How to Build a House on Mars

| 2014-08-29

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of pieces for Mental Floss on the surprising engineering obstacles to building a colony on Mars. It was well received (though the edits left something to be desired) and I thought I’d share the pieces here. Part 1 provides an overview of what we’re up against.

In 2001, NASA sent a particle energy spectrometer to Mars to study the red planet’s radiation. This was called the Mars Radiation Environment Experiment, or MARIE. The device found that the surface of Mars has two and half times the radiation that you’d get at the International Space Station, and that’s not even counting the solar proton events, which come without warning and really bombard the place. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Why don’t we worry about solar proton events here on Earth? I mean we share the same sun!” Good question. When the protons of an SPE hit Earth, the magnetosphere pulls them to the poles, and the ionosphere (just below the magnetosphere) handles the rest. This is called polar cap absorption, and is one of the many reasons why Earth is a wonderful place indeed. Mars, lacking a magnetosphere, offers no such protection. How much of a problem is this, human-life-wise? After a series of solar flares in 2003, MARIE was damaged and rendered inoperable. If the sun is frying the machines on Mars designed to measure such solar salvos, imagine what it will do to humans. So, cancer: CHECK.

Part 2 explained the challenges associated with actually shooting people and equipment from the third planet to the fourth, and then finding a way to get those things, biological and mechanical, on the ground.

Getting something to Mars and landing it there is basically impossible. You might think it’s just a matter of building a rocket and pointing it in the right direction, and you’d be right, technically, but the men and women who have to actually carry the one and do the hard math know that there’s a dark power at work that often trumps our greatest engineering achievements. There’s no sense in dancing around the issue. There is a giant space monster that doesn’t want us on Mars… Humans have been sending things to (or near) Mars since 1960, and in that time there have been an inordinate number of accidents. Sometimes we’ve lost contact with our probes. Sometimes they just crash into the planet. Sometimes they never even make it out of Earth’s orbit. Scientists sometimes attribute our weird misfortune to the Great Galactic Ghoul—also called the Mars Curse. The Red Planet, it seems, is located in the stellar equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.

In part 3, I described the human problem. See, once you’re settled into your new Martian bungalow, you have a new problem: your new Martian bungalow will be the only place you ever go, ever.

The sheer scope of the challenges associated with building a colony on another planet should be pretty clear at this point. Yes, each of the technologies covered have solid foundations and laboratory successes, but they’re going to have to actually work, and work well, and not break, to be useful on Mars. And they’re all going to have to work at the same time. Any one break in the chain would pretty much spell certain death for literally everyone on the planet. So if you plan to move to Mars, you’d better be an optimist… Here’s the thing. Our Martian colonists will be confined mostly indoors, will live with the possibility of sudden extinction at any given moment, and—garden tending and science projects aside—will be faced with jaw-clenching boredom. On Mars, there are no trips to the mall, no walks in the park, no Redbox runs, no rainy afternoons at the coffee shop, no nights on the town. There is only your habitat and what you brought with you. The Mars 500 crew tried passing the time by playing Guitar Hero and watching DVDs, but they quickly grew sedentary and lethargic. Ultimately, only two out of the six crewmembers adjusted to the mission. On an actual Martian colony, the risk of a crewmember or colonist snapping is all too real, and the result could be devastating beyond imagination.

The Skeleton Dance at 85

| 2014-08-23

Happy 85th birthday to Walt Disney’s magnificent short animation, The Skeleton Dance.

According to the Walt Disney Family Museum:

It is not difficult to see why Stalling’s idea of “musical novelties” captured [Walt] Disney’s imagination. It freed him from the restrictions of star personality. It also played to Disney’s early fascination with eccentric dances and music, eventually enabling him to work with free form ghost stories, legends, and fairy tales. But most intriguing, it provided the chance to break away from gag-centered cartoons in favor of atmospheric mood pieces. He thought The Skeleton Dance “would be dandy with all the effects poured in it.” He enthused over possible formal experiments: “I think we could cartoon the skeletons—and double print over a real background.”

An Interview with Megan Abbott

| 2014-06-18

Over at The Atlantic, I interview my friend Megan Abbott about her latest novel, The Fever. A snippet:

I read in an interview that Dare Me was a direct result of themes you explored in The End of Everything.

Yes. I had a character in The End of Everything—a girl who plays field hockey—and I was watching girls play field hockey and they were such badasses. They were barreling down the field and they looked like Lord of the Flies. Watching them, I was so impressed. And I thought that’s where it all goes for some girls. They get all that rage of being a teenage girl out on the field, and that led me to look at other girl sports and I found that the most dangerous for girls with the most catastrophic injuries was cheerleading, which really surprised me. It changed a lot from my day. And it turned out to be this fascinating excursion. It’s a journey from which I never emerged. I still follow that world a bit. They just felt like warriors to me, and it was a really exciting way to think about the anger of girls that age, and the aggression, and the ambition perhaps most of all.

Read the rest here.

How the War in Afghanistan Became Background Noise

| 2014-06-09

Over at Vox, I write about how the war in Afghanistan became background noise, and how that is often used for political gain. From the piece:

One surprising aspect of the unfolding story of Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner of war, is the public’s apparent interest in again discussing the war in Afghanistan. It’s certainly been a long time coming. Opinion polls and military enlistment figures suggest record lows in the number of Americans who support, pay attention to, or serve in the war on terrorism. As a nation we have internalized our longest military conflict; it has suffused the social, political, and cultural body. The war is not something the nation is doing; it’s simply something that is.

Read the rest here.

What Happens When You Are Nominated for a Prestigious Book Award

| 2014-05-16

(Not to spoil the ending, but we didn’t win. I should also clarify that I use the word “prestigious” here not because I’m uppity—trust me, I hate myself—but because the award is prestigious. In my experience, these types of things often feel a bit mechanical, all done by email or snail mail or whatever. Look, when that Kennedy majesty touches you, you feel it.)

Last week I was driving in Baton Rouge traffic, which is generally acknowledged (or should be, anyway) as the worst traffic on the Earth planet, which defies logic because Baton Rouge is a provincial town at best. When you drive in, say, Dublin, where the lanes are narrower than the cars, you can at least appreciate that there are millennia of horse-drawn carts and such that dictated the width of the streets, and that just because cars are the latest fad in human transportation doesn’t mean the city needs to change, and if you’re so uppity about it, anyway, why don’t you just take the DART and leave the streets to everyone else. But Baton Rouge? There are no excuses, and worse, there is no public transportation. And worse yet, if only because it’s inexplicable, the people of Baton Rouge are actively hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists. I run anywhere from 5 to 13 miles every single day (and of course there are no sidewalks) and the sneers I get from drivers, who are busy texting while steering their Yukons with their knees, turn me cold. These are people who consider walking—man’s oldest form of transportation—to be weird and uncivilized and deserving of scorn and so they get as close to you as they can without actually killing you, and I am not exaggerating. And so I, not giving a damn, remain as immovable as Bartleby the Scrivener. I’d prefer if the Yukon didn’t hit me, but a man has to stand for something, even if it is a little patch of crumbling Baton Rouge asphalt.

So while I was driving my phone rang, and it was late in the day and the area code was 202, which meant D.C., and I just didn’t feel up for talking work that late in the day and was just going to let it go to voicemail, but then I remembered that if I don’t work I don’t get paid, and so I answered.


How to Write a Book on an iPad

| 2014-05-13

Like many writers, I work from home. But I’m very good at not writing, and always looking for an excuse to not-write with alacrity. Home provides those excuses, from desks in sudden, urgent need of organization to laundry piled a little too high to the ceiling fan in unexpected need of vacuuming. (I need not even mention the siren song of the Xbox.) And so when I need to be productive, which is every day, I go elsewhere to work. Accordingly, my actual office fits in a Timbuk2 messenger bag.

I can usually be found at a coffee shop. A solid 75% of my writing is done on an iPad mini, which always seems to surprise people, who seem to associate the iPad more with Angry Birds than genuine productivity. Once you get the right setup, though, the iPad mini really can be a superior alternative to writing on a laptop. It’s light, portable, and there are far fewer distractions that might lead you from your manuscript. When I work from my MacBook Pro, for example, I’m constantly tempted to check my email and scan the news and check Twitter and so on, whereas the iPad is pretty much a one-thing-at-a-time device. (Yes, there are notifications, but I disable them for exactly this reason.)

Here is how to turn your iPad into a dream writing machine.


Where Did the Pseudonym Go?

| 2014-05-02

Most of my work over the last few years was published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady. This was because there are already at least a dozen serious writers named David W. Brown and I was afraid of being lost in a crowd. Also, let’s be honest: the name is pretty boring. Anyway, I’ve found a lot of success in my career, and things have reached a point where a pseudonym is more of a hindrance than a help. So let’s all agree that D.B. Grady was killed in a bar fight in Guadalajara, and David W. Brown has stepped in to keep the words flowing and deadlines met.


11,800 People Sharing in the Existential Agony of Writing

| 2014-04-14

Over at The Atlantic you will find one of the best things I’ve ever written. This year I attended the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and set my observations to paper.

Some behind-the-scenes goodness: The bulk of the piece was written immediately after the conference, on the red-eye from Seattle to Orlando. (The free-flowing wine from the American Airlines first class cabin increased my productivity exponentially.) I filed the piece the following morning from Walt Disney World, and it went back and forth in editing for a couple of weeks. (I first submitted something like 8,000 words, and my editor cut it down, and then I added a few thousand more words, and it was cut some more, and so on, until we found a happy medium. A lot of darlings were killed in the process, though.) I’m very proud of the resulting essay and if ever a collection of my essays is published, this is the star of the book.

From the piece:

It is very hard to explain to, say, your tipsy uncle during a holiday gathering that, no, the novel isn’t ready yet, and yes, it has been in progress for well over three years, and that this is normal—and yes, you are working on it—and that even when the book is finished, it doesn’t just go to the printers and hit shelves a few weeks later. And once it does come out—yes, goddammit, I really am working on it—the first question asked by tipsy uncle is, “Are they making a movie of it?” and, statistically speaking, “they” probably are not, and this news is received as some kind of failure, like the book just wasn’t good enough or something. And then you (i.e. the author) are advised to write a book like Harry Potter, because J.K. Rowling is doing quite well (“She’s richer than the queen!”), and perhaps my favorite of all familial declarations, “I’d write a book but I just don’t have time,” as though a craft you’ve devoted ten thousand hours to honing is something you do because of a light schedule in a tranquil life. This is almost always followed by the  postscript, “I’d like to write it from one of those villas in Tuscany.”

Read the rest here.

Writing Process Book Blog Tour

| 2014-04-13

Erin Kelly tagged me on some blog post thing, and as a result I am supposed to answer four predetermined questions. Herewith. I’m supposed also to tag four other people, but I don’t know four people and so this thing dies here.

Q. What are you working on?

My MFA thesis. I’ll have something suitable to submit by the end of my program (this summer), but the manuscript I envision is so long and with so many years of revisions ahead that I’d may as well be talking about the design of my flying car. (Oh man it’s going to be silver and have doors like the Delorean from Back to the Future.)

And of course I live on the freelance writer’s thousand word treadmill. Every day you start with a word count of zero. It’s exhausting and demoralizing most of the time. On rare occasions, I feel something like joy at grinding out the day’s words, but mostly it’s like waking with a gun to your head. (Of course these are problems I prayed to have when I was starting out.) On some level, I guess I feel that anything that’s not fiction is just not serious, and I haven’t moved the needle on fiction yet, and the clock and calendar continue to advance with no sign of exhaustion. Anyway what I’m writing right now matters. It’s just going to take time.


The Story of the Special Atomic Demolition Munition

| 2014-02-05

In this month’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Adam Rawnsley and I have a story on the special atomic demolition munition, which was a backpack nuclear weapon developed during the Cold War. U.S. Army Special Forces teams trained to strap on the nukes and jump out of airplanes behind enemy lines. Once on the ground, they’d sneak to targets and vaporize them. It was part of the West’s strategy for a limited nuclear war against the Soviets. Adam and I spent 14 months working on the article, which involved countless hours of interviews with the men who carried the Bomb and some incredible documents, photographs, and videos acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. Here’s a little snippet:

Leading up to the operation, during four days of preparation, Army regional experts briefed them on routes of infiltration and anticipated enemy patrols. The team pored over aerial photographs and an elaborate mock-up of the target — a large, slightly U-shaped building. It’s situated in a wide, open area with a roving guard, but at least the team won’t have to sneak inside. Hanging awkwardly from the parachute harness of Davis’s intelligence sergeant is a 58-pound nuclear bomb. With a weapon this powerful, they can just lay it against a wall, crank the timers, and let fission do its work.

You can read it online here.