Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson

Mom, We Did It!

By Johna Till Johnson

Occasionally a news story really resonates with me. This is one: An Indian spacecraft called Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has just reached orbit around the planet Mars.

And the achievement is astonishing on many fronts: It’s the first time in history that any country’s spacecraft has made it on the first attempt. At $74 million, the effort cost less than making the movie “Gravity”—and almost 10 times less than the US’s NASA Mars mission.

Scientists and engineers cheer as MOM reaches Mars orbit (Photo: Reuters)

Scientists and engineers cheer as MOM reaches Mars orbit (Photo: Reuters)

And, as with the NASA effort, some of the top scientists and engineers involved are women. There’s something symbolic in “Mother India”—which is linguistically, culturally, and even genetically the ancestor of many of us of European descent—sending a spacecraft called MOM to Mars.

I’m really proud of our Indian sisters and brothers for pulling this off. And I’m psyched to see so many saris involved in the celebration.

MOM, we did it!

Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!

New England On the Edge of Fall

By Johna Till Johnson

Fall is arriving early this year.

Last weekend I was up in coastal Connecticut helping my mother settle into a new apartment. The retirement community where she lives is lovely, surrounded by hills, trees, and not-too-manicured fields of wildflowers. And on this mid-September day, with still more than a week to go before autumn officially starts… the trees are turning.

Fortunately I had several errands that involved walking around the community in the golden afternoon sunshine. I took as many photos as I could to capture the essence of the day: Brilliant blue skies, sun-dappled trees, wildflowers dancing in the light breeze.

Nobody knows what the winter will bring. But if autumn continues the way it’s begun… it will be beautiful!

(click on any photo to start slideshow)

A Kayayer’s Guide to Hitchhikers

By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

HitchhikerKayaking is often a solitary sport. Although paddlers sometimes go out in pairs and groups, the quintessential kayaker is a bit of a loner. Many of us make long trips alone, and prize the time we spend by ourselves.

But sometimes we inadvertently end up with fellow travelers. When Vlad and I were training for the Everglades Challenge, we found ourselves navigating the Florida Bay in pitch darkness—when all of a sudden, a fish jumped out of the water and into my lap. A few months later, one of our fellow Everglades Challengers, Clewless, topped that one when a shark jumped into his boat—during the race!  There’s also the recent story of a 6-foot alligator jumping into a canoe. And of course many stories of cute, or sometimes not so cute, seals and sea lions hopping onto kayaks to hitch a ride.

The typical hitchhiker is less threatening. While weaving through the mangrove tunnel of the ironically named Broad Creek during the Everglades Challenge, a tree crab landed on the nose of my boat. Tree crabs are small—an inch or two—with shiny, mottled brown or green shells. This one was content to be my mascot for several minutes—until he started to crawl slowly towards the cockpit.

I debated knocking him off with the paddle—but that seemed unfair, and might have hurt him. So I gently nosed up to a mangrove root—and he hopped off.

He wasn’t the only crab who hitched a ride, though. Returning from a recent trip to Sandy Hook, I felt something skittering around in my cockpit. When I stripped off the spray skirt I saw a small gray sea crab, about the size of a quarter. I tried to pick him up, but he was too quick for me—and I didn’t want to risk crushing him. So we made the trip home from Sandy Hook together, with him occasionally reminding me of his presence with a tiny “nip”.  (Every time he nipped I yelped, which amused Vlad.)

When I got back to Pier 40 I rinsed him out of the boat with sea water—I don’t know whether he survived in the Hudson, but I like to think he did.

But the best hitchhiker story of all is one that happened to Vlad.

I’ll let him tell it.

Vlad writes:

Once upon a time, when I was just a little kayaker, I went for a paddle with my friends Kathy and John. Like me, they were big-city paddlers, with a folding kayak in their closet. Theirs was a formidable double Klepper, whose parts came in three heavy-duty canvas bags.

We got to the river, assembled our boats, and cruised with the current for a few miles to our destination—a grassy meadow where we planned to have a picnic lunch before packing the boats up again and taking a train back to the city.

Everything worked out as planned. As usual, Kathy had brought a lovely lunch, which she laid out on the grass. And in preparation for taking the Klepper apart, John carefully laid out its three bags.

As he did so, out of the largest bag there stalked a huge brown cockroach. He stood at the mouth of the bag, surveying the meadow around, antennae twitching. Obviously, he’d been living in the bag back in John and Kathy’s closet, and we’d brought him along for the ride!

We just stood there. He descended regally from the bag and was soon lost from sight in the tall grass.

We didn’t think much about it. We had our lunch, then started disassembling the boats.

An hour or two later—we were feeling drowsy in the post-prandial sunshine—we were almost done. John had packed most of the Klepper’s parts in the bags; he was about to add the last parts and close up the bags.

And what did we then see come out of the tall grass, heading straight towards the bags? A huge brown cockroach!

This time we made a move. All three of us tried to block him, like football players. But he zig-zagged nimbly between our feet and took a leap into the open bag.

The bag was already carefully packed with parts—we couldn’t face taking them all out again.

And so the smart old cockroach rode back to the city, back to his closet, doubtless to tell his young cousins about his lovely Sunday excursion to the country…

Tugboat Races, Take Three

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson

Tugboat Races 2014

Photogenic tug

The day wasn’t looking good.

This was the third year we’d planned to go to the Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition, but the day didn’t start well. It dawned dark and gloomy, with the threat of rain—the kind of day on which, despite your best intentions, you struggle to get out of bed.

Worse, Vlad, who’d been under the weather for a few days, couldn’t go.

So even though we’d already purchased tickets, I wasn’t enthusiastic about attending the race.  I had so many chores to do… not to mention work… and steaming coffee and a comfortable couch beckoned.

At the last minute, though, I threw my maritime radio and camera into a backpack, poured some coffee into a thermos, and set off downtown.

Continue reading

A Picture-Perfect Ederle Swim

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Ederle Swim 2014 39

Maybe the magic was in the pasta.

This year, Vlad and I signed up to provide kayak support for the Ederle Swim, a 17.5-mile open-water swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Vlad has done it several times, but this was my first time accompanying swimmers to Sandy Hook (though we’ve paddled there many times).

We’d each been assigned a swimmer, and the day before the swim, the organizers, NYC Swim, sent us the swimmers’ email addresses. So I reached out to “my” swimmer, Andrea Varalli, mentioned that I’d done the paddle many times, and offered what advice I could, including the detailed blogs Vlad has posted on Wind Against Current about his previous Ederle Swims (here, here, here, and here).

Next thing I knew, Vlad and I agreed to meet Andrea and his support team for dinner at a “real Italian restaurant” (as Andrea called it), Piacere. (Pleasure, in Italian.) We had guessed (correctly as it turned out) that Andrea was “real Italian”—not merely of Italian descent. So the “real Italian” restaurant was sure to be a treat!

Continue reading

I Did It!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

On the beach after the race

This was the fifth year that Vlad and I raced in the Blackburn Challenge, the 20-mile circumnavigation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The race is named for Howard Blackburn, a 19th-century mariner of uncommon grit. (You can read about him here.) Any human-powered watercraft can participate, and there is usually a wide range, from paddleboards to rowing shells, dories, and dragonboats—plus several flavors of kayaks.

Thus far, I’d placed every time, helped out by the relative smallness of the field of women sea kayakers—there are typically only half a dozen or so in my class.

After collecting two third-place and two second-place finishes, I yearned for a first. Last year I missed it by a mere six minutes. And I just knew I’d gotten faster this year. I’d trained hard—though not as consistently as I’d liked—and still had some stamina left over from completing the Everglades Challenge earlier this year.

So I was pretty sure that this would be my year.

Continue reading