The Technological Innovation I was Reluctant to Feature in Dust

Part of the premise of Dust is that the human race has grown beyond its means and as a result many colonies across the Republic  are struggling to adequately feed their populations.  When Nick, our protagonist, travels to Dust, he expects to find a local population filled with the emaciated and destitute, with people begging for scraps and the whole of the colony struggling to survive.

Much to his surprise, that’s not what he finds.  Instead he finds a population that is having no trouble supporting itself.  He finds his plate is filled everyday with strange but scrumptious meals that leave him more than satisfied.  This delicious bounty is the result of Dust’s top mind, the old geneticist Doctor Aldous Sinclair.  Doctor Sinclair used his scientific gifts to modify crops so that they could thrive in the harsh environment of Dust, thereby guaranteeing the colony’s survival.

The people of Dust rely on genetically-modified foods for survival.

My reluctance to include genetically-modified food in Dust doesn’t stem from any fear of genetic modification itself.  There is nothing inherently wrong with something that is genetically modified.  In fact, human-made modifications can potentially be very beneficial, but that doesn’t excuse the shameful way genetically-modified foods have been handled in the United States.

Just under a year ago, I stumbled across this TEDx talk from Robyn O’Brien.  Robyn does an excellent job laying out the case against the dangers and risks that have been introduced into the U.S. food supply through the introduction of unregulated genetically-modified foods. In the presentation, she reviews the data that shows an increase in food allergies, cancer rates, and other issues that have occurred since genetically-modified foods started showing up in our food supply.  She does note that correlation does not equal causation.  There are times though, when better safe than sorry or caveat emptor should be our underlying approach.

As I sat at my kitchen table with my three little girls, I realized just how much I agreed with Robyn’s approach.  We’ve made wholesale changes to our food buying habits, buying as many organic, natural, and chemical-free food products as we can.  These days, you’re much more apt to find foods from Cascadian Farms, Annie’s, Kashi, or Mom’s Best then you are to find Kellogg’s, Nabisco, or Kraft.  That’s not to say we’re perfect as the need for quick snacks and fast meals with our little girls sometimes makes processed foods necessary.  However, we have made substantial changes.

Frankly, I think it’s fairly shameful how governments in other developed countries around the world have seen fit to protect their citizens from the inherent dangers that could be resulting from their foods and yet the government “by the people, for the people’ has not.  I find the mindset that many people seem to have, that food or chemicals are okay until they are proven harmful, to be perplexing.

When a new medication is introduced to the public, it is required to be tested to ensure that it is reasonably safe (there are problems with biased studies here, but the approach is reasonable).  Side effects must be identified and if a medication proves to be too detrimental, it is not approved.  Yet, medication is not required for consumption everyday by every person in this country.

Everyone, man, woman, or child has to eat.  Yet for the food we put on our plates, we seem to have put the bottom-line of corporations ahead of the safety of the people.

Until this situation is rectified, grocery shopping truly requires a ‘buyer beware’ approach.  I know too many people with cancer to want to put my family at risk by eating food that is ultimately unsafe.

So, as I said, I was reluctant to include this technological innovation in Dust.  I considered adding an exchange that would show how Sinclair tested his modifications to ensure that they were safe, but I couldn’t find any way to naturally blend it in with the story.  I considered not having genetically-modified organisms, but they were important to establishing Sinclair’s abilities.  In the end, I left them in the book with the rationalization that genetic modification is not inherently bad, but I knew I’d be writing a post to express my reservations with the approach the United States has taken.

You can follow Robyn on twitter @unhealthytruth.

Advice on Interviewing for an Internal Promotion

Over the past two weeks, I’ve interviewed 9 candidates who’ve applied to become the lead of the Station Training Lead Group. This group is responsible for overseeing the completion of training for all of NASA’s human spaceflight missions related to ISS.  The group lead will be counted on to keep a team of high performing employees acting in concert with the overall goals of the Mission Operations Directorate while fostering the leadership and integration abilities of each one of those employees.   It is critical that I select someone who is going to lead this team in the right direction.

Each applicant I interviewed had more than 15 years of experience with NASA or its subcontractors.  Each applicant had strong backgrounds working  in human spaceflight and had major accomplishments on their resume.  I had first-hand experience working with some of the candidates; some, I didn’t know at all.  How do you separate those candidates?  Here’s what I looked for:

  • Did you do your homework?
Did you take the time to learn something about the organization?  Did you talk to anyone in the organization to find out what the perspective of the employees is?  Did you talk to any of our customers to find out anything about their perspective?  Show that you’ve taken the time to get a grasp on what our priorities are, what challenges the organization faces, what the outlook of the group is, and what we’ve been doing lately.  This is particularly imperative for someone coming from outside the organization.  I’m going to need someone who can step in right away and be a leader.  Doing this shows me that you’re proactive, that you’re truly interested in this organization, and that your putting effort into this.
  • Do you really want this position?
There comes a time for many employees when they feel like they’ve done their time and they are ready to be a leader in an organization.  There also comes a time when you grow tired of facing the same challenges day-in and day-out and you’re ready for something different.  I understand those feelings and have had them at different points in my career.  Just wanting to do something different or just wanting a chance at leadership doesn’t show me that you really want the position that I’m interviewing people to fill.  I have 9 candidates who want that promotion.  The reason you want the promotion is an important factor.  Do you care about our mission?  Do you care about the direction of the organization?  Our work is challenging, draining, frustrating, and constantly changing.  If you’re only in this for the title or the money or to do something different, then I’m going to look for someone who wants it more.
  • Have Vision
If you’re going to be a leader in this organization, then I want to know that you’ve thought about the direction the organization needs to go.  How can we be more effective?  How can we improve?  Is there something we should stop doing?  Is there something we should start doing?  Do you have some idea of where you’re going to lead this group?  What’s important to you?  What’s important to my boss?  Put some thought into it.  Be specific.  Give me two or three concrete things that show you’re going to come into this position and work with me to maintain or improve a world-class organization.  Your vision doesn’t need to match mine.  In fact, your vision may be better than mine.  If that happens, you will force me to consider you for this position.
  • Know Thyself

Even if you do all of the above, you need to be completely and brutally honest with me about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.  Know your strengths and weaknesses, tell me how you play up to your strengths, and tell me how you overcome your weaknesses.  Be honest about them.  If you’re not, I will find out about them when I talk to the people you’ve worked with for the last 15 years.  Sure, I will talk to your references, but I expect those people to be generally positive about you.  I’m also going to talk to people I know you’ve worked with.  I’ll talk to Flight Directors, other managers, co-workers, and anyone else I can find with an opinion.  If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you’re co-workers and former and current bosses will or at least they’ll have their opinion.  If that opinion is different than what you told me, then it becomes a case of your word against theirs and I have to wonder if you don’t see your shortcomings.  Having shortcomings is not a bad thing; not knowing how to deal with those shortcomings is.  Not being honest about them is a dealbreaker.

Doing these things won’t guarantee you a promotion, but it will put you in contention. If you don’t do these things, then I will find someone who will.

Fatherhood is the Engine that Drives Dust

***MINOR STORY SPOILERS AHEAD***

I’ve written a bit on the technological backbone of Dust and the evolution of technology that enables the story, but I haven’t yet written much on what Dust is really about. The story for Dust came to me when I asked myself one question:

What would society be like if you were only allowed to have one child?

Growing up, I never really envisioned myself as much of a family man.  I had no dreams or aspirations of having kids and having a family.  I never thought about it.  I thought a helluva lot more about getting a chance to walk on alien worlds and travelling through the stars then I ever did about family.  My own experiences with my parents were different  with a biological father who abandoned my mother and I when I was 2 years old and an adoptive father with his own struggles.

When my wife and I first discussed having kids, I didn’t really have an answer to how many children I wanted.  My wife, seeing me as the responsible-yet-calculating engineer that I was, figured I would be a solid provider for the family, but I would probably be fairly distant with the kids.  I was awkward around other people’s kids, not really able to interact with them in a way that suggested I would be any good with my own kids.

When my firstborn arrived, my change in perspective was profound. Yes, I felt naturally protective which is no surprise.  Not only did I fulfill my obligation to take care and provide for my girls, but I also played with them.  I became involved.  I help with their development.  I read them stories every night, take them to movies and sporting events, and try to teach them about the world around them.  I love them.

There is a 1988 apocalyptic movie, The Seventh Sign, that ultimately asks a young mother if she will die to save the soul of her newborn baby and in so doing she saves the world.  That willingness to give your life for your child is a cliched statement, but the roots of that cliche come from absolute truth.

Now back to the question I asked myself, what would society be like if you could only have one child?  How protective would you be of that child?  What would you think of someone who clearly didn’t love their child?  What would you do if you lost your child?

This brings us to the two main characters – Nick and Max – and their respective relationships.

Nick is a young man whose relationship with his father is broken.  Nick has been raised a good Catholic boy; he is well versed on what is right and what is wrong in the eyes of the Church and the government of the Republic.  He understands that families are limited to one child because of rampant poverty because humanity cannot support the size of the current population.  He understands that everyone has a moral and legal obligation to conserve so that everyone may have at least a small piece of the pie.

In reality, it’s not quite that easy to draw the lines between right and wrong.  A year before the events of the novel, Nick stumbled on some information about his father’s job that opened his eyes and set him down a path that would ultimately lead to Nick leaving home in the middle of the night, setting out to making a life of his own.

Admittedly, Nick’s father is a one-dimensional, bit character; he is the boogeyman who haunts Nick’s dreams.  He is the aloof, distant father who puts career and wealth above family.  His pursuit of the brass ring leads him down a path that Nick finds utterly repugnant.  In the months following Nick’s initial discovery, his relationship with his father sours quickly.  Arguments between the two of them are frequent and Nick’s father withdraws from his son as he learns that their values are in conflict.  While his father is on a business trip, Nick tries to run away for the first time, but his mother talks him out of it.  She holds the family together with every ounce of her strength.  She knows what is at stake and she fights to keep them together.  Ultimately, she cannot stop her son from setting off on his own path.

When Nick’s vindictive father learns that Nick has run off, he strips away all of Nick’s money.  This is what brings Nick to Max and sets into motion a series of events that will dramatically alter both of their lives.  Max lost his only child ten years prior  to meeting Nick.  His days and nights are haunted by the memories of the accident that took her life.  Max knows what he lost and that makes him a little more receptive to taking on a young man who has no real experience and no real place to turn.  It makes him a little more patient with a rebellious kid whose only direction has been provided by the loathing he feels for his father.

It is this connection that propels Nick and Max through the events of the story.  On the backwater colony of Dust, both men will face the consequences of their failed relationships.  Both men will be pushed to the brink of their capabilities until they are forced to come face-to-face with their troubled pasts.

How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part III

Part I

Part II


In part I of the journey to Dust, humanity finally left the confines of Earth and planted its feet in alien soil.  In part II, we unlocked the power to travel across the stars.  In part III, the 23rd century, we will make the stars our home.  With the first steps in wormhole travel behind us, the human race can then do what it has dreamed of since the dawn of space travel – visit and live on all the worlds of our imagination.

The first extrasolar colonies will face challenges similar to those faced in the original settlement of any foreign land.  Yes, future colonies will have the benefits of modern medicine and technology to assist in their survival.  However, colonies will stay face issues with food supplies, habitats, disease, and environmental disasters that will threaten the safety of those early colonists.  Just as early American colonies collapsed so too will early extrasolar colonies.  Perhaps they’ll be wiped out by a parasitic infection.  Perhaps government bureaucracy will strangle the supply chain and the colony will collapse due to a lack of logistic support.  Perhaps the colony will be wiped out be a mega-storm the likes of which we’ve never seen on Earth.  The point is that lives will be lost and there will be plenty of people who think that this great adventure will not be worthwhile.  Just as today, the torch of exploration and colonization will be picked up by some wealthy, perhaps somewhat eccentric, enthusiasts ready to make a name for themselves by establishing a presence on another world.

While that first colony is struggling for survival, wormhole satellites will begin to arrive at other destinations in the galaxy.  The rate of expansion, while extremely slow at first, will quickly grow.  Within the first two decades of the 23rd century, humanity will gain access to another dozen solar systems.  Coupled with a burgeoning population in our native solar system, people will be eager to live on these new worlds.  People will want to leave behind the mundanity of Earth and Mars and leave for exciting frontiers.

At some point, when colonies become somewhat self-sufficient, those colonies will want autonomy.  It’s possible, probable even, that the autonomy will bring out the worst in humanity and blood will once again be shed in the name of independence.  Perhaps that’s too pessimistic and we will learn how to resolve difficult disputes without the violent revolution that has been a regular occurrence throughout history but I doubt it. Due to the pressures of a society with open communication, that conflict will be short-lived and a provisional government will be established, trade treaties will be put in place, and humanity will learn how to govern with a populace that lives light-years apart.  Thus, the First Republic of Earth will be established.

While governments evolve and people settle into their new environs, those responsible for exploration will continue to refine  their approach.  The initial beacons sent out into remote solar systems were powered by traditional propulsion.  This was to ensure safe arrival; no one wants to exit a wormhole into the middle of an asteroid field, Oort cloud, or in the path of an approaching comet.  Beacons will be placed in relatively dead regions of space, away from stars or planets which could draw in hazardous neighbors.

To speed up the rate of exploration, robotic explorers will be launched on blind jumps, travelling through wormholes that do not have a precisely calculated and calibrated exit points.  When a safe exit point is discovered, another beacon will be put in place.  Through this technique a huge interstellar highway will be constructed and journeying to other stars will be as commonplace as flying to another country.

Lego Friends Will Not Force Your Daughter into a Life of Domestic Servitude

Lego Friends is a new line of Lego toys introduced this year aimed at girls.  Google it  and on the first page of search results is a link to an article about a petition decries the creation of these toys because of how they are marketed and targeted at little girls.  The article starts with a great quote from a little girl on how she and her friends like to play:

“Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?” she asked.

What they say next, really caught my eye:

“But, after Sarah heard about LEGO Friends — shapely mini-figures that lock into pink, purple and pastel green settings, such as a dream house, a splash pool and a beauty shop — she posted the video on Facebook fan pages for Princess Free Zone and Pigtail Pals, companies that sell only gender-neutral products and stand up for girl’s rights.” (emphasis mine)

I read this statement and the desire for “gender neutral products” and can’t help but wonder if we’re trying to win a cultural battle against gender stereotypes by losing the war.  I am the father of three little girls and I’ve written before about how I don’t want my girls to be forced into society’s niche for girls and they should have the freedom to play with whatever they want.  That doesn’t mean that there’s something inherently wrong with buying something that is “made for girls” or that it’s bad for a product to be “designed for girls.”  Gender equality  does not equal gender neutrality.

I don’t want my girls to ignore that they are in fact girls.  I want them to  have the same opportunities as any other kid, boy or girl, but that doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with things designed specifically for their preferences.  Let me put it another way: I’m left-handed and I love it when I find products made for left-handed people.  There are times when I have to hand the scissors to my right-handed wife so that she could cut something.  I’ve learned to hate spiral notebooks because of having to rest my wrist on the spiral.  If I could shop in a Leftorium, I would.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from my wife while I was at work.  My oldest daughter was home after school and playing with a little boy in her class.  They were playing Star Wars.  My daughter wanted Yoda to make tea;  the other little boy yelled at her, “Yoda doesn’t make tea!”  He wanted Yoda to fight.  I told my wife to tell them that Yoda makes stew.  The point is, even though they wanted to play with the same things, they wanted to play differently.  Girls and boys have differences.  It’s okay for some things to be made for girls and some things to be made for boys.   Just because something is designed for girls, doesn’t automatically make it a bad product.  It may even be a very good product.

When I’m picking out a toy for them, I’m generally concerned about three things:

  1. Is it overly sexual?
  2. Is it demeaning or degrading?
  3. Is it fun?
Let’s look at those.
1. Is it overly sexual?

The skirt's a little short there, missy...

In a word, no.

Yes, the tiny little plastic figure is a bit more anatomically accurate than the regular, traditional, blocky, mini-figure.  But this is not a scintillating, suggestive, inappropriate hunk of plastic that will encourage my girls to don leopard print, skin tight pants in the next year.

2. Is it demeaning or degrading?

One of the criticisms in the linked article is that the Lego Friends sets promote some stereotypical girls interests.

“I have no problem with them making pink LEGOs, but I really hate the message they send. [Riley] doesn’t need to be building a hot tub and serving drinks. I want her to build whatever she wants. We want her to be herself.”

The parents quoted cite the fact that there’s a hot tub set and a beauty salon set.  Yes, that’s true, but let’s look at the full gamut of sets.  This is what’s currently available:

  • City Park Cafe
  • Olivia’s Tree House
  • Stephanie’s Cool Convertible
  • Butterfly Beauty Shop
  • Heartlake Vet
  • Olivia’s House
  • Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery
  • Emma’s Splash Pool
  • Andrea’s Stage
  • Olivia’s Invention Workshop
  • Mia’s Puppy House
  • Stephanie’s Pet Patrol
  • Emma’s Fashion Design Studio
  • Heartlake Dog Show

Again, yes, there’s a Beauty Shop and a “Splash Pool.”  Am I supposed to be upset that there’s a set with a veterinarian or an invention studio with a little robot?  I’m also not going to mind that there’s a music themed set or several sets centered around animals.  Is the Fashion Design Studio a negative?  Is that not a respectable profession for a man or  woman?  Sure, instead of the Beauty Shop, they could have developed an architect’s studio or computer lab.  Give it time.  The line just came out  and I’m sure those sets are in work.  Frankly, I think this is a pretty diverse set of offerings for a new toy line launch.

In my opinion, if you want to complain  to Lego, complain about the diversity of offerings in the Lego City line.  Last time I checked, there’s a heckuva lot more in a city than cops, robbers, and firemen.  Those items seem to dominate the City line every year.

I have a giant tub full of Lego, which also includes a healthy amount of space Lego, and the color pallet is definitely dominated by  grays, whites, dark blues, reds, and yellows.  Those colors are okay and my girls have liked some of those sets, but they are far from their favorite colors.  My oldest daughter’s room is painted turquoise at her request.  My middle daughter’s room is painted pink at her request.  Before Lego Friends was released, I could hold all the turquoise and pink Lego bricks we owned in the palm of one hand.  Now, not so much…

Hey look - colors!

Is this demeaning or degrading?  I’m not seeing it.  Does it give my girls a choice of what set they want to buy?  Absolutely and that’s not a bad thing.

3. Is it fun?

My girls love animals, specifically dogs.  My oldest has already made us promise that she gets a dog at the next opportunity.  Guess what?  We bought both the Vet and Dog Show sets.  Below is a picture of the dog included in these sets compared to the dog included in the Lego City sets.

Which one of these toys would be pictured next to "personality" in the dictionary?

Which one of these would you rather play with?  It’s not just the animals that are a bit more fun.  The sets themselves come with quite a few play features.  The Vet set includes an X-ray stand, examination table, horse stable, cart for the animals and several other fun play features.

In addition to the play value, the sets are just as complicated and intricate as other Lego sets.  These aren’t dumbed-down because they’re for designed for girls.  They’re fun and my girls like to play with them just as much, if not more than, other Lego sets.

The bottom-line for me is that these are good toys and they are not going to give my girls negative ideals to live up to or limit what they strive to be.  They’re toys, bright and colorful toys.  The next time I go to the toy aisle of my local megamart, we’ll look at all the Lego sets – Lego City, Lego Friends, Lego Star Wars, Lego Harry Potter – and I’ll let them pick out what they want.  Though I won’t be surprised if they pick a Friends set because it was actually made for girls.

More importantly, or even most importantly, we’ll take it home and play with it together… even if it is pink and turquoise.