch business, including their high-profile argument with ULA over sharing the military satellite launch business.

Sierra Nevada Corporation, a smaller and private aerospace electronics and systems company had branched out into the launch business with the development of the Dream Chaser lifting body spaceplane, as well as the new Virgin Galactic rocket motor. The Dream Chaser is designed to launch atop the Atlas V, then re-enter and land on a regular runway, whereas SpaceX and Boeing's capsules are designed to land with parachutes and/or rockets on land. All are designed to carry up to 7 people and to be reusable.




Sierra Nevada Corp.



Dragon V2

Dream Chaser





Gross mass to LEO

20,000 lbs

16,600 lbs

25,000 lbs

Milestone goals




The latest decision on capsule development was expected by September 2014. NASA was widely expected to pick two of the three designs to proceed, based on progress and assessments of future risk.

At this point it was anybody's race. Boeing had asked the most to develop the least capable capsule, but had experience and resources. SpaceX had asked the least to develop a futuristic capsule design, to be launched on their own Falcon 9 rocket. Sierra Nevada had also proposed a relatively cheap development for the Dream Chaser, but would have to launch it with ULA (and hence Boeing's) Atlas V rocket.

Adding to the complexity, the Atlas V is not presently rated for human flight. Rating the Atlas V is a complex program that Boeing understandably would be charging contractor rates for if its CST-100 capsule was not selected. If that wasn't enough, the Atlas V uses the Russian built (and thoroughly badass) RD-180 rocket on its first stage. ULA has admitted that they have a limited supply of engines and uncertain capability to build copies themselves. Recently they contracted Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos's private rocket company, to build a replacement engine (the BE-4) powered by methane and oxygen.

On September 16, NASA announced that SpaceX and Boeing would proceed, while Sierra Nevada would not receive further funding. In response, Sierra Nevada pledged to continue development with internal funds, cooked up a version of the Dream Chaser which could launch from the Stratolaunch plane, and filed a formal protest, citing similar progress to Boeing but a lower cost. The result of the protest will be determined by January, but the result was anticipated fairly widely.

NASA is leery about space plane designs, after the experience with the shuttle. The promise of a cheaper, reusable rocket was belied by the reality. The shuttle, for all its benefits, was also a technological nightmare, extremely expensive, not particularly safe, and spent a very large proportion of its overall power lifting wings, wheels, brakes, and empty space into orbit. When a really good rocket can get 3% of its launch mass into orbit, the last thing you want is a spacecraft which comes with substantial weight penalties for features of limited utility. While the shuttle could land on a runway, there were only a few runways long enough in the whole world, requiring precise targeting and good weather. In contrast, the Russian workhorse Soyuz capsule can land anywhere, including once famously on a frozen lake.

On Saturday, Aviation Week obtained and published a copy of NASA's report into the decision. This report states in part "[We] consider SNC's design to be the lowest level of maturity, with significantly more technical work and critical design decisions to accomplish. The proposal did not thoroughly address these design challenges and trades. [The proposal] has more schedule uncertainty. For example, some of the testing planned after the crewed flight could be required before the crewed flight, and the impact of this movement will greatly stress the schedule."

The Dream Chaser looks great and promises a lot, but it is clear from this quotation that large aspects of the design are still to be hashed out. Given that uncertainty, it is not surprising that NASA chose to exclude them from the final stage of the program.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sierras Hike 2014

Every year the Caltech Y, a Caltech associated community involvement organization, runs a week-long hike in the Sierras for incoming students just before orientation and rotation. Normally at this time of the year, I am involved in International Student Orientation, but this year I decided to lead the hike instead!

About 25 people total were involved, split into three groups according to degree of ambition to achieve altitude sickness. I was assigned the 'beginner' level group, which was pleasantly cruisy, walking 3-5 miles (5-8km) per day. Normally arriving at camp by midday, we had plenty of time to explore, climb, look for bears, filter water, and shiver.

For a change I used a GoPro instead of my regular camera. It is much more wide-angle and more versatile, though nearly useless for night-time photography.

After a week all three groups met at Lodgepole campground and compared notes and blisters. Noone died! Success all around. I had only previously hiked on the eastern escarpment, so it was nice to explore the interior of the range.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Burning Man

Dear reader(s),

Hot on the heels of my successful foray to Spain and Belgium comes yet another adventure, every bit as worthy of your attention and enjoyment!

What started in the mid 80s as a small group of friends gathering on a beach to burn stuff and party has now grown, in its ~28th year, to one of the most extraordinary and bizarre events in history. During the last week of August, approximately 80,000 people leave their drab, wretched lives and travel to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to build a city, do art, music, dance, and have a terrific time.

Having lived in the American south west for nearly 4 years, it was high time for me to go. Planning had been underway for more than a year, but at the last moment my designated transport, a tiny Cessna 152 plane, became unavailable. Plans awry, improvisation began.

S, O, and I met and crammed our stuff in S's Ford Taurus one exquisite Sunday afternoon in the recent past. By 6pm we had set out and laden with all the food, water, costumes, sparkles, and fairies we could possibly need, we sped up the 5, through Sacramento, Reno, and out into the deserts of Nevada. By 4am we had joined the queue of vehicles waiting to get in through the gate into Black Rock City. The place I had heard so much about yet never seen, never been, never lived, never experienced.

My curiousity turned to frustration and ambivalence as shortly after our arrival a series of unusual thunderstorms dumped 6 inches of water onto the playa, or dried up lake bed, on which we were parked. Instantly the surface turned to adhesive devil's cake and all vehicles were halted until the surface dried. When it became apparent that watching playa dry was like watching paint dry, and about as fast, the 15,000 or so of us stuck in line did what we do best - brought the party with us. By noon the surface was dry enough to walk on, and around us (the line was about 15 lanes wide and a few miles long) people cracked open their RVs, assembled bikes, changed into playa clothes (often not much of anything), fired up their barbecues, and even held spontaneous improvisational concerts on their roof of their RV, or got their DJ equipment out. A series of dark clouds spun overhead but the heavens held, and by 7pm we were on the move again.

At the wheel yet limited to 5mph, we met our greeter who provided a kit of information and most valuable advice: "Pee clear!". We dropped O at her camp; Basshenge, occasionally of the silent 'B', sporting a 100,000W sound system, then headed in to 5 o'clock and Esplanade. S's camp and my artistic nexus was Phage, a camp of mostly scientists and their sympathizers positioned in prime location on the front row. Black rock city is arranged as a series of concentric circles from A through L, and radial streets named after times on the clock from 2 through 10, with a gap between 10 and 2 for art and dancing.

Coming upon Phage, S unpacked her gear and I headed for the Tesla Coil. A project I'd been involved with since the beginning, my main (though minor overall) contributions were a less lethal capacitor bank and the external design of some of the structure. I was thrilled to see the structure standing (as opposed to in tiny pieces when last I saw it) and the coil in the middle. A ladder underneath supported the main builders, D and M. Oh no, the coil is here but doesn't work properly! My fears were unfounded. We dropped the ladder and fired up the midi controller. Soon gigantic bolts of lightning were sending 120dB shivers down my arms and spine. With some trepidation I approached the janky midi keyboard and proceeded to play what little piano music I could remember. The sound, light, and smell was overwhelming. Hordes of brightly lit burners milled around like moths to a candle flame - the sound was audible from the eponymous Man, a 105 foot wooden structure in the center of the city, not yet burning.

S and I drove out to the airport, where I was camping, and set up my camp. Despite the lack of a convenient wing I was able to raise my shade and hammock, driving rather disposable stakes into the living playa with a series of mallets of steadily increasing size and lethality.

I crawled into my trusty hammock and passed out.

The following morning I volunteered to be an oar-less galley slave and helped produce enough hash browns, veggies, sausage, and so on for a hundred people who were camping at the airport. When I had eaten enough to last until dinner I hiked into the city where, for the first time, I took a look under the light of day. Phage was located on a street corner with containers, several trucks, parked cars, shade tubes containing tents, a galley, dining area, steam yurt, generator with trenched 3-phase power, fresh water hose, grey water disposal, art installations, flags, a dome, and two art cars, Dr Malthus and Dr Brainlove.

Art cars, or mutant vehicles, are the only powered vehicles allowed in the city. Limited to a maximum speed of 5mph, they must disguise their vehicular origins and look like something else. The photo album has a few photos of various art cars, but in total there are over a thousand, ranging from tiny single person vehicles up to large articulated multi-story party complexes sporting millions of computer controlled LEDs and flame throwers. One art car, called Robot Heart, features a sound system with a mere 85,000 watts of undistorted subwoofer and traditionally the best DJs in the world, though the lineup is never announced. This is a video someone else made about Robot Heart.

Dr Malthus belongs to one of the sister camps of Phage, and is styled as a military half track with outdoor and indoor sitting areas as well as a roof lounge/DJ table. The indoor space features squashy leather arm chairs, a fireplace, and a mounted moose head. The driving area is surrounded by a cage to comply with liquor open-carry laws, and believe it or not, the vehicle is road legal.

Dr Brainlove is Phage's new art car. Started only 6 months ago, she is a converted school bus. A large geodesic brain is mounted on top of the bus, modeled on an MRI scan of one of the designers. Each geodesic node features a lighting node with dozens of computer controlled LEDs that, combined, fire like neurons, and are controlled by an EEG cap worn by a willing volunteer. As you may have gathered, Phagelings are somewhat geeky.

Brainlove was the very opposite of road legal, being GIGANTIC in size. It had to be assembled on playa, and at this point the lighting system was being put together. Composed of 3D printed parts, they needed to be aligned, the wiring checked, then ziptied into submission and position. Only 178 nodes were required for completion.

Slightly more complete than before, Brainlove was loaded with a kaleidoscope of people and taken for a drive out on the playa to rehearse safety procedures during the day. What do you do if, while driving, a horde of hippies jumps on the structure and begins climbing? I sat on the pre-frontal cortex and kept an eye out for people trying to get run over.

Back at camp preparations were underway for the Tuesday night party, requiring the running of optical fiber to run the coil under the esplanade. A trenching machine cut a hole, we threaded 100 feet of conduit, and laid fiber. Only took a few hours! After a quick break for dinner, I returned to phage in time for the party, then walked out to 10 o'clock. At night, the playa is completely dark save for art, cars, and people festooned with LEDs, EL wire, flame throwers, and lasers. One camp had a trio of very powerful lasers shining over the city onto a nearby mountain to display the time. At the far end of the city I was seriously tired and returned to phage and the airport. On the way back I fell asleep on my feet several times, waking up to find I was still walking but in the wrong direction, or with flaming art cars zooming by.

The following day I spent mostly walking around taking it easy, meeting new people, checking out the big art installations on the playa (most of them at least 3 stories high), and resting. That morning the Black Rock City ultramarathon is run, and a few of them were passing the camp. Here's a video from 2013:

I had brought a pair of welding goggles dark enough to look at the sun, and found that after about 10 minutes, your eyes adjust and you can see other things through them. Walking around where people are silhouettes against the sky and everything is a funny tinge of green did not seem out of place at all. In the afternoon I made my way back to the airport and gave the ACME Bomb Company cocktail hour talk on Cosmology, an hour or so long speech describing this history of the universe in reverse chronological order. A large and appreciative audience asked useful questions and were highly amused by my descriptions of metallic element nuclear synthesis, oxygen isotope variance, interplanetary meteorite exchange, the cosmic microwave, neutrino, and gravitational wave backgrounds, and so on. In the background, a couple of powered paragliders were looping and rolling close enough to the ground that they regularly touched it with a wing tip. After grabbing some dinner, I hitched a ride on a perilously dangerous ice bike back to Phage and gave a second talk, this time on black hole collisions. The kicker there is that at the moment of greatest gravitational wave emission the signal actually vanishes because the common black hole event horizon grows and swallows all its own screams.

We got the Tesla coil working and managed to attract some talented pianists, whose memorable performance still rings in my ears. I walked around the inner playa with S and discussed business, space launch, and a few other interesting ideas before stumbling back to the airport and passing out.

The following day I strategised and got a ride on the skydiving plane. Burning Sky Camp runs a skydiving plane all week and allows divers and riders to get a free trip up and around Black Rock City. That morning, a record had been set for the largest simultaneous nude jump (15), so all were in high spirits. At the zenith, 10,000 feet off the deck, the last of the divers leapt out and the pilot cut the power and put the plane into a steep, zero G dive. We were back on the ground in just over a minute.

In the heat I walked slowly around to 7 o'clock and K where I met some Caltech types, chilled in the shade, and had a chat. By this point I had realised that Burning Man is not really an alternate reality. The culture is not so different to the culture in any university or musical society, or at least parts of it. I had experienced substantially more culture shock in many foreign countries. Burning Man is overwhelmingly affluent white people from San Francisco. Cultural dislocation is not really the point.

Accidents do occur. Legend has it that very few people die at Black Rock City because most people live long enough to get on the medevac plane, after which they are declared dead in Reno. The previous night, someone fell from and was crushed by an art car, the first such death since 2003. From conversations with various rangers, there were many more near-misses, in which injured people came back to life in the nick of time.

Back at Phage, the talk was of a new art installation. A post-hole digging auger had become stuck out in the deep playa, so a decision was made to convert it to an artwork entitled 'The Lobster Trap'. A set of handcuffs was ziptied to it, a large sign saying 'do not touch', and a set of unrelated keys. A day later, someone rode out to check there weren't any skeletons attached and found the ziptie broken and the handcuffs gone - incredibly, someone had locked themselves to it! Later, the identity of the trapped individual was discovered - we had caught a fellow Phageling - who had had to get the handcuffs taken off by the police.

M and I spent a pleasant hour climbing all over the Phage dome attempting to install a new lighting system, then back at the airport a cocktail hour talk on deep brain electrical stimulation, followed by an excelsior dinner of chicken, salad, and curry. That evening I helped do the dishes, but made it back to phage in time for the tail end of a talk on the IBMI, a group dedicated to the improvement of Burning Man by turning it into a two day networking event for 300 people. The coil was once again on fire until an unidentified fault (strategic power cable disconnection by grumpy person) gave me the evening off and I went to explore center camp, which had a sweet Jazz bar and an even better Tango dome with funky LED triangles and nice music.

The following day, my fourth on the playa, was windy and dusty. Around noon, K and I went on an extensive bike adventure. At this point I realised not bringing a bike to BM was a serious oversight. On the playa, visibility was down to 10 feet, so we rode aimlessly, discovering art, lost people, and burned stuff at random. We made our way to 9 o'clock, picked up some mail, and spent a while finding its recipients and delivering it. On the way, of course, meeting lots of interesting people. At 3 o'clock, we visited another post office, called the BRC3PO (Black Rock City 3 o'clock Post Office), with a Star Wars Theme, obtained 3 more letters, and delivered them after a detour to the deep playa wherein we found yet more cool widely separated art and nice people.

Back at Phage around 6pm, it was time for 'Ask a Drunk Scientist', in which hordes of unfulfilled PhDs swarmed the Esplanade armed with megaphones, labcoats, signs, and attitude, haranguing passers by to ask us anything. "Is a PhD worth it?" "How much debt do we have?" "Can science help you find love?" "Why are sunsets red?" and so on. A great opportunity to apply knowledge and patiently explain stuff in an understandable way!

That evening, M gave a talk on the Tesla coil, answering the three most commonly asked questions: "How does it make sparks?" "How does it make music?" "Why doesn't it kill hippies?". After that we were infested with people who couldn't play very well, which is a problem when everyone within half a mile has to shout over the noise of yet another terrible rendition of Fuer Elise...

By this point the Institute LED sculpture was up and running - a pair of LED encrusted spheres with a bewildering display of patterns, together with some pretty good dance music. I alternated grooving with cerebral chats on the Moveable Feast, gave a few massages, and then passed out.

It is Saturday! The day of The Burn! All week we have been working for The Man, and soon he must be burned. With Burning Man closing only 3 days later, it is time to strike! First the Phage Dome was unbolted, parted, and packed. Then a gigantic crane lifted the coil, we detached the legs, then the rest of the structure, power electronics, and so on. Rugs were rolled, bikes corralled - I managed to salvage an abandoned Huffy Cranbrook (new and already falling apart) that became my ride for the next few days. Shade tubes were collapsed. Piles of stuff 10 feet high formed around various trucks, trailers, and containers. Hexayurts were disassembled. 

Come 5pm K and I rode to the airport for the cocktail party beneath the Star Port, enjoyed a terrific band, climbed the observation tower, watched the planes, made an incredible salad, and then ate absurd quantities of paella, pork, beans, bacon, and salad. Several of my airport friends worried that I still had not been awarded a playa name. Some people said it can take a decade to get one. One pilot told a story about a ride he had gifted to a couple in which the man proposed, and then the woman revealed she was pregnant! Much excitement!

We rode back to Phage, parked, then walked out into the playa. The Man was surrounded by a Colosseum of art cars all pumping music into a crowd of 70,000 people mostly seated between them and an inner fire containment circle. A few thousand fire twirlers performed, followed by fireworks and gigantic fireballs as the Man was lit. The facade burned away quickly, the inner structure of very large lumps of timber took longer. Tornadoes of smoke, flame, and embers rose downwind of the sculpture and at times we were showered with glowing cinders. After about 90 minutes the ankles burned through and the structure leaned, collapsed, and fell. Back at phage D had finished packing the Moveable Feast so we said goodbye. At the airport, I was still buzzed so I rode around the perimeter fence, a distance of about 11km, seeing all sorts of odd things in the dark. Already, a line of vehicles had started to leave the event. Back at camp, I had my daily wet-wipe bath, was re-covered in dust from the shade structure, and prepared for bed. 

Before coming to Burning Man, I had been warned that my habit of wearing sandals everywhere would be my undoing, due to a mysterious and scary condition known as playa foot. Allegedly, playa dust is super alkaline and, like laundry powder, will burn your exposed skin, leading to dryness, cracks, infections, and probable amputation. Now, I was relatively certain that small amounts of dust in foot wrinkles would have their pH neutralised by sweat and then form a protective layer, but ever the servant of science I decided to clean my left foot thoroughly (thus destroying any protective layer while also removing the offending material) and leaving my right foot as the control. I also brought a supply of vinegar in case of emergency pH adjustment. After 5 days of steeping in playa, neither foot showed more than a mild sunburn, which annoyed my inner scientist no end. My left foot had a couple of scrapes from being trodden on, but that was it.

Sunday. The man, which had previously towered over the whole event, was gone. Packing up continued. I rode out to the deep playa and found the art I'd previously missed, including the zollotrope and the last outpost. The zollotrope is a gigantic suspended wheel with sculptures attached. At night, it spins in time with a strobe and the objects appear to be moving. The last outpost was a very interesting, dark artwork. An interactive building set in the near future during a time of societal breakdown due to aliens or zombies or whatever, it conveyed a sense of paranoia and black humour. Detailed journals and various signs were quite immersive, and made a nice contrast to the usual love/harmony-centered artistic zeitgeist.

Back at Phage, Brainlove was being dismantled. I clambered all over the structure for hours pulling zipties, nodes, wires, optical fibers, thread protectors, and throwing them all into labelled bags. Finally, the bare structure was ready for disassembly. Two teams of two climbed to the peak and began impact drilling the nodes apart. To ensure safety we had safety gloves, safety helmets (optional) and safety whiskey (compulsory). Obviously you had to check what you were standing on, since large parts of the structure became fluid once certain bolts were removed. After only a few hours most of the structure was disassembled, and by the following day, packed. In one casualty, a freed strut swung around and smacked my foot - a small amount of blood was readily clotted by some playa dust I found in my pocket and work proceeded. Needless to say I strongly advocated major design changes for any future brain. 

Drank a lot of water, then grabbed a rake with L and proceeded to moop. Moop, or Matter Out Of Place, is bad news on the playa. The camp has to be thoroughly mooped, or de-mooped, before going home. Any foreign object must be picked up and packed out. After an hour or so, L and I had demooped the area formerly under the Tesla coil and the Phage dome, collecting more than a liter of hair, feathers, sequins, metal shards, bolts, sawdust, wood chips, contaminated dirt, thread, fiber, string, paper, plastic, and so on.

Back at the airport I disassembled my own shade. Getting said disposable stakes out of the ground required vice grips and long bits of metal for levers. Dinner was pasta, salad, meatballs, and mushrooms, followed by a ride back to the playa for the temple burn.

The temple is a structure designed and built each year along the same axis as the Man, roughly at 12 o'clock. Within it people write or leave tributes to deceased friends or relatives. When I visited earlier during the week, there were numerous tributes to Robin Williams, as well as thousands of others of the dearly departed. The day after the Man is burned, the temple is burned. The structure is incredibly beautiful and ornate, but ultimately serves to celebrate the finite nature of life. In contrast to the previous night, tonight the circle of art cars was silent, the people sat silently and watched. The structure was lit on the down-wind side and the flames quickly spread. With its high surface area, the temple was soon a skeleton which fell with a half-twist. People approached the flames and watched as its last parts turned to hot gas and rose into the sky. Here's a video of the burn, the collapse happens just after 9 minutes:

Back at Phage everything was packed, so P and I sat on 3-phase power adapters and discussed Burning Man romance in terms of semi-conductor theory before returning to the airport and sleeping.

Monday I struck my own camp, then returned to Phage for the last time and mooped for hours, finding all sorts of good stuff. We did our best to return the surface to its original state, including crushing and filling trenches, tire tracks, and so on. K was my ride home, and after finding R, we loaded my stuff, said goodbye at the airport, and left at about 1pm. Traffic was slow out of BRC as far as Gerlach, then picked up. We fueled at Carson City, and drove south on the 395. The sun set as we pulled into the Mobil at Lee Vining, where I conspired to eat a reasonable yet light dinner and marveled at the bathroom with running water. K, R, and I were in no hurry to get home, so we took a detour to Mono Lake and explored the tufa towers by moonlight, then continued on to Mammoth. 

After a few false starts, we found a Mammoth hot spring around midnight and soaked under the stars and meteors for nearly 2 hours. At last, a place to get clean! The following morning I found the one place I had neglected to scrub - the back of my hands - still carried a patina of playa dust. I climbed into my carefully packed clean clothes and K drove us south through the Owen's valley until just before dawn, we explored the Fossil Falls by flashlight. I drove some more, passing through Red Rock Canyon at dawn, with Venus and Jupiter clearly visible in the east. R came to life near Mojave, so we ducked into a Denny's, I ate a decent meal, and then R drove us the rest of the way to Pasadena, arriving around 10am.

I had heard of, read about, and imagined Burning Man for years. It surpassed all my positive expectations and failed to meet my negative ones. The climate, culture, and conditions were less extreme and much more friendly than I had anticipated. The diversity of artistic expression exceeded my expectations by about a factor of 20. That is, if you try and imagine all the things you think are possible at Burning Man, you will be lucky to get to 5% of what is there. I can and will recommend at least one visit to anyone who thinks they might like to go. I don't think it's the universal panacea or the only place I can ever be myself, but I am privileged to live an existence which ordinarily suits me quite well!

Here are two slightly NSFW videos which capture at least a fraction of what Burning Man is about.

The ten principles of Burning Man
Radical Inclusion
Radical Self-reliance
Radical Self-expression
Communal Effort
Civic Responsibility
Leaving No Trace