The Final Frontier

Recently, I’ve started thinking about space–the edges of our knowledge, the grounds that we’re covering now, the vast amount that lays undiscovered. Somewhere, hurtling through the edge of the solar system–basically still on our doorstep when compared to the size of the universe–the Voyager 1 flies at 35,000 mph, the farthest a man-made object has ever made it. That, by itself is amazing. The Voyager 1 is our first insight into what really lies beyond our solar system. You may have heard of the Golden Record, a large gold disc on the Voyager 1 that’s intended to be a brief introduction to humanity.

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That begs the question: how do you even begin to encapsulate humanity? What does it mean to be human? Who gets to decide this? A small committee headed by Carl Sagan were entrusted with creating a time capsule that could last up to a billion years. The items chosen do speak to the heart of life, in my opinion. Included are things like a mother’s cry, greetings in all sorts of languages, and music from different countries and time periods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFo8-JqzSCM

America’s song: Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode

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One of the pictures on the record: a woman in a supermarket

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Another photo, one of a group of children.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about the Golden Record is that it contains the compressed brainwaves of someone in love. Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan fell in love working on this project and in the spur of the moment, she had her brainwaves read and put on the record. They then stayed together until Carl Sagan’s death in 1996.

“My feelings as a 27-year-old woman, madly fallen in love, they’re on that record. It’s forever. It’ll be true 100 million years from now.”Ann Druyan

The Pale Blue Dot -- the frame from the Voyager family portrait that includes the Earth [Image: NASA].

“Pale blue dot”: the last photo taken by Voyager 1. Carl Sagan convinced them to turn the cameras and take one last photo of Earth.

Of course, what’s on that record is just a small group’s ideas several decades ago. The world has changed–and a modern Golden Record would probably contain different things and different images. This leads me to a question I pose to you as well: what would you put on one?

It’s hard to say for myself, personally. I think one of my first choices would be the first picture of a molecule.

Pentacene molecule image (IBM)

In 2009, IBM took the first detailed picture of a molecule. This is a relatively new, cool scientific discovery that I think demonstrates humanity’s pursuit in both space and understanding the very fabric of the universe.

If you’re interested in hearing famous people’s perspectives on what they’d send, there’s a great episode on Radiolab, which you can listen to here. So, reader, what would you put on this record? What do you consider iconic about humanity?

Beeware: A Bee Crisis

Since the 1940’s, the number of bees in America has gone from 5 million to 2.5 million. This number is continuing to drop rapidly–it is estimated that we owe bees’ pollination for about one in three bites we take.

Scarily true.

Since 2007, 30% of bees have died in the US. Over the summers, I’ve noticed the amount of bees buzzing around drop off–where once they flocked in groups around my home, scaring me when I nervously left my house, they now are alarmingly almost absent. This cause, the bee crisis, is one close to my heart. Luckily, there are plenty of practical things you can do right at home.[1]

Planting

I love seeing the flowers bloom, and would hate to see less bloom!

Not only could you spread a little beauty in the world, but you can also provides bees with a home and food. There are plants that you can specifically plant to help out the bees. These include things like trees, wildflowers, and fruit-bearing plants. In fact, allowing your grass to grow rather than mowing it in your lawn  can provide bees with dandelions. Bees are suffering from malnutrition and this will help them greatly. My mom and I love to have flowers and trees in pots on our deck–we absolutely love seeing them bloom in the summer. If you have some kind of outside area, it’s a great idea to just put out a bee-friendly plant!

Buy Locally

Buying locally helps give business to local farmers who happen to help out local bee farmers as well. Buying homegrown food helps encourage bee health and bee diversity. Plus, you get to help out in the local community which is cool. In addition, they often avoid wide use of harmful pesticides (see below) that also harm the bees. This helps in encouraging large farms to reduce their usage as well.

Reduce Pesticides

Trying to reduce your pesticide usage would immensely help the bees. Very often, these bees are also being killed by the wide pesticide usage, which often taint the bees’ environment. With group effort, the poisonous material can be curbed, and bees can be safe again. [2]

Getting Involved

There are plenty of ways to get involved, including an easy one right here! Rutger’s PIRG has a petition to help end bee-killing pesticide usage in New Jersey. You can sign it right here, if you want to help out! In addition, there are plenty of worthwhile charities working to fix the problems. By donating or volunteering, you can really get involved in this cause!

The bee crisis has inspired artists all over the globe to spread awareness through their art.

Spreading awareness just among your friends is also a great cause. Looking around for local awareness campaigns is a great way to get involved and serve the community while also hanging out with your friends. As stated before, the PIRG is doing a bunch of petitions that you could get involved in. I’ll definitely be making more of an effort to really appreciate the bees this summer!

Dungeons, Dragons, and Possibilities

Despite the risk of sounding incredibly nerdy, I will say this: Dungeons & Dragons is fun. I know what images this conjures–80’s geeks around intricate maps with expensive miniatures. From an outside perspective, it seems like a really niche game–too complicated, too expensive, and overall, too nerdy to play for most people. But, as someone who thought the same for years, it’s really not at all.

What you’re probably imagining right now.

Dungeons & Dragons is what you make of it. Sure, you can invest in hardcover manuals or intricate miniatures, but it’s really not necessary. All of the resources you need can easily be found online and the biggest investment you’ll probably make is a good set of dice. What’s really needed for a D&D game is a storyteller and enthusiastic players. All the game really is, is an interactive storytelling experience, a lot like a video game or something of that nature. The “Dungeon Master” crafts a story and setting for the players, who interact and play through the story. There’s an infinitude amount of possibility here, as the only limit is the imagination of the people involved.

Way more accurate depiction of what it will look like.

I will admit that the game can be complicated. A lot of it does require some work–especially if you’re the one telling the story. But it’s not as intimidating as it seems! I’m currently running a game where only a couple people have played before and the majority are basically clueless on how to proceed. But within a few rounds, everyone managed to pick it up pretty quickly. And the plus was that they were having fun figuring out how to play as well. This game more than any is about cooperation, and when someone is confused, it only takes a few moments with everyone’s combined efforts to clear it up. I’m new to the game as well, and although I did have to do some reading, I quickly discovered that the rules weren’t nearly as complicated as I had first thought.

A small sample of the insane amount of creativity that can go into a D&D game.

As a creative person, Dungeons & Dragons really helps me exercise that side of myself in a really fun way with my friends. I can write an interesting story, draw a map, or even make tunes to accent the adventures. D&D is a great way to practice your hobbies and have your friends really interact with and appreciate them. I already like to write (I am writing for this blog after all) and creating a story for my friends is just incredibly fun. I love seeing their perspectives on the situations I create and adapting the stories to surprise me. Already, only three sessions in, we have a monster disguised as someone else in the party, a quest to find a long-lost brother, a mysterious charmed map, and a thief in the group who’s slowly stealing all the gold for himself. I am absolutely pumped to see how all of these will pan out and what kind of shenanigans the characters will get into later on.

If you’re even the slightest bit interested in playing, I’d definitely suggest grabbing a few friends and trying it out! There are millions of players (including Vin Diesel!) and the game’s been around for over four decades, so it’s definitely worth it to try it out.

Pictured: Vin Diesel’s birthday cake.

A Visit to the Guggenheim

One of my favorite activities to spend an afternoon on is visiting an art museum. They’re such calm, enriching places, where we can just gather and admire beauty and art for beauty and art’s sake. Whenever I get the chance, I love to pop into different art museums and take leisurely, enriching walks throughout the exhibitions.  In bigger museums, like the Metropolitan Museum, this means going from world to world–crossing over from Ancient Egypt to the Hellenistic era, and to the Renaissance era. In smaller museums, this means enjoying the thought-provoking nature of the pieces and enjoying an intimate experience with the artwork. This break, I finally got the chance to go to the Guggenheim, which happens to be located in Upper East Side.

The building itself is a work of art–approaching it on the clear, sunny day I went, I was awed by the bright ceramic white and the spirals. Among the usual boxy, rectangular skyscrapers of the city, the Guggenheim stands out with its sloping curves arching towards the sky.

We entered the museum, using our library passes to get in for free, and stood in awe, looking up at the sky. A beautiful spiral arched up, framing the bright blue sky. Walking up the sloping spiral, you gently get closer and closer to the sky. The museum was spacious and allowed you to really get close to the pieces and take it in.

Erica Baum, Jaws, 2008

Walking through the museum, we came to an exhibition: “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology.” I found this exhibition particularly interesting–the pieces were thought-provoking, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing or challenging. The pieces themselves were mainly photos of objects and written words like newspaper clippings or passages from books. Their combination had a very poetic nature to it with certain words being highlighted, or poetic phrases being framed.
Kandinsky Gallery

Another exhibition I was particularly excited about was the one featuring Vasily Kadinsky. I had studied him in class and was excited to see the works in person. Kadisnky was a Russian abstract artist in the 20th century. He produced some of his most influential art after moving to France in 1939. His pieces are bright explosions of geometry, and I deeply appreciated the more-geometric pieces. The colors were quite eye-catching, and my friends and I had to take a few minutes to really appreciate them.

I highly recommend a tour of a local art museum any time you are in a new city. These expeditions are very entertaining and have provided me with some of my favorite artists and pieces. In addition, local art museums really give you the feel and culture of a place. At Rutgers, the Zimmerli Art Museum is a great place to walk around–there is a lot of interesting artwork to appreciate there. And it’s a great place to admire art and unwind after some classes.

Month of Hacks

 

Every break, I decide I am totally going to be super productive this time, create a list of things I want to do, and then immediately lose all motivation and sleep until noon everyday. This break however, I’m determined to finally complete just a few of the projects I’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to actually doing.

To start with, I bought a Raspberry Pi. I’m not talking about the delicious pastry, but rather this little baby:

Significantly less tasty.

It’s a credit card sized computer, with basically an infinitum of possibilities. I know of esteemed engineers who’ve used it for everything from work to home automation–a la the Smart Homes article I wrote earlier, which you can read here. The Raspberry Pi Zero, the base model, only costs $5. For basically the cost of a sandwich (or a little more, if you spring for the higher models), you can create some of the coolest customizable devices you can think of, like a wall mounted Google calendar or a mobile radio transmitter. Perhaps a little off the beet, this guy used the Raspberry Pi to create a simple instrument to play the drums using actual beets.

In conjunction with my exploration of the Pi, I desperately want to try my hands at some new programming languages. In the 21st century, there are perhaps millions of resources to learn new languages, API’s, or just how to code at all.

Maybe on of the most beginner friendly, Codecademy, was where I wrote my first few lines of (very simple) code years ago. A great, intuitive interface, a really step-by-step and thorough lesson, and with extremely easy to understand and simple explanations, Codecademy is actually a really good place to try out coding. They also have a really wide variety of lessons, including quite a few about API’s.

I personally will be using Learn Code the Hard Way which while sounds intimidating, is probably more useful, because it teaches you from the ground up. Unlike Codecademy, which skips the messy installation, terminal, and compiling, Learn Code the Hard Way forces you to do everything from scratch. So yes, that means no IDE, Integrated Development Environment, (no matter how great Eclipse seems). You have to open up Notepad, write the command line, and start from there. But at the end of the day, it’s these skills that really make you a better programmer–relying on crutches will eventually hinder your ability to code by yourself. It’s better to skip the training wheels and just jump right into it.

I suppose this begs the question: what exactly will I be doing with all of this? And to be honest, I don’t know yet. For now, I’m just learning and exploring. I don’t doubt that whatever I learn with the Raspberry Pi or with the languages I’m going to dabble into, I’ll apply in the future–either in Hackathon, in class, or even in a work environment. At the end of the day, my projects don’t necessarily have to be super successful, or even totally functional, I just have to had learned something.

Some of the Best Comics on the Web

As finals are quickly approaching, the obvious best decision to make instead of preparing for them is to get into a new form of media: webcomics. I’m sure you’ve read a few before, but webcomics can be more than just your throwaway jokes. A lot of them are quite beautiful, and are an amazing way to admire really cool art along with the really cool stories that accompany them. Below, I’ve detailed a few to start with, just in time for finals season.


 

Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name

I’m starting off with a particularly controversial choice, only because this comic was the one to make me fall in love with webcomics in general. It’s about a paranormal investigator and the zombie who accompanies him. Its art is absolutely amazing, and has an interesting and dynamic style. The characters and stories are both hilarious and intriguing. The only problem? It was never finished and never will be. In addition, the main website has been taken down, so you’d have to go through the DeviantArt account instead, which is kind of an annoying process. But if you choose to do so, it’s very worth it. You can start reading it here.

Stand Still Stay Silent

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Stand Still Stay Silent is a beautiful story that takes place about 90 years after the end of the world. These characters, born in the “new world” venture out beyond the safe area, ready to rediscover the world. The art is absolutely fantastic, and the artist, Minna Sundberg, is well known for her finished comic A Redtail’s Dream. It’s definitely worth a read, or at least an admiration for the art style. You can start reading it here.

Agents of the Realm

This is a very cute comic about five college girls who find objects that give them magical powers. A rich backstory, fun characters, and a charming art style? Sign me up. This twist on the classic magic girl story is incredibly fun and worth a read if you’re also a girl in college. You can start reading it here.

Mare Internum

A relatively new comic, Mare Internum is from the creator of The Meek, another popular webcomic. It’s about researchers based on Mars, and is super captivating and thrilling. You can start reading it here.

Strong Female Protagonist

Strong Female Protagonist is for people who love superhero stories, but want more focus on the human aspect of it. This comic follows a young ex-superhero who struggles to make a life beyond her powers, and battles questions of morality and ethics. Once again, it’s a perfect comic for college-aged students because the female protagonist is also one; she’s trying to keep up with herself in the chaos of college and being a public figure. You can start reading it here.

The Beginner’s Guide to Podcasts

If you don’t currently listen to any podcasts, I highly recommend picking it up. Educational, funny, and entertaining, they’re great ways to spend time whilst doing something: on a run, cleaning the house, or during traffic at rush hour. However, it can be kind of scary to start: there are hundreds of topics about perhaps every topic you can even think of. Well, below I’ve listed some of my favorite categories and recommendations from each.


News

Admittedly, I don’t listen to a lot of news podcasts to begin with, but I’d universally recommend anything This American Life has come out with. Recently, Serial blew up, even spawning podcasts about that podcast. It details the the true story of an 18-year-old who was committed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in 1999. From beginning to end, the story is absolutely thrilling. As the host, Sarah Koenig, uncovers the details of the decades-old case, you’ll be holding your breath the entire way. It’s filled with so many twists that you’ll come to doubt every person involved and yearn to know who actually killed Hae Min Lee.

Episode to start with: “Episode 1: The Alibi.”

Comedy

Now this is actually my personal favorite genre, as there are tons and tons of hilarious comedians currently involved in the podcast world. If you don’t mind going particularly nerdy, The Adventure Zone consists of three brothers and their father playing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The story they come up with is in equal parts ingenious and funny. The three characters–a dwarf cleric, human fighter and elf wizard–incompetently tromp their way through a magical land of monsters and artifacts, all of which are trying to kill them.

Episode to Start With: “Ep. 1 Here There Be Gerblins- Chapter 1.”

If that’s a little too nerdy, I’d suggest The Flop House, a bimonthly podcast where three hosts watch a usually recent and almost-always terrible movie. The hosts are knowledgable and experienced, as two of them were comedy writers for The Daily Show and have been running the podcast for years. They’ve been friends for years too, and their banter definitely reflects it. I love listening to their podcasts in lieu of actually watching the movies.

Episode to Start With: “Ep. 161- A Talking Cat?!?”

Docudrama

Set up as straight documentaries, these actually fictional podcasts are fascinating and creative stories that are absolutely thrilling. By far, my favorite is a relatively new one called Limetown. As the story goes, an entire small town in Tennessee disappears in 2004. Over three hundred people, gone without a trace. A reporter seeks the answers and documents the dark and disturbing twists she finds in this podcast with every episode. I can’t say too much without spoilers, but I highly recommend this.

Episode to start with: “Ep.1 What We Know.”

Informational 

Podcasts are an absolutely fantastic way to learn about something that interests you. There’s definitely a podcast about some subject you find fascinating out there, so you can just jump into that specific category. More generally, Stuff You Should Know is highly informational and really fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge.

Episode to Start With: “That Time Nazis Invaded Florida.”

You Must Remember This is an intricate podcast that researches Hollywood in the 20th century. It’s definitely a fascinating and beautiful exploration of the scandals and stars of Tinsel Town.

Episode to start with: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood Part 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Manson Murders.”


If you are already a fan of podcasts, recommend your favorites below!

Smart Homes

What is a “Smart Home?” You might be thinking of the 1999 Disney Channel Original movie, Smart House– and you wouldn’t actually be too far off. You might not have an extremely advanced AI to “mom” you and eventually go crazy, but you would have an intricate system of programs and sensors to predict your desires.

Not quite.

For example–you set your alarm to 7:30. As you wake up and turn the alarm off, your clock sends a signal to your coffee maker–which starts to make your daily cup of joe–so that it will be prepared by the time you walk into your kitchen.

While you’re driving to work, sensors in the bridge send a message to your car: it’s icy; slow down. Should you choose not to, the car will slow down for you as you go across the ice. As you near a stoplight, it takes note that you’re the only car at the intersection and turns to green. While you park your car, your office turns on.

This system of programmable sensors interacting with other devices is commonly referred to as the “Internet of Things”… Essentially, everything is connected to the Internet. So many of the simple actions in your life can be reduced to simple “if, then” statements. If I leave the room, then I will turn the lights off. If it starts to rain, then I will close the windows.

If two exams are on the same day, then I will order sushi and get coffee.

These things, in the “Sensor Revolution” as some call it, could easily be automated. That’s where the future is headed–already. As more and more people own smartphones, companies have been searching for innovative ways to incorporate it into their products. Fitbits are already connected to your phone and computer, offering amazing details from everything to your step rates to your sleep cycles. Even certain shoes by Nike include sensors in their soles to give you more accurate information.

So yes, you might not have a hologram mother in your home (spoilers for the end of Smart House), but you’re guaranteed to never lose your keys again–because your smart phone will just find them for you.

So what do you think, readers? Sound cool? Personally, I’m a little more cautious. While this will certainly make life easier, I’m worried about the repercussions of having all our objects connected. Mainly, how will this impact our security?

Take for instance, a case that happened recently. A hacker manipulated a security flaw in baby cameras, and proceeded to yell expletives at the sleeping children, waking them up. Even more alarming is that a recent line of cars were released with a software exploit that allowed hackers to remotely control your car–including your steering and brakes.

We’re leaving ourselves open to catastrophic attacks–and that’s terrifying. As we move forward with the Internet of Things,  we must be far more cautious than we are already. So readers, what do you think? Do you want to be connected and have the ease of access that the Internet of Things will allow us, or do you err on the more cautious side?