Happy Birthday, Hubble!

Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope! I’m already being flooded with all sorts of great Hubble stories and imagery, and you can pretty easily find lots of cool stuff online.

So I want instead to share one of my favorite Hubble stories, which has almost nothing to do with those decades of incredible images and game-changing science. Today, of course, Hubble is considered one of NASA’s signature successes, but when it launched, it was seen as a devastating blunder – just months after returning to flight after Challenger, NASA had put up a $1.5B observatory (that was a lot of money back then) that had a misground mirror and couldn’t focus properly.

Plans began quickly on how astronauts could visit Hubble and repair it (and here I’m obligated to note that Goddard publisheda web feature yesterday that mentions how the foundation of that repair was Skylab – “With Skylab, in-space servicing was born.”) But shuttle missions take time to plan, prepare and execute, and it would be almost three and a half years before the first Hubble servicing mission could be flown.

Three and a half years in which NASA had a flagship space telescope – albeit a broken one – in orbit. Not wanting to let those years go to waste, a temporary stopgap fix was found. They couldn’t do anything on orbit to improve the images yet, but they could do something on the ground; image processing software was developed to compensate, as much as possible, for the mirror flaw, making the images in those early years more useful.

It turns out that if you develop software to improve images, sometimes you can improve multiple types of images with it. To quote a NASA web feature: “When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble’s initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment. The sooner the cancer is found and treated, the better the chances are that a patient will make a full recovery and preserve her quality of life.”

Speaking to the public, I sometimes get asked if this whole space thing we do is worthwhile. And this story is one of my handful of go-to answers to that. If NASA can save lives even when it screws up, much less by being successful, and can revolutionize our understanding of the universe in the process, then, yes, maybe this is a thing worth doing.

Ten Years of iPhone

The first iPhone was released 10 years ago Thursday.

I didn’t buy one that day. I waited two days.

I did, out of curiosity, go to the AT&T store on release day – this was before there was an Apple store locally – but the line was so long I wouldn’t have been able to get into the store before I had to be at an improv show that night. In my head, I was just going because I wanted to see one; I’m not sure if I would have bought one that night or not.

This was, after all, back before carrier subsidies and installment plans and the like, if you wanted an iPhone, you paid the full, rather-substantial price of the iPhone.

Honestly, I really didn’t know why I wanted one. As a long-time Mac fan, back before Apple had the brand power it does today, there was a general trust that it would be worthwhile. But there was also a sense that there were intangibles here that I couldn’t fully appreciate. So I bought one.

And I was right. The moment it clicked, I was shopping for groceries. The store’s radio started playing Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night.” There was a line in the song I couldn’t understand, and I went through this frequent cycle of wanting to know what the lyric was but being in a place where I was not able to look it up, to being in a place where I was able to look it up but not remembering that I wanted to, to hearing it again and being frustrated that I never remembered to find out what it was. And on that day, not long after I got my iPhone, I was buying groceries, and I heard the song, and I wondered what the lyric was. And I pulled out my phone, and I looked it up. And in that moment, I began to realize what this device was that I had purchased. Knowledge, unchained.

I was slower to get an iPad, suspecting that it would prove to be exactly what I thought it would be. The Apple Watch was more like the iPhone experience – I didn’t know what it was going to be for me, but I suspected it would be for me something I didn’t know, which has proven to be the case, particularly in the health area, which I didn’t think I would care about at all, but has turned out to play a big role in losing weight.

Ten years later, I’ve been through a series of iPhones. That first one still works. And it remains the bar for new technology – Good technology does exactly what you wanted it to do. Great technology does the things you never knew you needed.

Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month: The Monster She Fights


Yesterday began Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month.

Appropriately enough, Rebecca Hitt and I spent the day in Cullman for what could possibly be her last MS treatment. Possibly. Hopefully.

Rebecca’s experience with multiple sclerosis isn’t really a secret, but it’s not something we talk about a lot either. Honestly, it’s just sort of something that is.

She’s fortunate. We’re fortunate. If you follow us on Facebook, Rebecca doesn’t seem like someone struggling. We live full lives. There are people who have struggles with MS far far greater than she does. For Rebecca, it manifests in many “little” ways — heat can be more oppressive, she feels random constricting, her balance wanes randomly. It’s not always there, but it’s always nearby.

It’s easy not to know it. I respect her greatly for that. I’m half a foot taller than Rebecca. When we walk side by side, for every three steps I take, she takes four. You don’t notice it, but she’s always working a little bit harder. For those around her, that’s what her MS is like. She’s walking beside you, and you never notice how much more she puts into it than you, how much harder she works for it than you. It’s easy to miss. She makes it easy to miss. I’m proud of how brave she is. I’m proud of the positive attitude with which she undertakes her days.

For others, MS is a very different thing. They can’t walk beside you, because they can’t walk. It’s a condition that manifests itself in so many different ways. For some, it’s unnoticeable for years. For others, it’s crippling from its first appearance. We’re fortunate that hers is more benign. But we’ve also been always aware that could change at any moment. In MS, your body attacks its own nervous system. If you’re lucky, it does so in a way that causes mild annoyance. If you’re unlucky, it does so in a way that impairs you dramatically. Either way, it does so suddenly, randomly and without warning. We’re grateful for today, but we never know about tomorrow.

Save that, hopefully, now, we have some idea. Rebecca yesterday completed the second round of a relatively new treatment called Lemtrada. She took infusions for five days last year, and for three days this year. The treatment,a repurposed chemo, strips away her immune system. A new one grows, which, hopefully, decides not to attack her nervous system. It’s not a cure, they tell me, but a treatment that, hopefully, has permanent results. I understand some of it, but if you ask me too much about it, you’ll discover it’s one of those things that for me borders on Clarke’s Third Law – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I work at NASA, and this stuff befuddles me.

So far, it seems to be working. There’s noticeable improvement already from last year’s treatment. Hot days are less oppressive. The random constricting is less constrictive. She has more energy. Hopefully, those trends will continue and be amplified by the second round. We joke about that last change. At eleven years my junior, it can be hard enough to keep up with her as it is. If she gets any more energy, it’s going to be hopeless. I’ve joked that they should just half-Lemtrada her so I still have a shot.

But as nice as the improvement to the symptoms are, the biggest change will be not having to worry about tomorrow. She’s not had any new activity, any new lesions, any new attacks on her nervous system since round one. That’s a good sign. We’re never beyond worry – this is a new treatment, less than a decade old, so no one knows what year ten looks like. And nobody knows for sure what year two for Rebecca Hitt looks like. But maybe we can worry a little less.

We’re blessed. Crazy blessed. Blessed to live in a time that this is possible. Blessed to have insurance that will pay for it. Blessed to live near a doctor – Dr. Christopher LaGanke of North Central Neurology Associates – that’s been a pioneer in this treatment. (When we started dating and she told me about her condition, I pointed out that now that she was working in Huntsville, she could probably get a better doctor here. She just told me to Google her doctor. I did. I never suggested that again.) We’re blessed by casual miracles, wonders so seamless you miss the wonder of them. But they’re there. And we’re grateful.

So that’s my Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month story; my part for boosting awareness. I generally don’t ask or encourage others to give or work for a particular cause, and particularly not health-related ones. The sad reality is we all have our own monsters. If you’re reading this, you have felt the sting of cancer or heart disease or diabetes or any of the other thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. I believe we fight hardest when we fight our own monsters, so encourage you only to do so. But we become stronger through understanding each other’s monsters. And by knowing there are others fighting ours alongside us.

I’m honored to fight alongside Rebecca. I’m humbled by the way she perseveres and by the attitude she maintains. I admire her spirit and her strength, and proud and grateful to be part of her story.

Lackluster Secrets of the Pluto Time Capsule

For nine years now, people all over the world have been looking forward to today. After years silently sailing through the vast void of deep space, the New Horizons spacecraft today finally has its closest encounter with distant Pluto and its moon, giving us an unprecedented look at what has been the greatest mystery of our solar system, a world we’ve known of for the better part of a century, but seen only ever as through a glass darkly.

And, I mean, that’s cool and all.

But me — well, sure, I’ve been looking forward to that part, too — but today is also the day that I got to open my New Horizons time capsule, and unveil the surely equally compelling secrets contained therein.

(Brace now for disappointment.)

Time capsule in a tennis ball case

So back in February 2006, maybe a couple of weeks after New Horizons launched for Pluto, I was attending the Space Exploration Educators Conference in Houston, and attended a workshop about how to get students excited about the mission (and about Pluto, then still a planet), in part via a time capsule activity.

Everyone in the group was given a tennis ball tube and a sheet to use as the basis of the time capsule, and allowed to make their own time capsule during the session so they could have their students do it when they got back to their schools.


And so, there in the class, I worked on the two sheets of the activity, rolled them up into the cylinder, brought it home to Huntsville, and dutifully put it away in a drawer where it has remained untouched ever since. Every once in a while I’ve come across it and wondered what it said (having long since forgotten), but I’ve been good and never opened it again since the session.


(Did I mention you should brace for disappointment?)

Here, then is page one of the two-page contents I wrote back in February 2006:


How’s that for a revealing look at life in 2006? Future historians will no doubt consider this a foundational document for understanding life in the early 21st century.

“Grade: A” So clever, ten-years-ago, David! Don’t ever change! (Spoiler: You totally will. Get ready.)

That said, I still don’t have a favorite color, I still enjoy writing, and I’m trying to do low-carb again. I haven’t worn that shirt in a few years, but I’m pretty sure I know which one I was trying to draw.

So that’s the past.

Now, on to THE FUTURE!!! (Which, er, is actually now the present. But you know what I mean.)


So, yes, the future remained largely unwritten.

I’m guessing I didn’t have time to finish the activity in the session, and was so determined in not touching the capsule again that I forgot I hadn’t finished it. Or, possibly, that’s all the thoughts I had about the future. Either way.

But — “wireless iPod”? What does that even mean? It’s like you had to keep your iPad plugged into anything to use it? Was I wanted one that didn’t involve headphones? Or that, I don’t know, charged or synced without wires?

I’m choosing to believe I accurately predicted how common and important the then-still-a-year-and-a-half-off iPhone would be in today’s society. But who knows?

So there you go — the secrets of the Pluto Time Capsule.

Thankfully, the actual secrets of Pluto have proved much more rewarding. Go check them out now!

Pluto and Charon

Credit: NASA

Sunrise, Sunset

So one morning almost three months ago, Rebecca and I are standing on Cocoa Beach. It’s her first time ever visiting an ocean, and I’ve arranged it that the first time she sees the Atlantic, she’s watching the sun rise over the horizon. It is, all in all, a neat experience.

Flash-forward to two weeks ago. I’m on a business trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s my fourth trip to California in less than a year, and so I decide that this time I’m going to finally get around to doing something I’ve put off on previous trips — I’m going to watch the sun set on the Pacific. And so I do.

I’m currently helping one of the Space Launch System executives work on an upcoming TEDx talk, using the transcontinental railroad as analogy for the future of human space exploration, playing with themes like public-private partnerships and the fact that, historically, there are almost no new transportation capabilities that do not improve everyday life.

I thought about that as I was standing on the beach in Los Angeles. I, a fairly normal person, had watched the sunrise over one ocean and set over the other two months apart. Just 150 years ago, before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, that was impossible in the United States. Today, if you really wanted to, you could see them both in the same day. On the International Space Station, you see sixteen sunrises and sunsets a day.

We live in a time of miracles and wonders. It’s good to be reminded to wonder at it.

Standing on Mars, Virtually

Three virtual figures on a Mars-scape

NASA’s OnSight tool, which it developed with Microsoft creates a simulation of Mars’ surfaces scientists can use in their research. Image: NASA/JPL

I read this story about NASA’s new HoloLens collaboration with Microsoft to create a virtual Mars environment in the news a while back, and thought it sounded pretty cool.

Last week, I got to put the headset on myself at JPL, and can confirm that it is, indeed, very cool. One of my NASA Headquarters team members and I got to walk “together” on virtual Mars, standing by Curiosity and surveying the Martian landscape. Another team member who was there (physically but not virtually) laughed at me for the fact that I was, in real life, walking around the rover, which wasn’t, technically, there, but the experience was so immersive that I just didn’t think about the fact that I could walk through it.

It was kind of surreal that I was getting to experience it just days after first reading about it, but this could very well be a technology that we’ll all be using before too long. Amazing.

A Light Shining Through The Spam

Screen shot 2013-06-08 at 2.18.11 PM

So the e-mail account I’ve been using has become almost unusable. First, I’ve been fighting a losing battle against a growing tide of spam. Then, making matters worse, someone has started using my address as the reply-to address for spam they’re sending out. They didn’t actually hack me — they’re not actually sending from my account — so I can’t just change my password, so there’s not really much I can do about it. (About the only thing I can do is start using a different address, which I’m doing. I’m keeping the old one, but I’ll check it less frequently than the new one. If you want the new one, send an e-mail to the old one and I’ll send you the new.)

In the meantime, though, my inbox is being constantly cluttered with auto-responses to e-mail I didn’t send in the first place, and it’s more than a little annoying.

And then, I got two responses that brought smiles in the midst of the frustration. The e-mails being sent with my address are all of the “Have you seen this?” type with a link to working from home or diet secrets or Viagra or whatever.

Yesterday, I got this response to one of them:

“I wasn’t able to access the message : Alessa
Not interested in work from home. I’m 87 and feel like 107.

And, my favorite, from two days ago:


Stella and Bev, I don’t know who or where you are, but I love you both. Thanks for brightening my day!

Vulgar Time-Traveling iPhone


Every Sunday morning, my iPhone becomes a time machine.

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about technology and scripture, about how changes in the way scripture is presented change the way we interact with it, and even how we think about it and what we get out of it.

By and large, I don’t see these things as good or bad, they simply are. If a person believes that scripture is divinely inspired, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the One doing the inspiration had the foresight to know that media would change over time and prepare for it.

(On a side note, I heard someone talk about scripture in terms of fault-tolerant transmissions. We have the technology now to beam messages to spacecraft throughout the solar system in such a way that even if there is data lost in transmission, the process compensates so that what is received is still usable. I’m inclined to think that may be a good analogy — that scripture was inspired to function properly despite human language changes, errors, and international alterations.)

The latest significant change for me is interesting because it actually mitigates the effects of one of the earlier changes. To me, one of the earliest presentation changes was the beginning of the practice of translating scripture. Now, you no longer have to speak Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic to understand the stories. The number of people who can understand scripture on their own is broadened tremendously. This is a very good thing.

That very good thing, however, comes at a cost — the reach is broadened, but shades of meaning are lost. A word might mean multiple different things, and the translator has to pick which one was intended. A word might have several shades of meaning, and the new language equivalent may not capture that texture. A word might mean one thing, but be translated as a word that has shades of meaning not intended by the original. (And that doesn’t even get into cultural differences over time.)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been discovering some of those instances where things I took for granted weren’t necessarily the case, or where there was a richness in the original I had no awareness of.

I still don’t speak the original languages, and don’t have an original text Bible anyway. And, to be honest, that first part is unlikely to ever change.

But, I do have my iPhone time machine.

I now have the ability to select any word in a passage, and see what the original-language word there was. I can read definitions for what the word meant. I can see whether it’s the same word used in another place with a similar translation.

It brings me a little bit closer to what it would have been like reading the original.

I realize there are still limitations — I’m cherry-picking the words I’m looking up, I’m still going based on someone else’s definitions, I still don’t necessarily understand the cultural context — but it’s at least helping me to think about things differently, to be aware of the richer texture.

And that, I think, is a change for the better.

Selling Eyeballs, or the Self-Inflicted Death of Newspapers

I’m sitting in Starbucks, about to write this post about the news that The Huntsville Times is among several newspapers that are about to change from seven-day dailies to three days a week. And across the way from me, a couple of 20-somethings randomly start talking about it. “The news is going to be old by the time we see it!” “I know everybody has smartphones, but I still just like the actual newspaper.” “Man, I’m gonna move.”

It’s sad news. I worked at The Huntsville Times 20 years ago, and it remains the largest paper I’ve ever worked for. As of this fall, however, it will be published less frequently than my college paper. How the mighty have fallen.

I spent the bulk of my newspaper career at weekly newspapers, and I am proud of the work done by weekly newspapers and believe in the community function they perform. However, I was not unaware of a perceived status difference that went with publication frequency. The more often a paper is published, the “higher-status” it, and, correspondingly, the community it serves, are. Huntsville’s paper just tumbled a notch or two. I find it a little sad that Decatur can support a daily but Huntsville cannot.

A friend whose son works in newspapers was commenting on the shift this week. The news came as his son found out the paper he works for in Texas will be closing down. At least, my friend said, the papers in Alabama realize the importance of adapting to the modern age and going digital. And while that’s a great thought, I’m not sure that I buy that’s what’s happening. I fear this is less an evolution into the future as it is a way to squeeze a little more blood from the turnip before its dry. There is more required to adapt than simply printing fewer papers and calling that “going digital.”

You don’t go digital by investing less in print. You go digital by investing more in digital.

And this has been one of the two biggest problems the newspaper industry has been facing — picking the wrong wars.

First, there was television, and then cable, and now internet. “The enemies.” And to rise to these challenges, newspapers changed their strategies to fight them. And in a move that the worst military tactician could have told them was a bad move, they chose to fight the battles on their enemies’ battlegrounds.

Television news excels at immediate, constant and universal news. CNN became a major player when it brought home the original Desert Storm war in Iraq in a way that newspapers never could.

And newspapers responded not by fighting on their on home turf, the things they do that CNN never could, but by trying to win an impossible battle of winning by being a not-as-good CNN.

The internet exists. There is news there.

Trying to save newspapers today by “going digital” would be like if, at its worst, Apple tried to sell itself by selling Windows computers. You thrive by doing well the unique things only you can do, not by turning to the things that others already do well. The Huntsville Times is the big fish in a small pond in the local print news arena. It’s backing off of that to become a smaller fish in a very big pond. Again, it doesn’t take a military genius to know that you don’t win battles by sacrificing your strengths and fighting on your opponent’s terms.

There’s a bit of irony here. It’s obvious to the outsider that the newspaper industry is on the decline. And yet, the newspaper industry has, at great length, decried its own impending death, and provided evidence after evidence that there’s no reason they can’t survive — interest in newspapers remains high, for example, they say, even among Millennialls.

So which is true? Are newspapers declining, or is demand still there.

The answer is both.

The demand is there, but newspapers are declining. Not because the changing world is killing them, but because they are killing themselves.

And this is the other biggest problem that newspapers face, a two-prong issue.

Newspaper owners are making the fatal mistake of focusing on margins instead of revenues, and are doing so because they fail to understand exactly what business they are in.

If I’m a kid with a lemonade stand, and I want to make more money, I can do that one of two ways. I can cut how much I’m spending compared to how much I’m bringing in, or I can increase how much I’m bringing in compared to how much I’m spending. I can use cheaper sugar and less lemon and more water, and sell a cheaper cup for the same amount. I can use the same materials, but charge a nickel more per cup. Or I could sell more lemonade at a smaller profit per cup.

Newspapers, as a rule, are going the former route. Cut costs to increase your margin, and thereby increase your profits. It’s a death-spiral — when you cut costs, you produce a lower-quality product. If you have a lower quality product, you’re going to sell less of it. If you sell less of it, your revenue drops. When your revenue drops, to maintain profits, you have to cut costs more. And on and on, until one day there are no more costs to cut, and you shutter the business.

A big part of the problem is that newspaper owners have no idea what they are selling. Are they selling news? Newspapers? Advertising?

All of those are part of the business, but none of them are the business newspapers are in, financially.

News has no value in and of itself. You can’t sell news. I can go cover a story, but as a media outlet I can only make money off it if I can charge for my means of distribution.

But even those aren’t my focus in business. Newspapers do make money off of subscriptions and single copy sales, but not much. These basically exist to offset the cost of production. Putting news on paper costs something, and newspapers that charge for their print product generally do so only to cover that cost.

Saying that newspapers are in the business of advertising is a bit closer to the mark, but still isn’t quite right. Newspapers are not ad agencies. You’re not going to go to the paper for a high-quality ad design. They are not marketing agencies, that can tell you how best to get your message to your audience. You might get a paper to build an ad for you, but, if so, it’s because your focus is not on the design. If newspapers sold advertising, then the cost of the ad would be based on the quality of the ad, and that’s not the case.

The truth is this —

Newspapers sell eyeballs.

What newspapers sell advertisers is not advertisements, but rather an audience for advertisements. The product that the newspaper makes its money from is being able to go into a potential advertiser and promise them a number of people that will see their message if they pay the newspaper money.

And newspapers sell eyeballs in bulk. As a general rule, you can’t say, “well, how many eyeballs can I buy for a certain amount.” The question is how much space you’re going to by in front of all of the eyeballs the newspaper can offer. The cost of that space is determined by how many eyeballs that is.

So, newspapers increase their revenue by being able to sell an advertiser a larger number of eyeballs. If you have a message, you want to get it in front of as many people as possible as effectively as possible and as affordably as possible.

So the challenge then is to increase the eyeball supply. If you want to make more money, you have to increase the number of eyeballs you can sell.

Do to that, you have to give the eyeballs something they want to look at.

A newspaper cannot — CANNOT — succeed by any means other than creating a product that gives people a reason to look at it.

You cannot do that by cutting cost and quality. That reduces your eyeball supply.

You cannot do that by offering eyeballs something they can see somewhere else. That reduces your eyeball supply.

You have to provide eyeballs something they want to see, that only you can provide.

That means quality products, and that means unique products.

Newspapers have a niche. Even in this electronic, cable TV, internet, online, instant, digital age, newspapers can still provide an in-depth local focus that no one else can.

It’s the one battlefield — the only battlefield — on which no one can beat newspapers. On which newspapers will win every single battle they fight.

It’s the one battlefield that newspapers seem least willing to invest in fighting on.

And it does mean investment. It means reporters, with notebooks, with cameras, on the streets, in the schools, at city hall and the courthouse and the churches and the ball fields and the new restaurants in town and the scene of the crime. It means the people in the community seeing the faces of those reporters enough to recognize them. It means the people of the community seeing their names and their faces and their kids’ names and faces in the local newspaper.

Because CNN can’t do that. Google News can’t do that.

The local newspaper can.

Better Than A Bad Book

Quite a while back, in one of the more-read posts on my blog, I wrote about my conflicted thoughts about e-book readers.

Since then, I’ve drifted, if a bit ironically, even further into the anti-eReader camp. I fear the consequences of a diminishment of printed reading matter.

But …

Even more recently, I’ve come into use of a Kindle. I was dubious when it was first loaned to me. What am I going to do with it? I’m not going to buy books for it; I’d sooner buy them in print. It came pre-loaded with some books, but, again, I think I’d prefer to read from my waiting collection of to-read books.

However, the initial answer quickly presented itself. Another friend had loaned me  a couple of books to read. They were older, public domain books, and had apparently been out of print before a company decided to make them available in print again. And, to be gracious, they were ugly. The page layout was sloppy, and as a result, the books were unpleasant to read to the point that it was affecting my enjoyment of the actual content.

So I looked on the Kindle store, and there they were. Since they were public domain, there they were for free. So, yeah, sure, I’ll give that a shot.

And the formatting options on the Kindle, disconnected from the limitations and advantages of the printed page, meant that I could make the text agreeable to read. Which was a real step up from the printed versions that I had been reading.

So, the war is far from over, but the Kindle won its first battle for my approval.

I’m not ready yet to say that the Kindle is great, but I will at least grant at this point that it is better than a bad book.