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Archive for July, 2014

Building the Web, continuing work in progress

Jul. 29, 2014, under progress reports, Web development

I spent a lot of time getting the next iteration of Space Power Now into proper working order for the Apollo 11 anniversary on July 20 & 21. The Development Plan mentions several other sites. It wouldn’t have felt like the job was finished without live links leading to pages with some level of polish.

The worst offender was the Space Questions site that still had the hosting company’s default page from when I first registered the domain. At least now it’s got a blurb saying what it’s supposed to be about, with a “keep me posted when this site is updated” form.

The Space History Newsletter has had a banner image for a few years, but it wasn’t even shown on its home page. I had to fix that, and as I started working on the site, I wondered how difficult it would be to just move the newsletter over from the L5 Development Group page – I’ve got most of the code written, after all, so it shouldn’t be too hard, right? Oh, if life were that easy! When I wrote the SHN code in 2005, I built a template system that seemed like it was going to provide the flexibility for publishing in several formats. It works well for creating the email version and updating the page on the L5 Development Group site – but getting it to work on the SHN site is going to take figuring out the template system again, at a minimum – more work than I had time for just then. The first line item for SHN on the Space Power Now Development Plan page already was “move the space history newsletter from to its own site” – so that puts it off until there’s more funding to cover the cost of the development.

Next on the first-level links list was – another one that’s had a banner of its own for quite some time, but still had an unstyled text page for its face. I gave it a quick touch up, but since I was running out of time, it didn’t get as much attention as it probably deserves. (Such is the life of projects that are waiting for funding to arrive…)

The L5 Development Group site is a bit of a thorn in my side: I started a complete rewrite a couple of years ago, and made a lot of progress (an incomplete development version is at the beta site) but got stuck when I couldn’t get the floating accordian menu to work right in both Firefox 3.6.28 and InternetExploiter 6. (Yes, I’ve been obsessed with backwards compatibility – but that’s another story.) Since then I’ve decided the menu needs to be rewritten using a better combination of CSS and JavaScript, but I haven’t had the time and resources to get back to it. As a result, is stuck in the past, with a somewhat clunky interface that’s really showing its age. Instead of being the showcase that ties everything together, it’s another project simmering on a back burner, waiting for the day when there’s enough money to bring it back to the front.

The last of the direct links from the Space Power Now Development Plan on July 20th was to the L5 National Bank site. The frames-based implementation of the site had not been touched since I first put it up in 2004, but it had the site’s banner displayed, the stub menu illustrated some of the features that are planned, and it had an appropriate disclaimer to be sure visitors understand it’s not a functioning bank yet. I wasn’t happy with leaving it like that, but I was up against my deadline, and let it stay the way it was.

I got my Remember the Moon – and Mars! post published on July 21, the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon, and told my world about it. I was hoping people would read it, and that at least a few would follow one of the links leading to Space Power Now, and that some would even push the buttons on the Invest page to help support its mission. That hasn’t happened yet, so I’m still scrambling to get the (back) rent paid by the end of the month – on Thursday.

Since the “High Holiday” (the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing), I’ve been working on the network of sites linked to by the Space Power Now Development Plan. “Working” is a bit of a euphemism, I guess – I’ve been programming night and day, feeling like it was almost to the exclusion of everything else. I did have to take a break on Thursday for my “one day a week” day job, spent a few hours reading in a book store cafe, took a couple of days on some eBay business, and went to visit my cat over the weekend. Other than that, I’ve been tangled in the innards of the World Wide Web, building components of my development program. Oh, yeah, I did sleep a few times – but nowhere near 8 hours a night…

The first thing I had to fix was the L5 National Bank Web site: Not only are frames-based sites considered obsolete by much of the development world, but it took a long time to load. I’d recently done a frames-to-divs upgrade on another site, so I expected it would be a fairly short project. When I was done, I’d be right back to working on getting the rent paid. It wasn’t until I’d started editing the code that I realized it was “ten years after” that I’d returned to it from when I first put the site up. It could have been a real nightmare, but I’ve always tried to follow the best practices to avoid future problems. As it turns out, the conversion did go smoothly, and if I had stopped there, I would have been doing something else for the past few days.

Right before I got to work on the L5 National Bank site, I made the mistake of clicking a link, probably when I was looking at the banners displayed on the Fred Koschara Enterprises site. The link led me to the Interplanet Dating Service site where I found it was another one with an existing banner – and a favicon – neither of which were being used on the text-only existing page. I did postpone working on it until I’d finished the L5 National Bank upgrade, but once I saw the state was in, fixing it was an itch I found I couldn’t ignore: I’d put a list on it some time ago of the types of affiliations with the space T/E/D field one could have with a suggestion for the “not interested” category: Go use another dating service. Besides not having the banner or favicon in use, I felt that list really needed to be addressed more fully. Again, if I had stuck to that bit of work, I wouldn’t have slipped further down the rabbit hole, but no, I couldn’t leave it alone. I had put a “Your Link Here” place holder as an action item under the “not interested” entry. Shouldn’t that be a link someone with another dating site could use to request their site be added to the list? (That’s what I had in mind in the first place.) I considered putting a mailto link there, but that could lead to long conversations before enough information came across to decide whether to add a link or not. What I needed was a link to a “simple” form with fields for all of the appropriate information. OK, build the form. Now, what to do with the collected data? Just email it, and “some day” add it to a database? That sounded like another unfinished project in the making, certainly not something I need. That meant building a database table to store the entries – but I didn’t have a database set up for the site. Since I was setting up the database, why not drop in the “stock” FAQ system, that code’s mostly complete, right? – except that the publicly accessible FAQ page was way out of date, and cleaning it up turned into a bit of a project, by itself. Eventually I did get the “submit your link” database code implemented, but I still had to write the email notification part of the form handler when I crashed for five hours. After my nap, I realized that if the email notification told me there was data in the database I’d need an Admin page to do something with it (as if I needed another project to work on) – so the email processing has to forward all of the entered information as well. A number of iterations later, I’d finished testing the page, and had the email formatted so the information would be readily understandable, even if the requestor wrote a small novel in submitting their link. Nineteen hours had elapsed (including the five hour nap and “some time” dealing with email, etc.) since I started on it, but in the end the Your Link Here page was operational, and I could set the Interplanet Dating Service site (including its newly functional FAQ system) aside feeling it was “done enough for now.”

I still wasn’t done: The site blurb at the top of the L5 National Bank page says it’s (going to be) “the premier banking institution at and for the L5 Nation” – and the L5 Nation Web site was in pretty bad shape: There was a banner, but it wasn’t being used on the site, and there wasn’t a favicon for the site, which was also just a crude text implementation. The site did include some minimal text and a couple of links that I’d want to preserve in a reimplementation, but not much. I’ve got a set of prototype files that I use to bring up a new site with minimal effort – but before I used them again, I needed to add some recent changes, or I’d have to repeat fixing the copied files over and again. Once I got the prototype file set updated, though, putting a new face on went pretty smoothly. I still needed to create the favicon, but there was another diversion that had to be addressed first:

The L5 Nation site is only half the picture – and it’s got a link to the other side of the coin, the L5 Colony web site. was in a similar state: There was a text site with minimal text and a couple of links, a banner not being used on the site, and no favicon. By the time I started on the L5 Colony site, I was really leery about looking for other links that could lead further down the rabbit hole, so this update went pretty quickly – just a few hours later, the facelift was done, except for the favicon.

Creating the favicons for the L5 Nation and L5 Colony sites was a straight-forward task. I took care of it with minimal effort, but getting Firefox to display the newly created ones was a challenge, as usual. I found a Firefox addon that claims to make it possible to delete an existing favicon association. I installed it, which required restarting Firefox – and when the browser came up, it knew about the new favicons, so I didn’t have an opportunity to test the addon I’d just installed.

While I was writing this blog entry, I had occasion to go look at the Fred Koschara Enterprises site again, and noticed one of the “extra” places a page title could be displayed had been activated recently – changing server-global files can have unexpected consequences like that. I was certain I knew what the problem was, and how to fix it. The only thing is, it turns out the FKE site is one I’d done a lot of experimenting on when I was implementing the floating accordian menu. Some of the code is pretty old, and other parts aren’t implemented quite the way the more recent work has been done. Consequently, my simple fix proved to not be, and before I was done, I’d had to touch six files, some multiple times – and it was two hours later. So much for a quick solution!

I wanted to clean up a couple of things after getting my Apollo 11 post finished. I’ve done that, and now it’s eight days of a week later – and I’m not any closer to getting the rent paid. This could be a problem. I guess I’m going to have to reach pretty deeply into my hat to find the rabbit I’m supposed to be pulling out of it. Considering how far down the rabbit hole I’ve been in the past week, it seems like there must be an answer here somewhere – all I have to do is find it…

Go visit Space Power Now – I’ve been working on the projects described in the Development Plan this past week because I believe it’s a project that is really important for the healthy future of humanity. I wouldn’t be the evangelist I am if I didn’t think so.

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Comments are fixed, RSS is verified

Jul. 22, 2014, under bugfix

It seems there was a bug in the theme I adapted that made it impossible to leave comments. (Thanks to Joe Strout for bringing this to my attention!) I fixed that problem – and discovered two of the three anti-SPAM plugins I have installed weren’t working right, either. It’s all straightened out now.

I’ve also verified that the RSS subscription process works – I’m subscribed to my own blog 😉 If you are having trouble subscribing, make sure you’ve got an RSS reader installed. The one I use is FeedReader.
FeedReader button

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Remember the Moon – and Mars!

Jul. 21, 2014, under call to action, history, space t/e/d

It’s been forty five years since the Apollo 11 mission first landed humans on another planetary body – the Moon: At 20:17:40 UT (4:17:40 pm EDT) on 20 July 1969, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong (Apollo 11 Commander) and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. (“Eagle” Lunar Module (LM) pilot) landed the LM in Mare Tranquilitatis (the Sea of Tranquility). Meanwhile, the “Columbia” Command and Service Module (CSM) continued in Lunar orbit with CM pilot Michael Collins aboard. During their stay on the Moon, the astronauts set up scientific experiments, took photographs, and collected Lunar samples. The LM took off from the Moon on 21 July for the astronauts’ return to Earth.

NASA photo ID S69-42583, picture taken by the Apollo Lunar surface camera as Neil Armstrong took humanity's first step onto another planetary body, the Moonn, 'One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.'
NASA photo ID S69-42583, taken by the Apollo Lunar surface camera as Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first step onto another planetary body, the Moon
“One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the Moon, NASA photo by Neil Armstrong
Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the Moon, NASA photo by Neil Armstrong

NASA’s Viking 1 lander was originally planned to land on Mars coinciding with the US Bicentennial on 4 July 1976, but was delayed until a suitable landing site was located. As it worked out, the landing took place at Chryse Planitia at 11:56:06 UT on 20 July, roughly eight and a third hours less than exactly seven years after Apollo 11 had landed on the Moon. The robotic probe returned the first ever close-up pictures of the Martian surface, collected the first-ever samples taken from the surface Mars, and continued to communicate with ground controllers on Earth until 13 November 1982.

The first image taken by Viking 1 on the surface of Mars, minutes after it touched down. NASA photo
The first photograph ever taken on the surface of the planet Mars, obtained by Viking 1 just minutes after the spacecraft landed

The Apollo missions continued through 14 December 1972 when Apollo 17 Mission Commander Gene Cernan returned to the LM “Challenger” ending the last Extravehicular Activity (EVA) of what would prove to be the final expedition of the program. As yet, No other humans have returned to set foot on the Lunar surface, foisting on Captain Cernan the dubious honor and title of being “The Last Man on the Moon.” As illustrated by the L5 Development GroupLast Man on the Moon” T-shirt, I think it’s (well past) time for us to go back: During the Apollo years, technology and science were advancing rapidly, the economy was booming, and it seemed as though anything was possible. We thought that within a few years there would be people living in space, and by the turn of the century, there would be hundreds, or even thousands, living on the Moon, with human exploration of Mars well under way.

“Somehow” the dreams got lost: President Nixon cut NASA’s budget because space exploration “wasn’t popular,” just as NBC had canceled Star Trek because of its “poor ratings.” Star Trek went on to become the most widely re-broadcast program in the history of television, and the general public still gets excited about space travel – when the news media lets them know something is going on. Look, for example, at the excitement that was stirred when NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars, and the on-going popularity of the intrepid rover Opportunity as it continues to explore more than ten years later.

Since the six Apollo missions that landed men on the Moon, no one has gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. NASA’s Shuttle was supposed to be a “space truck” that would fly hundreds of times each year and drive the cost of access to space down. Instead, only 130 flights were made over the entire life of the program by the five spacecraft that went to orbit, two of which were destroyed in flight. Once they got done building the Shuttle, NASA had to find something to do with it, so they started working on a space station. Initially it was going to be a multi-disciplinary facility with a price tag of just a couple of billion dollars. By the time it was built, the International Space Station had lost most of the capabilities first envisioned. It had also ballooned into a hole in space that will have sucked in between $150 and $200 billion by the time it’s currently planned to be retired in 2028. The ISS is “permanently occupied” by a (constantly changing) crew of 6, but the U.S. doesn’t have a way of its own to get astronauts there now that the Shuttle has been taken out of service. In many ways, the question of “what is it there for?” is still unanswered.

The thing that’s missing from this picture is commercial development. Space programs have been the playthings of governments, subject to the whims of whoever is in power at the moment and their perception of what their subjects (the public) want. Until there’s a profit to be made, nothing else is going to happen. Witness the development of airplanes in the early twentieth century: The first ones were fragile machines cobbled together by experimenters trying out new gadgets, but they weren’t widely available until enterprising types found they could charge passengers for fast travel between distant points and the airline industry evolved. True, the U.S. government helped make those initial airlines more profitable by taking contracts for delivery of mail, but airplanes became ubiquitous by selling something valuable – fast transportation – to private individuals at a relatively low cost.

It’s true there are space business market segments that are already well established and profitable: Satellites in geostationary orbit provide television programming and communication around the globe. The U.S. GPS constellation enables drivers who would otherwise be lost to get to their destinations. Weather satellites let us plan picnics and find out when schools will be closed by snow, and Earth resource data from space is used in a broad range of industries. Robotic satallites have permanently changed the way we live, and the companies behind them are making solid profits, even though their entire staff is still on the ground.

The human space flight industry, however, basically doesn’t exist. There are companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences making “commercial” cargo flights to the ISS, and SpaceX is well along toward developing their Dragon capsule for carrying crews there. Lockheed Martin and Astrium are building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for NASA and the ESA, assuming public funding continues throughout the program’s development. Bigelow Aerospace, while still proposing their own network of low-cost space habitats, is now building an inflatable module to be attached to the International Space Station. These are all government projects, though, technology looking for a market, not businesses selling something valuable to private individuals.

This is where Space Power Now fits in – the immediate commercial project of The L5 Development Group space program. Space Power Now is promulgating a constellation of solar power satellites in geostationary orbit. Those satellites will collect solar power in space where the Sun is always shining and cheaply beam it to the ground for consumption by everybody on the planet in lieu of fossil fuels that are both in limited supply and damaging the environment. Simply building those satellites is going to create millions of jobs; operating and maintaining them once they are installed will require a significant permanent human presence in space.

Visionaries in the space travel, exploration and development (space T/E/D) field know there are unimagineable benefits that will come from opening space and the resources “out there” to make them available for the benefit of humanity. We know there’s energy from the Sun that can eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels. There are more resources just within our Solar System than we could use in thousands of years. From the research that’s been done on the International Space Station, we know protein crystals can be grown in microgravity to help cure diseases that would otherwise be intractible. What we don’t – and can’t – know is how much more we’re going to find after we have actually started getting out and exploring a lot beyond Earth.

Once we get to where there’s a critical mass of infrastructure in space, it will be a lot easier for smaller businesses to get a piece of the space pie: Rather than having to figure out how to get to space in the first place, entrepreneurs will be able to focus on what they’re going to do once they are there. That’s another reason why Space Power Now is such an important project: By undertaking a project requiring thousands of launches, it will enable launch companies to develop capabilities that bring costs down, and make travel to space almost as mundane as a flight across the ocean.

Please visit the Space Power Now site, and become part of the project. I really believe our future depends on it!

BTW, I feel sorry for the “22% of Americans in 2009” who don’t believe we ever went to the Moon. I know better – and I am anxious to get us back there…

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My own blog theme – finally!

Jul. 18, 2014, under progress reports, Web development

Since I first installed WordPress and set up my blog on this site, it’s been using the pixeled theme, which was OK – but it made my blog look like something attached to my site with bubble gum, duct tape and baling wire – it didn’t fit in. Among other things, while it was easy to pick a menu item from my home page to get to my blog, there wasn’t a link in the reverse direction: Once you were in my blog, there was no going back to the rest of my site unless you used your browser’s button or re-entered the Web address. I’ve never really been happy with it, but I also had the impression it would take a significant investment of time and effort to build my own WordPress theme.

I read through a couple of tutorials Monday night (July 14) and got a rather different perspective: Between having delved into the workings of WordPress when I was contracting at MIT Sloan School last year, and the presentation in the tutorials, I thought it might not be too much work, after all, to create my own theme, to make my blog fit into my site smoothly.

I started working on creating my theme about 9:30 Monday evening. By 2AM I’d made a couple of slight changes, but most of the time had gone into cleaning up the ghastly code I was trying to adapt. Who was the VisualBasic idiot that came up with the if: endif type of conditionals for PHP? Brackets are much easier to follow – and to make sure you’ve got your blocks properly closed! I’ve got WordPress 3.8.1 running here, so there’s no need for pre-2.7 code – gack!

I had to take a break from 2AM until about 3:15 to post another picture on Photo By Fred, and to validate Tuesday’s entries for the Space History newsletter. After installing my barely changed theme on my blog, it took practically two hours just to get back to where it would display again: There’s something wrong with the PHP installation at eApps and syntax errors in nested function calls aren’t being recorded in the error_log, so I had to trace through WordPress to find out where there was an extraneous close-bracket in one of the theme modules where I’d been optimizing the code, and a missing close bracket in another module where I’d missed a VisualBasic PHP block being closed.

Once I got the theme to display, I started modifying it, an iterative process that kept going and going and …. Eventually it converged on a solution, and before 11:30 Tuesday morning I’d gotten to where I was happy with the way it looks: My blog now looks like an integral part of the site, and I’m pretty comfortable with the color scheme and layout (at least for the moment).

There are still HTML validation errors because the AddThis plugin uses the same ID for every element on the page and doesn’t escape ampersands the way it’s supposed to, but those problems are common enough that most browsers handle them without taking particular notice. I should probably submit bug reports to the plugin’s developers. I’ll get to it one of these days when I’ve got nothing to do and a staff to do it with…

In the mean time, my blog has a new look and feel, and I’m happy with the way it works – so the roughly 12.75 hours of work I put into it paid off nicely.

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11 July 1979 Skylab fell – and the American public was robbed

Jul. 11, 2014, under call to action, opinions, space t/e/d

NASA’s Skylab, launched 14 May 1973, was an orbiting space station manned by crews arriving via separate launches. The orbital workshop (OWS) section was a refitted S-IVB second stage of a Saturn IB booster, a leftover from the Apollo program originally intended for one of the canceled Earth orbital missions, modified for long duration manned habitation in orbit. It contained provisions and crew quarters necessary to support three-person crews for periods of up to 84 days each.

Severe damage was sustained during launch, and the station underwent extensive repair during a spacewalk by the first crew; repairs by crews throughout the manned stays led to virtually all mission objectives being met.

The first Skylab crew was aboard from 25 May to 22 June 1973, the crew of the SL-2 mission (73-032A). Next, it was manned during the period 28 July to 25 September 1973, by the crew of the SL-3 mission (73-050A). The final manned period was from 16 November 1973 to 8 February 1974, when it was inhabited by the SL-4 mission (73-090A) crew.

Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times during the 171 days and 13 hours of its occupation during the three manned missions; astronauts performed ten spacewalks totalling 42 hours 16 minutes. Skylab logged approximately 2,000 hours of scientific and medical experiments, including eight solar experiments (e.g., the Sun’s coronal holes were discovered); many medical experiments related to astronauts’ adaptation to extended periods of microgravity. Each successive Skylab mission set a duration record for the time the astronauts spent in space.

Following the final manned Skylab mission, ground controllers performed some engineering tests that ground personnel were reluctant to do while astronauts were aboard. Upon completion of those tests, Skylab was positioned into a stable attitude and systems were shut down. It was expected Skylab would remain in orbit an additional eight to ten years. It was to have been visited by an early shuttle mission, reboosted to a higher orbit, and used by space shuttle crews, but delays of the first shuttle flight made this impossible. At the same time, increased solar activity heating the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere caused more drag on the station, which led to an early reentry on 11 July 1979. Skylab disintegrated over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia after a worldwide scare over its pending crash, casting large pieces of debris in populated areas.

Of the premature reentry it has been said “Fortunately, the only casualty was a single Australian cow.” However, that quip doesn’t really express the real damage that was incurred by the loss of Skylab: How much further ahead would we have been when the shuttle started flying if there was still a space station in place to go visit?

The total budget for Skylab was approximately $2,147,100,000 in 1970’s dollars (NASA’s figures). The cost in today’s dollars would have been much higher. Skylab fell out of orbit because “an early shuttle mission” failed to get there to reboost it into a higher orbit. How much would it have cost to build an automated expendable launcher and send it to Skylab to take it into a higher orbit when it became obvious that the shuttle wouldn’t get there in time? 300 million dollars? Half a billion, maybe? Certainly a lot less than the US$ 2.15 billion loss NASA imposed on the American public by failing to protect the assets it had been entrusted with.

Skylab was not the first space station – the Soviet Union launched the first one, Salyut 1, in 1971 – but Skylab was one of the first, and the largest at the time. It hosted three crews before it was abandoned in 1974. Russia continued to focus on long-duration space missions and in 1986 launched the first modules of the Mir space station – which grew to be ultimately only 25% larger than Skylab. Meanwhile, NASA poured nearly all of its human space flight budget into the shuttle program.

In his State of the Union address on 25 January 1984, President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build a space station within the next ten years. The Freedom design was predicted to have a total development cost (including construction in orbit) of US$ 1.5-2 billion dollars in early projections. Partly due to changing political winds, costs escalated, target dates were pushed back, and in 1993, the Clinton administration announced the transformation of Space Station Freedom into the International Space Station (ISS), bringing in Russia as a partner. In 1998, the first two modules were launched and joined together in orbit. Today, the ISS is approximately the size of a football field, a 460-ton platform orbiting fifteen and a half times a day between 205 and 270 miles above Earth. It is about four times as large as Mir and five times as large as Skylab. The ISS is “funded until 2024,” and may operate until 2028. By then the investment will have grown well into the US$ 150-200 billion range – and plans are to “deorbit” the station when funding runs out.

NASA has already set a precedent by letting a US$ 2.15 billion investment fall out of the sky when Skylab came crashing down. The Russians did much the same thing when they took the Mir space station out of orbit, throwing away an estimated US$ 4 billion in 2001 dollars when the project ended. It wouldn’t be any different, philosophically, for NASA and its partners to toss another $175 billion (+/- $25 billion) down the toilet by burning the ISS up in the atmosphere, so why not?

The reason “why not” is because doing so would be robbing taxpayers – now, all over the world – of their investment – AGAIN! It costs a LOT of money to put things into orbit. It’s far cheaper to keep things in orbit that are already there than to send up replacements. If the international partners and NASA want to abandon the ISS when “funding runs out” they should sell it in place for salvage – so that an industrious private enterprise can boost it into a higher, stable orbit for storage until they can get to it economically to recover the investment – even if that “recovery” is nothing more than tearing the thing down to use it for raw materials.

Governments, in general, and space agencies, in particular, need to stop acting like they’ve been given a blank check, and trying to spend every last penny of it.

We are going to run out of oil. Before that happens, we MUST have a replacement source of energy and feed stock for our civilization that has become so dependent on plastic. The time to act is NOW!! Please visit to help build a solution.

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More people need to listen to (and hear) _Public Transit_

Jul. 10, 2014, under music, opinions

Lucretia’s Daggers has a new video called Public Transit that you can find on YouTube. More people need to listen to it, and actually hear what Lucretia is saying!

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