Thursday, February 2, 2012

Newt’s Rockets

You’d think that, as a lifelong spaceflight enthusiast and shameless space geek, I’d be thrilled by Newt Gingrich’s well publicized assertion that under his presidency the United States would erect a permanent lunar colony by the end of the decade. You’d think that I’d applaud this plan as the sort of decisive, visionary, audacious goal that space science needs.

But far from that – I see it as proof that Newt Gingrich simply cannot be our next president.

Now I don’t know much about Newt or his politics beyond the fact that he’s had a whole series of marriage-affair-divorce cycles and that a lot of his supporters scare the crap out of me. For the most part, I’d left the man alone, but now he's messing with My Thing. Honestly, I wish I could say that My Thing was something like personal liberties or reproductive freedom or equitable taxation or international trade balances. But while I’ve got opinions in each of those areas, they aren’t where my passion lies. My passion lies with space.

Newt's absurd boasting about lunar colonies shows him to be a man not just out of touch with the fiscal and social aspects of spaceflight but also utterly unaware of the realities of engineering. It shows him to be a man who believes that he can wield power by decree, without understanding the implications, limits, or sources of that power. And it risks doing irreparable damage (and indeed may already have done irreparable damage) to this country’s tenuous willingness to spend any effort at all trying to understand our universe.

First things first. Rocketry is hard.

I don’t take campaign promises literally – if a politician says “if you elect me, I will balance the budget,” what I'll actually hear is “if you elect me, and my opponents don’t utterly stonewall my efforts to do so and there isn’t some sort of unforeseen crisis that completely derails all my plans, I will balance the budget.” So of course I evaluate Newt’s lunar colony claims with that caveat in place.

Suppose that congress and the American public rally around Newt’s lunar colony idea and suppose Newt goes Ron Paul on a few federal agencies and diverts all their funding towards getting a permanent settlement on the moon.

Public and political will and lots of cash can only go so far towards solving the considerable challenge of designing, building, and testing a launch vehicle able to get a creditable payload into cislunar space. Then of designing, building, and testing some sort of landing system that can get meaningful amounts of cargo and quantities of people down to the lunar surface and keeping them supplied with the raw materials necessary for surviving until, presumably, the lunar hydroponics come up to speed. There is also the matter of the actual domes or pods or lunar-concrete shelters or whatever that this colony would be built out of. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

It takes a lot of work to establish an outpost in an environment that is for all practical purposes instantly fatal. And it doesn’t take long with a slide rule or calculator to run the mass fraction numbers and realize that putting that kind of mass on the lunar surface would require simply enormous, regular launches at a rate that the world has never seen.

And no, it just aint’ going to happen, not in eight years.

And that leads to point two. It is one thing to make an bold and daring claim or promise. But to take a flying leap into the impossible, a blind assertion that you will accomplish something when that thing is so plainly beyond our scope, is indicative of a decision maker who is not thinking things through, is not aware of the means by which things are accomplished and the costs which must be paid to accomplish them.

This is the one that really worries me, considering that this man is striving to be the next president of our country. Presidents get to kick off a lot of exciting projects with grand claims. They get to promise reconstructions, liberations, containments, victories, inclusions, exclusions, reinventions. They get to promise good things and terrible things. And, inevitably, they rely on others to bring these promises to fruition. So be it, that’s what a leader does, inspire or order or motivate (or all three).

But leadership requires an awareness of what can and can’t be done and what challenges and costs lie ahead. I don’t expect a president to be an expert on aerospace engineering, but I do expect a president to have a reasonable grasp on reality and to consult with someone who is an expert. But tossing off a promise that you’ll build a moon colony shows, to me, a man who views leadership as the issuance of decrees from on high, decrees that will simply be taken care of and will simply be achieved.

Finally, and most sadly, Newt’s rash and outlandish proposition risks making spaceflight a laughing stock, the topic of late-night jokes and eye rolling disbelief. As it is, those of us who believe in the exploration of our universe as a profound and serious calling, a noble goal for humanity to set itself, must contend with ignorance, parochialism, selfishness, short-sightedness, and a certain depressing lack of imagination…not to mention countless other entirely deserving projects out there crying out for time, money, and attention. So when I see a presumably serious advocate of space exploration risk doing so much harm to the whole enterprise, I have only one thing to say: Thanks Newt, but with friends like you, space exploration hardly needs enemies.

But really this is about the presidency. I don’t see campaigns or campaign promises as literal things, I see them as auditions, opportunities to understand a candidate’s decision making process. The world is an evolving and dynamic place, politics involves the intersection of multiple groups, diverse opinions, harsh realities, and unforeseen complications. And so I want to understand how a candidate is going to react to those unknowns, what sorts of decisions they will make and compromises they will seek, how they will cope with areas outside their expertise, for no politician can be a master of everything.

Well, irrespective of any other issues of character, politics, history, or policies, Newt has now given me enough information to see that he's failed this audition.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Forty And Looking Back

Today, I turn forty years old. Not bad, all things considered. Beautiful wife, two amazing kids, home in a town I love, a fecund backyard garden.

As I roll over another zero into the units digit of the odometer of life, something interesting happened that has caused me to reconnect with - and think about - a lot of the people I went to high school with.

That something interesting is Facebook. Over the the span of two years, my entire graduating class from Davis Senior High School seemed to suddenly show up and start friending each other. I kept in touch with very few people from home and so I've been reconnecting, after twenty years, with the people I grew up with. I've learned about their lives and seen photos of their kids and read about their travels.

And I mean your lives and your kids and your travels: because I'm talking to you, graduating class of 1989. And, to be fair, a few of you who graduated a year or two earlier or later who I was close enough with that I think of you as part of my class.

Back then we were, with apologies to John Hughes, brains, musicians, jocks, partiers, and goths. We hung out in our cliques and did our different activities. We crossed social boundaries sometimes, uneasily and tentatively. But it was high school and we all had our domains and our coteries. But we were also all a bunch of kids growing up in a reasonably affluent university town on the edge of some very good farmland.

We didn't know it then, but we were all so damn alike that the only thing we could focus on was our differences.

Fast forward twenty years or more.

What are we now? Who are we now?

We are fathers, we are mothers, we are married, we are single, we are divorced.

We are gay, we are straight, we are flexible.

We are conservative, we are liberal, we are undecided.

We are project managers, we are musicians, we are farmers, we are entrepreneurs, we are artists, we are lawyers, we are restauranteurs, we are law enforcement officers, we are opera singers, we are bartenders, we are writers, we are programmers, we are veterinary pathologists.

A staggering number of us are teachers.

Some of us are expatriates, some of us never left town, some of us have come back home.

At least one of us has been to war.

A very few of us have died.

So much diversity, so much variety of experience and outcome. And yet today I feel closer to a broader range of the people that made up my graduating class than I ever have.

What happened?

We all went on that strange, crooked pathway called life. No one took a path that quite matched what they expected or what anyone else expected for them. Some paths were radically surprising, some merely crooked. Some triumphant, some quotidian.

If there had been a yearbook category "Most likely to play in a major symphony orchestra," I think the predictions might have been pretty good. But I doubt that the eventual winners of "Most likely to raise backyard chickens" or "Most likely to post photomicrographs to Facebook" or "Most likely to become the leading academic authority on American Idol" would have been so obvious back in 1989.

In 2011, we all sit down at the end of the day and try to unwind from the stresses of an adult life, whatever form that life might take. We might worry about the economy or climate change or health care or school selection or taxes or bills or the future. We might have a glass of beer or wine or bourbon or tea or coffee to help us relax. We might unwind playing a LARP or watching a show or hitting a round of golf or going for a run or pushing through a Crossfit WOD.

But it is the journey, from a small town on the outskirts of Sacramento to here, wherever here is and whatever waypoints passed on the way, that has brought us closer. We've learned about ourselves and about each other, about what it means to be a man or a woman in the world.

Twenty years on, we are all now so different that all we can do is focus on our similarities.

Hello again, graduating class of 1989, it is a real pleasure to get to know you.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Is (Or Isn't) Going On?

I've been watching the coverage of the events in Japan - the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the brooding risk of three cantankerous nuclear reactors - with a mixture of horror, fascination, and frustration.

Horror - obviously. The loss of so many lives and the irrecoverable changes to the lives of the survivors is the greatest disaster in my recent memory. Fascination - yes, I will admit it. There is a sort of twisted fascination with keeping abreast of a terrible event, something akin to the "oh, let me try that spoiled milk too" urge that we feel. I'm not talking Schadenfreude, that's what keeps us watching Charlie Sheen. There is no twisted joy in this, no chuckling man-that-dude-is-nuts, no self esteem boosting confirmation that our decision not to shack up with porn stars was a good one. But there is some urge none the less.

Frustration - that too, and that is what this blog is about. Frustration not with the events themselves or with responses to them, but frustration with the coverage itself. Some years back, I wrote a post about watching the invasion of Iraq, and feeling like I should be able to "reload the war" and get things to move along at the pace I expected. That post was about the pace of coverage, and about how or expectations as an audience had grown divorced from the reality of life.

This frustration is more about the quality and accuracy of coverage - and how the same infrastructure that made reload-the-war expectations possible also makes massively divergent coverage possible. Take a look at this little snippet of Google news, captured at 12:42pm Pacific Daylight (uugh) time:

Ok, which is right? Is the disaster risk fading or escalating?

Now contradictory headlines are nothing new. I'm sure that if you brought up Fox News and MSNBC and simply looked at what they had to say about the President, you'd find some very contradictory interpretations. Even in the pre-internet days (remember those?) different news agencies would have different spins. Most cities had a Republican newspaper and a Democrat newspaper. That is until the general demise of print news changed this so that most cities now just have a newspaper, sometimes.

But of editorial license, selective coverage, and yellow journalism, none of these are new.

Timeliness, that's what is new. No longer do we wait for a news source (paper, 5:00 broadcast, whatever) to amass, collate, analyze, and summarize. We can go direct to Twitter and Facebook for our own personal updates on what that-dude-with-the-camera-phone-saw. Such reports are obviously snapshots (no pun intended), highly localized, and biased. To satisfy our reload-the-war pacing, however, those news agencies that used to be responsible for amassing, collating, analyzing, and summarizing events increasingly rely on the same firsthand observers, passing along tweets and chat room comments and in so doing imbuing localized, biased snapshots with an air of authority.

Of course this isn't helped by rush-to-a-headline coverage, sensationalism, and general ignorance of the subtleties of a very technical trade. Even when news agencies are amassing, collating, and all that other stuff, they can display very different results. Nuclear energy makes great news fodder - it has a sort of brooding-menace, a mysterious ability to harm from afar, sits astride a highly politicized divide, and frankly is poorly understood by enough of the public and the news media that it is easy to fill dead air with speculation and gossip and not risk getting called out fudging, exaggerating, or just not knowing what the hell you are talking about.

My case in point being the two articles form Reuters and The Guardian. Both are legitimate press, written my (presumably) legitimate reporters. Both, let us assume, trying to do good reporting and to accomplish all those goals of traditional media. Yet here are two wildly divergent assessments(or at least headlines) sitting right next to each other, both showcased as "new" news. So what is going on?

Part of this is simply the confusing time compression of real-time access to news. Some news sources are updated with the latest to-the-minute information. Others update a little behind the times. Why? Who knows...better effort at confirming sources, an ill-timed bathroom break, different editorial update policies, the intrusion of night-time. News scraping engines like Google may catch both updates as "new" news while one really reflect the situation six or eight or more hours ago. Which one is current?

In such situations, people tend to believe the news that agrees with their preconceived notions and expectations of what is going on. Convinced nukes are bad? Then a meltdown is right around the corner and that is very, very bad. Confident in man's ability to tame the atom? Well then that meltdown risk is totally under control and wouldn't have been that bad anyway.

Of course media outlets, determined to keep you watching and/or clicking, are going to choose to feature whatever details imply the most rapidly evolving don't-miss-a-minute situation possible (good or bad, but bad things really do tend to keep people tuned in a whole lot more). By the time the situation settles down it will be, well, settled down. Charlie Sheen will, yet again, be an F-18 and so no one will bother to report (or to pay attention to, if it was reported) what really went down. Bad things happened or they didn't, it'll all depend on the mind of the beholder.

We are at a point where our ability to access information is nearly instant. We can get the latest news that is available at a mouse-click. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it is the latest development. This adds to that unhealthy obsession to get the latest. Because the rippling waves of update create a further false impression of development.

Oh good, the plant is getting better!

Oh no, the plant is getting worse!

Oh really? Perhaps nothing has changed and we are just seeing the illusory dynamic of waves of news, some moving at different speeds, propagating outward from the source.

It is enough to drive you nuts. Skepticism, patience, and some sort of ability to perceive the moving average of the drama, to sense the error bars surrounding today's median how-fucked-is-the-world-ometer reading is the only way to stay sane.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confessions of a Tomato Hater

I grew up in a tomato town.

At the north end of California's irrigated agricultural wonderland, the Central Valley, we grew a lot of tomatoes. Fields of them ringed the town. Cropdusters buzzed low keeping them pest and disease free. Trucks of them drove in to town, to the local cannery and processing factory.

Every summer, tomatoes, spilled off the top of overloaded trucks, lay rotting in the gutters all through the July and August heat.

When someone says "the smell of boiling tomatoes" to you, it may conjure up the image of a nice tomato sauce or soup, simmering away on the stove. To me it conjures up months of steamy emissions from the plant, drifting in to town, an indecisive miasma, unsure if it was sweet or savory.

Sometimes, when money for our family was tight, my mom would take seasonal work at the factory, working on the line and later at their paste processing facility. She came home redolent of tomatoes, the smell impregnated into her clothing.

So perhaps I have a love/hate relationship with the tomato. It, after all, brought in a non-trivial part of my family's income through some tough years. My grandmother was a bookkeeper at the plant, and my grandfather flew some of those cropdusters for many years until he wrecked and was relegated to golfing and reading about the Civil War.

Out in my own garden, while we try our best to raise a decent crop, I'll rail against their overly-hybridized fussiness. I'll complain about their sprawling untidiness. I'll jump on any excuse to get these unnatural things, never meant for the maritime northwest, out of the garden.

But I must be honest with myself and acknowledge a couple of things about the tomato. First off, it is all those things - hybridized to the point of absurdity and totally ill suited for where we grow it. But these very characteristics are the source of the challenge, a sort of backyard agronomic "because it is there" factor, that forces all of us gardeners west of the Rain Shadow to test their mettle against this thing.

Because if you can grow it, get your crops to ripen up into something more than pickled, fried, or salsafied green tomatoes, then you have truly shown what you are worth.

You are a gardener, you have not shirked from the greatest of challenges but embraced them. And you have come away the champion.

And after a few years of perseverance (or of head-into-wall-beating, if you prefer) a good crop will come up. Tomatoes are a heartbreak crop, in the words of my brother in law - they reward you just on the edge of abandonment, dole out a good harvest to keep you going. Those good crops, when they happen, are so good and so worth it. Romas, big slicers, cherries and grapes, crazy heirlooms in all variety of colors from tacky lipstick pink to the deepest of purples. The thousand and one flavors, not the giant soggy slicers of supermarket burger filling fame.

So remind me of this, next time I'm standing ankle deep in rotting tomato flesh, pulling fungus dappled vines out of the ground, raising my fist at the sky and reliving every tomato-stinking summer of my youth. Remind me that sometimes they do work out and when it happens, the rewards are rich!

Footnote: while researching this post and looking for photos, I found out that the factory in question was demolished. I knew it had closed, and good riddance at this point, but as much as my memories of it are of bad smells, night-shift-working-mom, and traffic snarling trucks, a part of my youth is now gone.