Wednesday, August 8, 2012

National Night Out

It was National Night Out last night, August 7. Our local law enforcement, Port of Seattle Police, come out to the marina, set up the grills and cook up all the hot dogs and hamburgers marina patrons can shovel down.

They bring all the coolest tech they have for us to drool over. This year, we got to tour the Harbor Patrol jet boat. I learned that the police divers in Puget Sound wear dry suits exclusively (our water is freaking cold) by OSHA regulation. Apparently, our water is also of questionable enough quality that the divers are required to wear full face masks, too. This works out, because the divers then have voice communication to one another and to the boat at the surface.

The SWAT truck was back - one that I'm happy to say only comes to Shilshole for this yearly show and tell event. New to me this year was the bomb disposal unit and the robots the police use.
The older robot is on the right (near the cab of the truck. A brand new model is on the far left. Again, this public relations event is the only time we've ever seen the bomb disposal unit out near our boats and most of us living aboard would really, really like to keep it that way.

The Port of Seattle encompasses not just our marina, but the whole commercial shipping industry and Seatac Airport. Most of this high tech gear spends the bulk of the year out at the airport and occassionally inspecting shipping containers. One officer told us that most of their 'bomb' calls are in response to people screwing around with chemicals in the garage - home made fireworks and improvised explosives. So be careful with those chemistry sets and when you're watching the Youtube videos about how to build your own fireworks? Think about the ignominy of having to explain to your homeowner's insurance agent just why the bomb disposal unit was parked in front of your place (when there wasn't a National Night Out BBQ taking place).

We enjoy this event every year. Since we've been to four out of the past five years (cruising last year made us miss), we're beginning to recognize officers and several have begun to recognize us. The officer who mentioned he definitely recognized me, laughed and assured me it's a good thing. I hadn't wondered until he said that. :)

The event is about building relationships and trust with the community. Officers make a special effort to interact with the children - sure most of them have kids of their own and are genuinely fond of children - but it's also a terrific way for them to put young children at ease around officers in uniform in a safe setting. The liveaboards at Shilshole, including our youngest residents, turn out en masse for this BBQ every year. We're a small community of about 300 households. We try to look out for one another. Most issues at Shilshole revolve around a little too much alcohol, but we've had at least two known instances of stalking in the five years we've been here, too. What's really nice is knowing that we can call the Port of Seattle police for help, and the chances are, any one of the responders will be an officer we met at National Night Out.

Thank you to the Port of Seattle Police for the burgers and for indulging our curiosity with such patience. Thank you to the Shilshole Bay Marina staff for hosting all the festivities.

My favorite part of the evening? As we were walking back to our boat, we passed one of the police cars. Poking out of a briefcase in the front seat was a little stuffed pig. I wish I'd gotten a photo.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Martian Cake

Last night, the new Mars Rover Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on Mars. If you stayed up to watch the live feed from the JPL command center, you know just how underwhelming that simple sentence is. It was a stunning triumph crowning nearly 9 years of intense work (8 years leading to launch, 8 months of travel from Earth to Mars).

If you missed it, you can see the video, along with information about NASA's other space projects, on Many news outlets have pulled and posted the video of the landing. A nine minute version is up on NASA's Youtube channel: It's worth watching more than once. Take a look at how tense and nervous those scientists and engineers are. Count how many of them burst into tears when the signal comes back that Curiosity landed perfectly.

I did, too, along with a number of people who admitted it on Twitter.

Speaking of which, Twitter went NUTS on the #MSL tag. The traffic is still intense this morning as everyone waits for more information from Curiosity. Though, from what I understand, we're in a 12 hour communication black out window at the moment. If you want a glimpse at the first photo Curiosity sent back after landing, look here: (Not embedding photos I don't own into the blog - many of NASA's photos are free for use - but I'm not clear on these photos yet. We may need media release forms from any Martians captured in the image. Joking on that last one.) On NASA's news page, you can see a second photo from Curiosity, amid a collection of a few other snapshots. The one of Curiosity's shadow is my favorite, for no particular reason.

In the midst of watching the live feed last night, I realized that the last live feed I'd watched from NASA had to have been one of the Apollo landings. The space shuttle launches were timed in such a way that I couldn't watch them live because of school schedules and possibly because our school lacked either the motivation or the money for the students to watch in real time.

I so look forward to what Curiosity will tell us about Mars. Will Curiosity find stromatolites - fossilized algae mats - proving that the Red Planet did ONCE support life? Or will Curiosity hit the jackpot and find actual microbial life hiding in the Martian soil? Apparently, NASA's trying really hard not to hope for that. During a morning briefing, the panelists were quick to point out that Curiosity is a mobile chemistry lab. They have a nonstop list of experiments lined up for the rover, but 'finding actual life' isn't on their checklist.

Wouldn't it just be the icing on the Curiosity cake, though?

Why does this matter to me? Besides the fact that I'm a hopeless nerd, you mean? It's true. Finding out something we as a race didn't know until the moment it's revealed lights up my simple brain. On some level, it feels a little like an explosion inside, as if I've been forever changed by a piece of data. I guess that's true on a larger level, too. Every time humans learn something new, the entire race is changed. While individuals may remain ignorant, the body of knowledge available to humankind if expanded. Are we, on some level, expanded too?

It matters because every single thing that Curiosity tells us about Mars is fodder for another science fiction story, another flight of imagination fueled by an amazing feat of science and engineering. Last night's landing was an extraordinary treat.

Thanks, NASA.