There is sad news out of NASA today; Kepler is dying . A reaction wheel that was used to keep the spacecraft pointing in the right direction has failed and there are no more backups available. So the mission is coming to an end, just shy of four years after it launched. Though this may seem like a short time to folks outside of the astronomy community, it is actually about six months longer than originally planned .
The locations of Kepler’s discoveries as seen against the night sky
Kepler’s discoveries (exploded view)
Kepler worked by staring at stars and looking for the dimming caused by the transit of a planet across its face . To put the problem into scope, it is like trying to tell when a bird is flying across the sky by looking for its shadow from space. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work, a really good telescope, and pinpoint concentration on a specific area. And that last is why the reaction wheel is so important; without it, Kepler’s view will slowly shift away  thereby ruining the view and making the data practically useless.
So what has Kepler discovered during that four years? For one thing, Kepler has discovered that planets are a lot more common than anyone other than a planetologist thought . We’ve seen planets around old, cold stars and planets around young, hot stars. We’ve seen planets close in and far away from their host star. We’ve seen stars with a single planet and stars with multiple planets. In short, we’ve gotten our money’s worth.
Only planets in a narrow region around a star can have liquid water. That’s the habitable zone
And, best of all, NASA has broken with tradition and made the Kepler data freely available as soon as it is processed, instead of forcing folks to wait for five years . That means that we can play with the results ourselves and see what makes planets tick. For example, we can plot the size of the host star against the distance to a planet and see what appears – the habitable zone!
There are a lot more small planets out there than there are big ones.
Or we can look at the size of the planets that have been found and see two very interesting things. First, there are more small planets than there are big ones. This makes sense when we look at our own Solar System, which has four big planets, about ten medium-sized planets, and more than a hundred small planets (and thousands and thousands left-over bits). Second, the distribution has a pattern similar to a fractal. That means that if we can determine the number of big planets, then we can get a very good estimate of the number of small ones even if we can’t see the small ones ! Even better, because life as we know it evolved on a small planet, it means that there are many, many more chances of having life elsewhere than anyone other than a planetologist thought.
So while we might mourn the end of Kepler’s mission, we should take comfort in knowing that it was a life lived well, full of discoveries and data that will keep the astronomy community arguing for years. And what better epitaph could any science mission ask than that?
 No, not that Kepler; he is already dead. The Kepler spacecraft, which is named for Kepler the astronomer.
 Of course, once we started getting data from the spacecraft, the astronomers hoped that it would last longer than it has as the data didn’t match what was expected (which is pretty normal in science; “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research” [a]). Specifically, we had hoped to be able to provide some pretty hard and fast limits on the number of Earth-like planets in the galaxy, which would then allow us to figure out one of the big questions: Are we alone? Unfortunately, the limits we’ve obtained are a bit wider and squishier than we would like and only more data will help us to narrow them.
 This isn’t the only way that we detect planets. The first planets were detected by IRAS using the infrared light put out by the planets which were warmed by their sun, but this works best for planets close in to cool stars. Then we used bolometry, which looked for movements of the suns as they were pulled back and forth by the planets orbiting them, like trying to tell how many kids a mother has by how she moves when her kids tug on her skirt, but this works best for big planets circling small stars. Kepler is able to detect multiple planets around stars both small and large because it only looks for the dimming.
 Why will it move? Because Kepler isn’t the only thing in space. The planets, the Sun, and other space junk cause minute perturbations that make Kepler move ever so slightly from side to side and up and down. You and I wouldn’t notice them, but when you are staring at something that is smaller across than the period at the end of this sentence as seen from across a football stadium, every little shift counts against you!
 Planets! What kind of stars have planets? Old stars, young stars, stars that shine quite bright, dim stars, baby stars, every star we see at night has planets! Lots of stars have planets! The thing stars love to have! [b]
 Why the wait? Because it can take twenty to thirty years to get a space probe from the drawing board to the launch pad, and another decade for the probe to reach its target. That means that you have scientists who have dedicated a significant part of their lives to making the probe possible. Isn’t it fair to let them have first crack at the data and the publications?
 This trick is not limited to planet detection. Biologists use it to estimate the number of animals in the wild and the number of unidentified species. Oil companies use it to figure out how many big reservoirs are left in a field. And politicians use it to detect voter fraud. Ain’t science fun?
[a] Shaggy geek points for the reference!
[b] With apologies to Oscar Mayer…
There is something sobering in realizing that you are your own competition . Many of the ideas and much of the time that I would normally spend writing on this blog  is instead invested on my other, other blog . But far more sobering that that are the statistics. Even though this blog has nearly seven times the posts (737 vs. 119) and more than ten times the number of views (19,189 vs. 1,688) and nearly 100 times the comments (2,809 vs. 39), the other, other blog has twice as many likes and more traffic (though it has yet to match the daily high of 277 views that this one set). And the most popular thing I’ve written on this blog, day in and day out, is the description of Mt. St. Helens’ eruption (followed semi-closely by the Macondo disaster ); had I written it today, it would have ended up on the other, other boog (and indeed will come the anniversary).
So what have I learned from comparing the three blogs? First, regularity helps. Though it seems obvious, posting on a regular schedule makes people happy and making the gap between posts reasonably short makes them even happier. Because the other, other blog is posted daily, people know that they will always have something new to read. Even if one post doesn’t strike their fancy, the next might.
Second, to borrow from a philosopher of science, “Posts should be as simple as possible and no simpler” . In this blog, I have allowed myself to wax prolix and to use obscure language and intricate descriptions. The same is true on my other blog. There is no simple way to describe the many inter-linked processes that create planets; there is only a least-complicated way. But on my other, other blog, I focus on citizen science and short articles that highlight the many fascinating aspects of science in general.
Finally, it never hurts to brag. I don’t publicize this blog much. It was intended to be a way for me to discuss things ranging from the personal to the weird and to jabber with like-minded net-friends. But I have worked to make as many people aware of the other two blogs. I hope to sell my planetology book someday  and already have my book on kid’s science experiments on sale; similarly, I hope to turn the citizen science posts into a book at some point. As a result, I have been blasting those posts onto Facebook, Google+ and other social media. I’ve also been going to science fiction conventions  and putting out calling cards with the blog addresses on them.
Will I keep this blog? Yes. It serves a purpose for me, not unlike Scalzi’s Whatever . And I’m not sure if I’ll keep my other, other blog once the year-long experiment in promoting citizen science is over. If I get some clear indications that it (a) served a valuable purpose by getting more people involved in science or (b) made me craploads of money, then sure. If not, then I’ll return my focus to the other blog and this one. But in any case, it has taught me some interesting lessons – and that makes it worth the investment right there.
 Not to mention being my own worst enemy – but that’s a topic for another post…
 Or – horrors! – writing papers for publication.
 Which is also sucking the air out of my other blog; I haven’t finished Chapter 2 (How do we know what we know) of the planetology book yet, nor worked on Chapter 3 (the history of everything) in far too long.
 Interestingly, the popularity of the posts on this blog appear to follow a Zipf’s law type distribution with the most popular being about four times as popular as the next which is four times as popular as the third favorite and so on. Math hides in some pretty weird places.
 German geek points for the reference!
 If I ever finish writing the darn thing! Though after chapter 3, it is all smooth sailing – a chapter for each of the classical planets, another for planemos in the Solar system, and one least one for the 1200 or so extrasolar planets.
 I’m becoming semi-known as a panelist and geek of all trades.
 Doctorow and Scalzi are rapidly becoming my guides for “How to succeed on the internet”. Both of them have wonderful, wonderfully large groups of followers and make tons of money doing what they love (writing science fiction).
It is April which means that it is time for yet another in my endless series of tax-related posts. This time, we won’t be talking about flat taxes , presidential tax rates, the stimulating effect of tax cuts , how our tax rate compares to those of our parents, nor the ideal tax structure . Instead, let’s talk about houses and cars because they will tell us something important about our taxes and spending.
If you have ever bought a car, then you know that the rule of thumb is that you should buy one that has a price tag of no more than six month’s worth of salary [4, 5]. And if you go to buy a house, then a good real estate agent will insist that you look at houses that cost about twice your annual salary. The rationale in both cases is that limiting your debt makes you more likely to follow Micawber’s Principle  and less likely to default on the debt.
What does that have to do with taxes? It is simple – taxes are our net national income. Our gross national income is the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP for short . So how do our debt and our taxes compare to our GDP? Since 1940, our GDP has increased from $97 billion to $15,547 billion  or about 7.3% per year. But our taxes have increased from $6.5 billion to $2,450 billion or about 8.7% per year (though a fairer comparison might be from 1946 to 2012; using that, tax rates have gone down slightly). As a result, the tax burden as a percent of GDP has increased from 6.8% to 15.8% even though tax rates are at historical lows . Looked at from the perspective of buying a house or a car, the amount of money that we have to earn to pay for what we want has gone up.
But what do we want? That’s where the national debt comes in. That is the money that we’ve spent that we didn’t have; it is our collective house loan. And looking at it as a percent of GDP, we can see some fairly obvious trends. First, there is the bump from World War II, where we went deeply into debt in order to fight the Nazis. There are few who would argue that we shouldn’t have spent that money. But what is most important about that debt is the way that it decreases as a percentage of GDP after World War II; our GDP increased very fast and our debt stayed (relatively) stable. As a result, over the next three decades the burden that the debt placed on the nation shrank from 122% of the GDP in 1946 to a mere 32.5% of GDP in 1981.
So what happened? Supply-side economics coupled with a massive expansion of military and social spending, with a bit of recession fever. The taxes took a bump down thanks to the Reagan tax cuts while spending increased very quickly; the net result was a quick increase in debt. That set the pattern for the next decade and a half: we’d increase spending faster than tax receipts increased, leading to ever-increasing debt loads both in real dollars and in percent of GDP. There was a brief period in the 1990s when the debt headed down, but that was stopped when the Bush43 tax cuts took effect. And then, in 2007, we got hit with a recession  and the debt as a percent of GDP shot up like a rocket.
And that leaves us right where we are today: we’ve bought too big a house, the mortgage is underwater, and the bank wants to know if we’ll be able to make the payments. Meanwhile, instead of working to fix the problem, Mom and Dad are busy yelling at each other over who wasted the most money last month. But at least we aren’t Cyprus…
 Still a bad idea, if you were wondering.
 Spoiler: there isn’t one.
 Though this video on the topic is worth watching if you haven’t already seen it. It shows the difference between perception and reality quite nicely.
 Of course, the folks at the dealerships do their best to hide this idea by using low monthly payments (as in, “Hey! You can afford to pay $250 a month – we can put you into an almost-new Mercedes!”) and neglecting to tell you that the payments will stretch out over the next two decades.
 And the emphasis in that sentence should be placed on “no more than”. Just because you can afford to buy a car that costs $50,000 doesn’t mean that you should buy a car that expensive. If you are happy with a car that costs $25,000 then that gives you $25,000 to invest elsewhere.
 Named for a fictional character in David Copperfield who famously said “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Translated from the English, it reads “Spend less than you earn and you will be happy. Spend more than you earn and you will be miserable.”
 Quick reminder: Gross income is what you earn. Net income is what you keep, after taking out all of the expenses.
 All data taken from the 2013 Federal Budget Historical Tables at the US White House.
 The relative increase can be explained by two things. First, the US GDP has suffered pretty badly over the past decade, with annual growth rates of just 3.9%. A decrease of 3.5% may not sound like much, but it is enough to have trimmed nearly $5,000 billion from the GDP in the last year alone.
 Think of it as being the national equivalent of one parent being laid off. The family expenses stay the same but the family income has suddenly shrunk by quite a bit.
And today I was once more reminded of why I make so darn much money. It isn’t because I’m smart , nor because I am friendly , nor because I am competent . No, it is because computers don’t scare me.
I spent all weekend pulling in data for a big new project . And, once the data was here, it had to be moved around and loaded properly. Fortunately, loading the data wasn’t my job (yet). So far, no big deal – except that some of the data was for wells in the form of LAS files . And the person loading the files was a little nervous because some of the wells had more than one LAS file. So she called for me to help.
Being a typical geek, I tried the obvious thing: loading the first file, and then the second to see if it appended onto the first or over-wrote it. We got lucky, the programmers were competent, and the data appended on. But the person who was loading the files was honestly a nervous wreck while the two minute process ran, whereas I was just sitting back, waiting to see how screwed up things would get . When it became obvious that things were going to work properly, I left her to finish loading the remaining 200 wells .
And that is why I make the big bucks. Not because I can figure out how to load data, but because I don’t let the thought of something going wrong during the process frighten me so that nothing gets done. Instead, my default is to assume that whatever goes wrong can be fixed, and work to fix it if and when it does go wrong. As a result, my company will have 200 wells worth of data by this weekend instead of none and I’ll get a nice fat paycheck. And that seems fair to me.
 As one wag put it, it is often “smarter to be lucky than lucky to be smart” [a].
 In truth, I am an extreme introvert. But I fake being an extrovert pretty well, which makes the people at work happy.
 Indeed, my “competence” appears to me to consist mainly of being willing to own my mistakes and find ways to fix them. Looked at one way, that means that being incompetent is my core competence.
 From a foreign country that I have always wanted to visit. And I had to grab so much data that it would literally have been faster to fly to the country, put the data on a hard drive, and fly back than it was to download the data – except that I would still have had to download the data in that country, and so would have saved no time at all. (Darn it!)
 Standardized ASCII files with well log information, if that makes it any clearer.
 Fundamental rule of computing: Programs always screw something up. If you are lucky, it is something obvious.
 I may not be smart, but I sure ain’t stupid! [b]
[a] Musical geek points for the reference!
[b] Then again, maybe I am. I am currently caught in an internet argument with someone who thinks that because it was called “the greenhouse effect”, the opacity of CO2 to IR has only ever been tested in a greenhouse.
Looked at one way, the US Supreme Court  makes history every time they meet. In theory, they only hear the most important cases; the ones that bring up vital constitutional questions. But the truth is that there are only a handful of truly significant cases that change the shape of American society. Marbury v. Madison, which established the SCOTUS as the ultimate arbiter. Worcester v. Georgia, which established that the SCOTUS was powerless to enforce its rulings . Dredd Scott v. Sanford, which said that slavery was allowed. Brown v. Board of Education, which overthrew the “separate but equal” doctrine established just a few years earlier and set the stage for full civil rights.Loving v. Virginia, which threw out all miscegenation laws (though some folks still haven’t gotten the memo). Roe v. Wade, which established the right to medical advice and methods (including but not limited to abortion).
This week, we get to see two such cases before the SCOTUS and may get a ruling on one or both of them come next June . Interestingly, both cases deal with different aspects of the same question: is same-sex marriage a constitutional right?
The first case attacks the question head-on. In Hollingsworth v. Perry , Kristin Perry is suing the state of California for a marriage license on the basis that the amendment to California’s constitution that forbids giving her one is unconstitutional on a federal level because it took away a right that she had previously had . In the arguments before the SCOTUS, two major themes dominated.
First, several members of the court questioned the standing of the Proposition 8 defenders; what material harm would they suffer if gays were allowed to marry. This is a crucial point, because if the actions of another person do not harm you then you have no standing and the case is dismissed as being “improvidently granted” . When that happens, the last decision stands; in this case, Proposition 8 would be removed as being unconstitutional.
Then, the people defending Proposition 8 argued that because the main purpose of marriage is procreation, gays shouldn’t need it. Kagan put the kibosh on that argument when she asked if that meant we should forbid marriage among straight couples when both partners are over fifty-five and the Proposition 8 people said that doing so would be unconstitutional.
A variety of other claims were made, but those two are most likely to be the fulcrum on which the decision rests. If a majority of the justices decide that now is not the time to discuss this, then they’ll use standing to dismiss the case. And if a majority of justices decide to make a broad ruling, then they’ll use the lack of arguments against it.
The second case is both broader and narrower than Hollingsworth v. Perry. In Windsor v. United States, a widower has argued that the Defense of Marriage Act  unfairly discriminates against her marriage by making her subject to additional burdens including an estate tax that she was forced to pay when a straight widower wouldn’t have had to. The case is narrower because it doesn’t directly concern the definition of marriage, merely on the effects of it. But it is broader because where a ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry could be limited to California, a ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act would have national repercussions.
Interestingly, the question of standing rose again and again it was on the part of the defenders of the law. As with California, the government official who should be defending the law (President Obama in this case, Governor brown in the previous) has decided that the statute is truly unconstitutional and declined to defend it. Unlike California, a group of government officials (Republican Representatives, mostly) have stepped in. However, the justices have been unimpressed with their argument for standing, calling the situation “unprecedented”. And if there’s one thing that the SCOTUS hates, it is an unprecedented situation. Thus, they may dismiss this case as improvidently granted, which again leaves the prior ruling (that DOMA is unconstitutional) in place. However, that would leave DOMA unconstitutional in one part of the country and constitutional in others as the rulings of District courts only apply within those districts. So dismissal is unlikely.
Thus far, the arguments for DOMA appear to break down into three main categories: it simplifies things, it provides historical continuity, and it is what people want. Thus far, the justices seem to be unswayed by any of the arguments. For example, Kagan, Ginsburg, and Kennedy have suggested that DOMA actually complicates things by discriminating between a marriage between these two people (who just happen to be of different sexes) and these two people (who just happen to be the same sex); given that the SCOTUS ruled in Loving that marriage was a fundamental civil right and that laws restricting marriage had to have a reason deeper than “we’ve always done it that way”, I do not expect the “simple” explanation to be successful.
Interestingly, the attorneys arguing to have DOMA striken haven’t made what I think would be the strongest argument that they can: that marriage is a civil contract and the US Constitution requires that contracts be treated equally. Instead, they’ve been focusing on the discriminatory aspect of DOMA.
So what will happen in the two cases? And how will they interact? I’ve broken down the possible rulings on the two cases below:
|Hollingsworth v. Perry
||Upholds Proposition 8
||Removes Proposition 8
|Most likely outcome; would allow decision to become moot if DOMA is decided broadly. Status of same-sex marriage would depend on breadth of DOMA decision.
||Extremely unlikely. This would be seen as Roberts’ <I>Dredd Scott</I>. Would temporarily stop same-sex marriage in California, but would also leave door open for a new amendment to repeal Proposition 8.
||Possible; it would follow previous cases establishing that laws passed just for spite are unconstitutional. Wouldn’t affect same-sex marriage outside of California, which makes it attractive to justices who hate broad rulings.
|Windsor v. United States
|Very possible, given Obama’s strange position (won’t defend it but will enforce it). Would leave same-sex marriage as a state-by-state battleground, which may make it attractive to some justices. But leaves law unsettled, which none of the justices like.
||Unlikely, as it would create a new “separate but equal” doctrine. Would make same-sex marriage a state-by-state proposition (so to speak).
||Most likely, but probably only in a narrow decision that says “if your state recognizes your marriage, then the feds must also”. This creates uniformity while allowing states to continue to decide the marriages for themselves. A broad decision ruling that gays have an inherent right to marry is extremely unlikely.
Overall, I think that a narrow ruling on Windsor v. United States is the most likely outcome, with six of the nine justices holding that it is wrong for the federal government to discriminate against a particular form of marriage when it comes to tax laws and other federal benefits without holding that marriage is a civil right for gays as well as straights. I also expect a ruling of “improvidently granted due to lack of standing” in Hollingsworth v. Perry; the Proposition 8 folks failed to provide a single instance of actual harm caused by same-sex marriage and so are likely to be kicked out on that. It also allows for a narrow interpretation, which will make the justices happy given the implications of the Windsor v. United States ruling.
The most important implication is that the battle over same-sex marriage isn’t over. Within a few years, someone married in Maryland will move to Texas and sue the state for failure to recognize their marriage; if not those two states in particular, then their equivalents. And that will bring that full faith and credit clause right up to the front and center of the argument, at which point it will all be over but the shouting .
 Called SCOTUS for short, they are part of the “balance of power” arrangement by the Founding Fathers. Basically, they were intended to call “balls and strikes” in the memorable words of one justice, but as is always the case when they make a call that goes against your team [a], it stings.
 Basically, the SCOTUS ruled that Georgia couldn’t make rules on Cherokee land (including kicking them off just because gold had been found on it). Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling, fearing that supporting Indian rights would start the civil war that he was trying to prevent, and sent the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears march.
 Why the delay between hearing the arguments and making the ruling? Primarily because it gives the justices a chance to hash out the ruling in private. Until that ruling is issued, nothing is final; Kennedy famously changed sides on Lawrence v. Texas while he was writing the dissent and ended up writing the majority opinion. Justices will spend those months exploring each other’s ideas and arguments in favor of and against a particular position, and working with their staffs to discover what case law currently exists.
 Which started out as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, then became Perry v. Brown as California changed governors. It morphed into its final form after the current governor refused to defend Proposition 8 in the courts.
 In case you’ve been living under a rock (lucky you!), California’s Supreme Court had ruled on June 16, 2008, that marriage was a basic civic right (basing its ruling on Loving v Virginia). This then started a fierce and intemperate campaign to undo the “legislating from the bench”, culminating in the passage of Proposition 8 on October 22, 2008, which redefined marriage so that gays could no longer marry and possibly undoing the marriages of those who had already grabbed the gold ring (accounts vary as to whether such was the intent of the law). Perry (and several others) sued and lost in the State Supreme Court, then took their case to the US District Court, where they won. They won again at the Ninth District Court of Appeals, and are now before the SCOTUS.
 That happened several times to other civil rights cases before Brown v. Board of Education made it through the SCOTUS. In general, “improvidently granted” can be based on any of a number of causes, from lack of standing (which means you don’t get to try it again later) to unresolved questions (which may bring it right back to the SCOTUS once they are resolved) to “not as important was we thought” (which is rarely admitted but often true).
 Passed in 1996 during the last high-water mark of gay rights, when it looked likely that several states [b] would allow gay marriage. The folks in Congress knew two things: (1) The US Constitution required that a marriage in one state be recognized by all other states via the “full faith and credit clause”[c] and (2) the general populace would tar and feather them if they didn’t pull an Andrew Jackson and find a way around the Constitutional requirement. They used the second part of the clause to claim that the “manner in which such Act … shall be proved” would be to ignore them. I expect that to bite the defenders in the butt during the arguments, and is why “states rights” arguments on this matter are inherently bogus.
 Specifically: Kagan, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kennedy holding for Windsor (Kennedy writing for the majority), with a separate and more limited holding for Windsor from Roberts. Alito, Thomas, and Scalia holding for the “government” (Scalia writing for the minority).
 Then again, given that people are still shouting about Roe v. Wade some forty years later, it may take awhile for the hubbub to die down.
[a] In my case, the worst call that they’ve made recently was the one against the prisoners at Guantanamo, saying that they had no standing [i] to sue over being incarcerated even after being declared innocent. If this doesn’t scare you, then you’re not paying attention.
[b] Starting with Hawai’i, where the state supreme court had ruled in 1993 that there was no compelling interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage, clearing the way for gay marriage.
[c] Article IV, Section 1: “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”
[i] In legal-speak, that basically means that they are not materially harmed by the current situation. This will be important in a moment.
I’ve always wanted to serve as a bad example. You know – “See what happens when you don’t eat your vegetables!” or “I told you that your face would freeze that way!” or even “That’s why you should never vote straight party ticket!”  Instead, I usually get stuck being the good example. Take this past week, for instance.
As you may know, I have ulcers. (This is not a non sequitur.) As a result, my gastroenterologist wants me to have a colonoscopy every ten years, when my preferred schedule is “never”. But he made a powerful argument  and I reluctantly gave in. It turns out to be a good thing that I did so. Though they didn’t find any evidence of ulcers in the lower intestine or colitis (both of which could happen from my ulcers) they did find a polyp and promptly chopped it out for biopsy.
What did the biopsy reveal? The polyp was precancerous. Believe it or not, this is good news: colorectal cancer is one of the few cancers that can be cured if they catch it early enough. They caught this one before it was even cancer, so there is no chance that I’ll get colorectal cancer . There another bullet, successfully dodged (just call me Neo). About the only change this has made is that my next date with a human rotorooter is in three years instead of ten.
But it does bring home the point that colonoscopies are more than annoying; they are also potentially life-saving. So if you fall into a higher risk category (as I did) or are past 50, then please go get a colonoscopy. Yes, it is disgusting getting ready for it . Yes, it is annoying having someone play Space Invaders in your inner sanctum (so to speak)  . But it may just save your life.
 I have never done that last. On the others, I plead the fifth [a].
 On the order of “No Nexium for you without a colonoscopy!” Since I cannot eat without Nexium and I really, really like eating, I gave in.
 Cue Mr. Burns saying “Indestructible”. The truth is my chances are now slightly higher that I’ll develop cancer. But not enough to matter, and not this time, Mr. Crumbly Cliff! [b]
 Basically, they give you medicine that gives you diarrhea for a day and tell you not to eat anything but clear jello and broth.
 And yes, it was really, really annoying to have to call my brothers and sister to tell them that they now needed to get a colonoscopy. If one person in a family has precancerous polyps, then it is likely that others have them as well.
[a] I actually did that recently on a jury information form. The attorneys didn’t like it, but the judge was amused and understanding, especially when I pointed out that they were asking for a lot of information that could be used to steal an identity (e.g., our birth dates are printed on the form!) and providing us with no details on how our information would be handled. It turns out that he is on the committee charged with redesigning the form and actually listened to my concerns.
[b] Llama-flavored geek points for the reference!
Boy does Dennis Tito have a deal for you! How would you like to take your wife on an all-expenses-paid tour of the Solar System? You’ll have plenty of time together, do a little sight-seeing, and be famous when you get back. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Well, as always, the devil is in the details. Tito’s idea is that we can use an upcoming set of planetary coincidences to send our first people out to Mars. Because of the relative positions of Earth and Mars, the whole trip can be done in 501 days. You’d leave Earth on January 5, 2018, and spend 227 days coasting out to Mars. Once you got there on August 20, 2018, you’d turn around immediately and spend another 274 days coasting back to Earth before skipping through the atmosphere a couple-three times and finally splashing down on May 21, 2019.
The math for the flight trajectory works out just fine, although a lot of people are asking if it is worth it to spend 501 days in a space capsule just so you can spend about six hours screaming past Mars. Especially since you’ll be flying over Mars’ night side and so won’t be able to see much of anything in the way of scenery; a quick glimpse of sunset with two moons, another of sunrise and that’s all folks! Tito’s argument is that this is similar to the Apollo 8, 9, and 10 missions that flew from the Earth to the Moon and back without ever landing. Without those missions, there would never have been an Apollo 11.
But it is far from clear that a “Mars 1″ would ever lead to a “Mars 2″. There is neither the level of international competition nor the level of public interest in a trip to Mars that the trips to Luna had. To be fair, Tito feels that this trip might kick-start the public interest, and he could very well be right.
Far more serious objections come from the nature of the (as-yet un-built) flight equipment and the cost of the flight. Tackling the costs first, this expedition is expected to run between $500 million and $1,000 million . Tito is putting $100 million of his money where his mouth is, and is prevailing on other entrepreneurs and businesses to come up with the remaining funds; advertising and sales of related merchandise are expected to be a significant part of the funding. He does not anticipate using government funding for the trip.
But he will use government brains. He (or more specifically, his company) has already signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA Ames Research Center to develop the heat shield that will be needed if the lucky couple is to survive the experience. And he is drawing on established companies like SpaceX  and Bigelow Aerospace for launch capability and housing.
But even with the leg up those companies can give, this will indubitably be a crash course. Inspiration Mars has less than two years to get everything built and ready. If they miss this launch window, then the next one won’t happen for 18 years . And that has led to a reduction of the mission to its barest essentials.
The (as yet undeveloped) crew capsule and habitat for the Inspiration Mars voyage
How bare? There won’t be any EVA suits, because they take up too much room in a cramped Dragon capsule. There won’t be any showers or even sponge baths, as that is too wasteful of water. Instead, disposable baby wipes will be used for both bathing and cleaning up after what NASA euphemistically calls “waste elimination” and everyone else calls “taking a dump” . Food will be minimized, as will clothing . And there won’t be any special instruments along for the ride; a few standard cameras and a radio and that is it. By keeping everything down to the bare minimum, the mass of the system should be low enough to be launchable in one package . This will cut back on costs and complexity, which means that the mission has a better chance of launching on time.
So here’s what the flight will look like, really: You and your lovely wife  will spend 2014 training for the mission. What to expect. How to fix things when they break. How to tell the press to go suck an egg in six different languages. And then you’ll launch. The first twenty minutes will be sheer terror, with shaking, loud noises, and pieces falling off of the vehicle. (Don’t worry; they are supposed to do that.) Then you’ll spend the next 227 days catching up on your reading, learning the ins and outs of zero gee sex, making and erasing the world’s first zero gee sex tape, fighting, making up, having make up zero gee sex, and sending message after message back to the Earth about how wonderful space is and how beautiful the stars are. You’ll see Mars growing larger and larger and the smells in the capsule slowly get more and more intense; fortunately, you won’t be able to tell about the smells . You then spend six hours trying frantically to take a zillion pictures of Mars as you swing by its darkside and then you’ll spend another 274 days coasting back to Earth while you repeat the joys you experienced on the ride out. When you get back to Earth, you’ll dip into the atmosphere at 9 g and pop back out to cool off, then do it again and again. When you finally land on Earth, you’ll be whisked away to a press conference where everyone will ask “What was it like?” and leave it ambiguous as to whether they mean the view or the sex. You may notice people slowly moving farther and farther away from you and it won’t be until you take a shower in your hotel and see the layers of brown and smelly crud (and see your clothes standing up by themselves) that you understand why.
 To put that into perspective, a single B-2 bomber cost $773 million and we built 21 of them. And a single F-35C fighter is expected to cost $238 million and we’ll build 560 of them. For the cost of those two (out of hundreds) DoD projects, we could do this Mars trip 150 times!
 Those who remember Heinlein’s classic The Man Who Sold the Moon are probably smiling right about now.
 Though rumors are swirling of a secret rift. Early announcements (read: more rumors) had Inspiration Mars and SpaceX doing this in unison. Now SpaceX is just wishing them luck. Make of that what you will.
 Which is not to say that the trip cannot be made; flight windows nearly as good open every decade, and every couple of years there is a nice launch window for a 1000-day mission. But this quickie mission won’t be possible again until 2031.
 Amusingly, what NASA calls “taking a dump” (throwing waste outside the capsule through a vacuum lock) is what everyone else calls “waste elimination”.
 This is already a problem on the ISS. T-shirts there go from in the wrapper to “use for interviews” to “wear when visiting” [a] to “everyday wear” to “gym wear” [b] to “use to clean dirty things” to “why hasn’t this been thrown overboard already?”
 And that brings us right back to the Apollo missions. Von Braun wanted Earth orbit rendezvous. The different parts of the system would be launched separately and then assembled in orbit (preferably at a space station) before heading off to the Moon. But it would have taken an extra couple of years to develop the system, which means that we wouldn’t have met Kennedy’s arbitrary “by the end of this decade” deadline. And so we went with the faster lunar orbit rendezvous and ended up with nothing to show for it after Nixon cancelled Apollo.
 And you both were chosen for your ability to get along for long periods of time. That you both happen to be photogenic as all get out is merely an added benefit.
 Two effects are at work here. First, smells travel poorly in space, due to the low air pressure and poor circulation, coupled with fluid build-up in the sinuses. Second, human senses detect changes in intensity, not the absolute value. So a slow increase in stinkiness is never noticed whereas a sudden burst is; this is why you don’t think that you smell bad after a day working in the field but do realize it when somebody farts.
[a] There is a distinct US side and USSR side to the ISS. This is not due to politics per se; it is actually because the Russians tried to charge everyone else for using “their” part of the ISS facilities (mainly the bathroom). So the Americans said “Fine – you can’t use our bathroom, either” and let everyone else use it for free.
[b] Astronauts on the ISS exercise two hours a day in an attempt to stave off bone loss and boredom. It works for the bone loss.