Watching the Mars rover with video gamers

Twitch knows how to cheer on players who stick the landing.

Sometimes the audience is part of the show. Sure, you can pull up the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man on your phone and watch it anywhere, but I will always remember seeing it in a rowdy Brooklyn movie theater (later an American Apparel, now a gym) where a guy at the end, on witnessing him fail to close the deal with Mary Jane, stood up and shouted, “Spidey a homo!” That’s entertainment.

On Monday, at a NASA press conference, mission experts released an incredible piece of video: the rover Perseverance taping its own descent to the surface of Mars last week. In the most magical shot, streams of red Martian dust ripple out of the way of the descending earthling craft. It’s typical 2021 stuff in a way, the kind of recording any Best Buy drone might make of its desert adventure. (Indeed, as Perseverance deputy project manager Matt Wallace said, the cameras actually were just a “ruggedized” version of off-the-shelf commercial action cameras, inspired by one he had bought for his preteen gymnast daughter.) And yet the footage also represents something completely remarkable: a machine built by humans and sent more than 100 million miles through our solar system, recording its own triumphant descent onto another planet and transmitting it back to us.  

My quick online search for the press conference had landed me in company. I found myself watching on Twitch, the platform primarily used for people to stream themselves playing videogames. That meant that the press conference, narrated by engineers glowing with the excitement of the last week, was also subject to a running stream of mostly thrilled commentary by gamers in their own patois (including tiny pictograms or “emotes” as well as local lingo), which I uncoolly had to look up. PogChamp: “People say this to show amazement.” MonkaS: An emote “depicting nervousness.” The Twitch frame implied that what we were watching was actually a highly realistic videogame about a Mars landing. “is this no-mans sky?” one commenter said. “fake!” said lots of others, enjoying themselves.

So used are we to defending reality these days that one reporter actually asked the NASA team about what they would do to help the footage “not be fuel for conspiracy theorists.” Justin Maki, the mission’s imaging scientist and instrument operations team chief, took that one on. “It’s real. It’s actually real. I know, because I know the data very well,” he said. He added, “That was our thought too when we first saw it. We’re like, ‘Wow, this looks like…doesn’t look real,’ but it is. And that’s what’s so amazing about it. And I know I’ve seen some of the video games are getting pretty good…You look at a sports game and it looks like it’s real, but it’s fake, but this is actually real stuff and that’s why it’s so exciting.” He suggested people try slowing down the video to see detail and affirm its non-fakeness.

Things are so wild right now conspiracy-wise that I’m sure there are Mars truthers out there. It says something that Twitch recently replaced the tiny icon of Ryan Gutierrez, the streamer whose face became the basis for the “amazed” PogChamp emote, after Gutierrez tweeted messages apparently supporting the January 6 attacks on the Capitol, based in the more earthly false conspiracy theory that Donald Trump only lost the election because of fraud. The face of PogChamp is now an amazed lizard.

But the Twitch commenters on NASA’s stream, jaded as they are by ravishing graphics and skilled as they are at mockery, ultimately seemed happy to buy what the scientists were selling. “MARS IS REAL WHAAAAT!!!!! I'm a believer now, this is SO AMAZING I LOVE NASA!!!” wrote one commenter. On a day of scientific wonder, this frequently snarky corner of the internet turned out to be a great place to visit. As Wallace said: “how can we not explore? It’s just who we are. It’s what we are. It’s in our DNA…Sometimes we want to find the questions we don’t even know need to be asked.” Or, as Twitch had it: “landing was pog.”

What to read

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and proprietor of San Francisco’s iconic City Lights bookstore, author of A Coney Island of the Mind and publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as well as many other books, has died at 101. Read the lovely LA Times obit here.

This long, mordant New York Magazine essay by Tavi Gevinson about Britney Spears and the exploitation of the sexuality of young women, her own included, is heartbreaking, particularly because Gevinson’s magazine Rookie was such a creative, feminist joy and I really want to believe its brilliant young creator would have been better protected from men being jerks. It’s a good reminder not to assume people are okay just because they seem like they can handle themselves. I was not crazy about the New York Times’s documentary Framing Britney Spears, which seemed like essentially a writearound with more sourcing from paparazzi and uninformed podcast hosts than from the people involved and which never seemed to ask what it meant about Britney’s own experience and psychology that she was sexualized so young. But it’s certainly been thought-provoking to a lot of smart people, and I hope Spears gets her independence back.

Refinery29 looks at New Englanders’ demented attachment to Dunkin’ Donuts. In Boston, where I grew up, you are never beyond walking distance to a Dunks (1.45 miles, acceptable) unless you are literally on a freakin’ island in the hahbah. Here is a map.

Cheese is good for you, ACTUALLY.

What to consume

I don’t know whether to believe these New York Times food staffers about what they claim to cook when they’re “too tired to cook.” Some of them eat normal things like cereal or yogurt or quesadillas or scrambled eggs. Some of them seem to subsist almost entirely off anchovies or sardines. Others are like, “gee, too tired to cook, I guess I’ll make something that requires fancy mushrooms and 30 minutes of constant stirring.” What I’m currently making when I’m too tired to cook or need to provide the baby with hot semi-nutritious food within 7 minutes is orzo with tomato sauce, spinach, and feta. Boil some salted water, throw in some chopped frozen spinach and orzo, cook until pasta is done. Drain it, add a couple glugs of jarred marinara sauce and some precrumbled feta, and stir it all up together over low heat for a minute. The end. It’s basically a marginally healthier mac and cheese. The baby tried eating it with a spoon, and turns out it also makes a wonderful facial mask.

This Australian sheep gone feral was found wearing so much extremely dirty fleece it was “half the weight of an adult kangaroo.” This is presumably the unit of measurement for everything in Australia. You can watch the video of it being sheared back to its normal skinny white self. Is it possible you are also about the weight of an adult kangaroo (40-200 lbs)? I am, which will be a convenient to be able to tell people if I ever make it to Australia.  

Finally, speaking of the Mars landing, just watch Miguel San Martín, the Argentina-born chief engineer for the guidance, navigation and control system for Perseverance, go absolutely nuts in this TikTok posted by his proud daughter.

Be safe, please get a Covid vaccine if it’s your turn and you can find an appointment, and enjoy living on a planet that is (so far!) even more awesome than Mars. See you all next week.