Space is really boring

I’m planning to live for about 80 years.
In that time, the Earth will orbit the Sun 80 times.

In turn, the Sun will orbit the centre of the Milky Way (our galaxy).
This will take 230,000,000 years.
About three million lifetimes. Nine million generations.
In the entire history of modern man, we’ve barely started an orbit.

Our galaxy doesn’t orbit anything. But then, the Universe is only 13,700,000,000 years old. Maybe we just haven’t had a chance to get started.

The atoms in our bodies are elements that can only be created in supernovae – exploding stars. Going by the quantities we have available, we’ve probably been through two supernovae.

Hot gas gathers into a ball of fire, nuclear explosion, drifts apart, gathers into clouds, collects into ball of fire, nuclear explosion, drifts apart, gathers into clouds, collects into ball of fire. Our solar system.

Our sun is about 5,000,000,000 years old. The previous stars from which we’re made were bigger, and the universe was smaller and hotter, so they didn’t last as long. We can last another 5,000,000,000 years before we have to start looking for a new one. Our sun won’t explode – it will just fizzle out.

The heavens move, but our lifetimes are just a beat of the hummingbird’s wing.

Our nearest neighbour is 4 light years away. Not so far, at the speed of light. Of course, we can’t travel at the speed of light. We can mathematically prove that we’ll never be able to come close. One light year is 6,000,000,000,000 miles.

The stars are unreachable.

Despite all our advances in science and technology over the last century, it still takes an immense amount of power to lift anything into orbit. And mere words can’t convey the scale of the power required. These are the biggest machines mankind has ever created. They burn simple chemical fuels; no atomic power is used.

The problem of getting into orbit is still an engineering challenge, not a scientific challenge.

From orbit, where can we go? The moon is nearby, for want of a better word. It’s a rock.

Venus and mercury burn so hot, they’re unapproachable. Mars is an arid desert. We can no more populate that than we can the heart of the Sahara.

The gas giants are so distant that they’d take years to reach, and are incredibly dangerous. Jupiter’s magnetic field is so huge that it’s tearing the moons apart. The winds of Saturn orbit once every ten hours – that’s thousands of miles an hour,

There is nowhere for us to go.

Space is a beautiful, fascinating light show, forever beyond our reach.
Tragically boring.

If you’re interested in space, you should sponsor my friend Chris’s project for Astronomers Without Borders: reach for the stars.

What is the problem you’re trying to solve?

This is about the most useful question in engineering. I ask it a lot.
“how do I get to this private method?”
“hmm, you shouldn’t really do that. What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”
“I’m trying to find the tweet id”
“oh that’s easy, we have a method for that…”

I think it’s a common question at Apple too.
Their UI design is full of it.

Sometimes for the good:
“how do I get rid of this virus?”
“virus? why do you have a virus?”
“I downloaded this software…”
“ah, let me build you an app store”

Sometimes for the bad:
“why doesn’t this green button work?”
“what is the problem you’re trying to solve?”
“I want to maximise the window”
“ah, let me build you Spaces, a whole new way to…”
“just make the fucking button work”

Icebreaker

This was my first ToastMasters speech at Twitter. I ran over time a bit – I took 20 seconds over my limit of 7 minutes, and would’ve liked to have gone on a bit longer. I ad-libbed a fair bit. It was good fun. Not sure what to talk about for the next one.

Hello.

This is my icebreaker, so I get the chance to introduce myself.

My name is Kenneth Kufluk. I am one hundred and five years old, and Dick Costolo hasn’t spoken to me in six months.

But let me start with the name…

My surname is Kufluk, something I’ve always had trouble with. It’s unusual, even in Poland, where it came from. At school I’d get endless taunts of “toughluck kufluk”, and all sorts of mispronounciations.
One person says “Kufluk”, the next says “Kuflux”, the next says “Kooflux”.
For five years of high school, I had half the school laughing at me for being called “Cuthbert”.
But it’s Kufluk. It’s always been Kufluk.

Or so I thought.
Last year I published by Grandparent’s memoirs, and right there, buried in his stories of soviet invasion, cattle trucks and labour camps, and all the horrors of those times, he says that it was originally pronounced “Kooflook”. So now we know. I still prefer Kufluk, but I’m more relaxed about it now.

There’s nothing relaxed about my first name. It’s Kenneth. Nobody calls me Ken. Or at least, not twice.

I’ve been Kenneth my whole life, from when I was born until my 105th birthday this year.

Now I know what you’re thinking. 105? Is that his real hair? What’s his secret?
Well, yes, the hair is real. But there’s a story.

About six years ago I was a different man. Young, full of energy.
I’d been round the world twice.
I’d played in unicycle hockey world championships in japan, china and switzerland.
I’d sprint any distance.
I’d be out every night at the bar, picking up … well, picking up pints of beer, if I’m honest.
I’d actually been described as “a coiled spring”.

And then one summer, I found myself waking up at night with pain in my legs. I’d just walk it off and go back to bed. I assumed it was too much running.
But then it got worse.
Before long, a three block walk to the shops felt like miles. I’d come home and lie face-down on the bed, not asleep, but just exhausted.
No more running.
I’d find myself stopping on the way home from work, unable to go any further, but unable to think of any other way to get home.
This was chronic fatigue, something my “pull yourself together” upbringing had never really believed in.

Life got really hard.
I cancelled my first marathon, gave up on buying a house, and postponed my part-time degree.
But I still went to work.

And that was difficult too – not for exhaustion, but the constant questions “what did you do last night”, “how was your weekend”. I was face-down in bed at home, thanks for asking.

Little by little, month by month, I got better.
I learned to push through it.
Sometimes it got worse again, but overall I improved.

By the following year, I could get around.
I found that running was somehow easier than walking, and much easier than standing around.
So I entered the marathon again.

It was 26 miles of hard work. But I used what I’d learned – that you can push through exhaustion.
And I finished.
And I bought that house, finished that degree, and even proposed to my girlfriend.
But somewhere I’d still lost about a third of my life.

Five years on, and I’m cured. I still don’t like standing up for long stretches, or walking a long way. It’s like someone has turned up the gravity.
Some days are better than others. But I’m ok.
I’d say it’s made me feel about five years older.

Which, ok, only makes me about 40.
The real reason I feel 105 is because I have a six month old baby, which means I haven’t slept properly for, oh, about a year.

And why hasn’t Dick spoken to me?
Well, maybe it’s because I named my baby [REACTED].

Or maybe it’s because we’ve never actually really met.
One of those. I’ll never be sure.

Step lightly

At the centre of my childhood home was a staircase. Not one of the elaborate kind, just a brown, carpet-covered, twelve step staircase, with a hallway on each end.

We’d play on it for hours. Jumping off higher and higher points. My older brother could leap the entire distance – I don’t think I ever managed that. We’d slide down face-first, face-down, we’d vault the bannisters.

My father taught me two valuable lessons. One, he said I should climb the stairs in twos. I’m not sure why this was important, but I’ve done this ever since. From a couple of steps run-up, I can easily fly up in twos, threes, or even fours.

I take the London Underground escalator in twos as well, enjoying that satisfying moment of airtime the additional speed of the escalator gives you when you hit the peak.

The other lesson was that you should tread lightly. Even when hitting the stairs to climb four in one go, your step should be virtually undetectable. I can imagine why he thought this important (probably not the noise, actually, he was always just worried about us destroying his house).

I love moving without making a sound. To this day, I take my shoes off at the door, and move soundlessly around my apartment in socks. I avoid the squeaky floorboards. I step with the ball of my foot first. My heel touches the ground, but doesn’t take my weight.

Try it now, it’s actually quite fun. And harder than you’d think.

You have to walk confidently – no tiptoeing around the place. Learn your floorboards, your squeaky steps, and like an obsessive-compulsive approaching a crack, you go around.

I do the same outside the house. My shoes are Nike Frees. Maximum comfort, minimum noise. It’s a different walk, the placement of your foot is quite different. I stroll silently around the office, while others rattle the furniture as they stomp past.

Of course, it’s not without problems. At home, I scare the living daylights out of my wife on a regular basis. I now have to announce my presence as I approach: “I’m coming, I’m coming,”. I wonder what our neighbours think of it.

It’s harmless fun, I enjoy it, and it makes me more of a ninja than all you JavaScripters out there.