Monday, January 26, 2009

Inauguration Day

In this post, I plan to go to school on Barack Obama. Not as in "I'm going to school you, Barack!" but as in "Barack is going to school me..."

First let me apologize for not having a lot of pictures. I may wedge a shot of President Obama (it is fun to say that) or other speakers along the margin. But as this is a blog entry about words, I thought I would keep the focus on the text and the language itself.

I want to spend some time looking at words and how they are used. Words are, after all, the heart of my craft as a writer, teacher, and, in my limited way, public speaker. And so whenever I see someone (or even more pointedly, hear someone) with a gift for the language, I am drawn to their content and their methods. And President (I get to say that again) Obama is clearly one of those people worth looking at.

At one point during the inauguration speech, during the "hawkish" bit, I was wondering if Bush Jr. was sitting thinking, "Man, if I could talk like that, perhaps things would have gone better for me!" The simple fact is that Obama was doing hawk way better than Bush ever could. (If you would like a reminder of how ill-spoken Bush so often was, I direct you to David Letterman's top-ten list).

Now a bit of a thought on the power of words and speeches. Obama's often criticized as an "empty suit" -- a collection of great words but little in the way of concrete plans. That is perhaps true, but only if one listens only to the speeches. The thing is, though, that what is a speech supposed to be? A detailed policy statement? No, that is called a 200 page document that will put even the most caffeinated person to sleep. The point of a speech is to provide what the corporate types call a "high level overview" of the situation. To establish direction. To outline priorities. To communicate vision. And, at a time like this (massive national crappiness), perhaps above all to provide inspiration. These are tasks ill suited to long discussion.

Let us, for instance, look at one of the most hallowed of modern wartime speeches, that of Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. It is the fameous "we shall fight on the X, Y, Z" speech. An excerpt:

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

Even though large parts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

Now a couple of things are noteworty. There is no discussion of detailed planning and specific detail. To do so in a speech focused on military affairs is obviously ludicrous: "We shall continue to convoy our ships with ever increasing escort through the generosity of the lend-lease program. We shall deploy our forces to fight the enemy in Africa, then in Italy, and finally landing on the beaches of Normandy..."

But this was a speech given to a public teetering between depression and euphoria, staggered that the last British forces had just fled the continent but ecstatic that they had been rescued ("The Miracle at Dunkirk," FYI). It was vital to maintain a sober optimism throughout the nation, to maintain motivation through the privations and exertions that surely were to follow. And so Churchill brought out his best -- not of details and policy, but of consolation, confidence, and motivation.

Ok, that's out of the way. Now everyone who read's Fox News' commentary has been taken care of. By the way, I've realized what bugs me so much about Fox. It isn't their obviously (and frankly, to their credit, rather openly) biased coverage. Rather it is the way they try to bill themselves as some sort of underground alternative coverage with all that "mainstream media" lingo they use when attacking other people's viewpoints. I mean let's get serious. The FOX network isn't some dude with a talk show on AM radio during safe harbor hours or some guy broadcasting with an HF rig from the middle of Montana. It is one of the big four television networks with a carefully calculated strategy of playing to a particular market. Anyway, that's that. Just had to say something.

On to President Obama and his particular moves. For anyone interested, here are transcripts of two recent significant (and quite linked) speeches of his.

Presidential "victory" speech:

Inaugural speech:

Read (or better yet, listen to) both of them. Or just read on if you want to. But my first thought here is a compare and contrast. A commentator (didn't catch the name) on NPR was talking about the comparitively somber tone of the inaugural speech, devoid as it was of the flourishes ("singing" as the commentator kept confusingly putting it) and tricks like the repeating "yes we can" motif used in the victor speech. The acceptance speech is a celebration -- while it acknowledges the challenges ahead, they are as yet distant (months away). This is the time to look back on what has been done, the transformation that this nation has undergone, the progress the world has made, and the remarkable place in history which we all inhabit.

It was, in many ways, an introverted and retrospective speech. When we are successful, we tend to look to ourselves (and those close to us) and say "well done!" We tend to look back on the moments that helped define that success. The crowd is excited, because they have given their time and energy to this cause, and so they deserve time to celebrate. It is their night and it is Barack Obama's night.

The second speech, the inaugural speech, differs in several ways. It is shorter. It is more somber (count the applause -- and notice that there are situations where Obama speaks over the crowd, silencing potential cheers, rather than letting them go or even encouraging them as he did the other night). Personally, I'm not sure somber is exactly the word, though I know it is a descriptor other analysts have used. It is more workmanlike, I suppose. It is a speech used as a tool, much as Churchill would have. It is a speech intended to set a tone and a tenor for the coming four years.

Party time's over, that much is clear. The victory now lies months back and the challenge is immediate. The speech is concise so that it may be quoted, read, and repeated. It is extraverted in as much as it is sending a message OUT from the president to the people of his nation and to the peoples and nations of the world in general. It is forward looking in as much as it seeks to define what will come, and not what has passed. History plays a role, but as a reference to which the challenges of the present and future are compared. "We overcame those, therefore I know we can overcome these" instead of "we overcame those, ain't we grand!"

It is also not a speech by Barack Obama, as the "victory" speech was. It was a speech by the President of the United States, and as such a tool of statescraft carrying messages of cooperation, strength, hope, and threat to people, idiologies (to get a little Huntington-esque), and governments around the world. The difference is subtle but important, and the presence of this shift tells me a lot about Obama's attitude towards his job. The Office of the President may be the most consuming, identity devouring job in the world, but it remains important to separate personal feelings from the necessary decisions of the head of state. We elect our presidents partially because of their values and attitudes, but I at least also hope that they possess a certain professional distance, a degree of cool remove and objective analysis.

This speech was also an attempt to turn the page on an old presidency, years of war, and months of economic decline (feel free to say "years of economic decline" if you want, there is much evidence and argument to support you, but the real hit of the crisis only came to most of us within 2008). The speech turns this page with an admonishment -- a risky move I think. No one likes to be told (even indirectly) that they were irresponsible or careless. But to have your errors pointed out is also to have the path to recovery illuminated.

So setting up the "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some" and "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age" as elements of the past enables the confinement of the sources of the current crisis to the pages of history. It sets the present up as a time of self improvement and reconstruction. As the speech progresses, we are told that "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unplesant decisions -- that time has surely passed." And finally, "that the ground has shifted..."

This is a speech that, tough as it is, pushes the underlying source problems to the past. The future is to be a time of hard work, but a time of building something new. It is as if we've all just moved into a new house. The previous tenants took lousy care of it, left a lot of problems behind. But it is our house, and we can look at the things those old tenants did and remind ourselves not to do them (not forgetting that those old tenants were, in fact, us). But that was then and this is now and we'd better get started with the work at hand. It'll be a lot of pizzas in on the kitchen floor before the new range gets installed and the upstairs toilet may act funny for a while yet, but it is a grand old house with good bones.

We are the new tenants and we (and this house) will shine again.

Probing the details there are a few more points in the inaugural speech that drew my eye, some linguistic, some stylistic, some politic.

While enunciating the sacrifices of the past, four battles were named. I was struck by the choice: Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sahn.

Revolutionary, Civil, Second World, and Vietnam Wars.

Why these? Battles of the distant past are easy to pick out by name -- armies moved in such a way that set piece contact was almost inevitable. Concord and Gettysburg, of that easily named sort, show the growth of the nation and, as such, are essential inclusions. Normandy, the most recognizable single battlefield of the Second World War, points to one of the true high points of the United States as a world power, wielding economic bounty and military might in the cause of freedom. It is the oldest conflict of which significant numbers of veterans still survive (by the way, did anyone notice the cutaways to the Tuskegee Airmen during the speech? Badass bunch of fliers, and certainly an appropriate group to show!).

But more modern wars are tougher, more controvertial. I was surprised to see Korea skipped (Chosin would have fit nicely in there), but there is always a slippery slope factor that a speech writer must face. Four is a good number, three better, five worse, six untenable, seven obscenely rococo. Selecting a battle from the Vietnam war cast a much wider and more recognizable net than one from Korea would have. It is also a very symbolic move (though one that is perhaps more about the times and the march of history than any particular Obama-ism). The Vietnam War, controversial and regrettable, is now listed alongside some of the greatest times of our history. We have moved on (or at least the years have done so) enough that the errors of the politics and the fight no longer need prevent us from letting those who served stand up and be counted and recognized for what they gave.

Incidentally, I have long maintained that we would never elect a president who served in Vietnam and, I suspect, I will be proven right as Obama's election neatly lets us leapfrog that troublesome period of foreign policy.

More contemporary wars are difficult to identify by battle -- the low casualties of the Gulf War make its inclusion in company with the others rediculous and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diffuse and lacking in the foci of named battles. Besides, they are current and ongoing things, and have therefore not yet earned the full right to be held as hallowed symbols of sacrifice. But to include Khe Sahn is to say that yes, the Vietnam War is now a part of our history. We can move on from it. We can look at the veterans who served there and include them along side those who fought in more nobly held wars.

Much of the speech was pointedly addressed -- and often not to the American public but to "the Muslim world" or "the people of poor nations" or "those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror or slaughtering innocents." Again, this is a speech not as much from Barack Obama as it is a speech to This was a message.

Oh, and that phrase "inducing terror or slaughtering innocents" is an interesting one, as is the phrase "far reaching network of violence and hatred." No specific ideology or organization (i.e. Al Qaeda) named. This is an interestingly inclusive act -- in several levels of the word. By not identifying the ends of those called out as our foes, the speech avoids catching supporters (or potential supporters) in an excessively large bursting radius. Instead, it is those who employ a method who are singled out -- and by this approach, the innocent Pakistani villager (caught in the middle of the fight as much as anyone) gets a bye but the Somali pirate gets called to the carpet.

Choice shows up a lot in this speech. First, as that which we failed to do. Second, as an indicator of what we (the people) have done with this election ("hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord"). And finally as what we must do in the future, "choose our better history." The theme of responsibility (choice) continues, and builds, across these three. We shirked choice. Then we chose (well). Now we must choose again (and it will be a hard choice, but we are reminded that it is a choice we have made before).

The phrase "better history" is one of my three favorites in the speech. It implies the existence of multiple histories. One is a history of freedom, ambition, sacrifice, and success. The other is a history of oppression, exploitation, selfishness, and ignorance. Any nation has these dichotomous histories, some even more dramatically divergent than ours. It is all a matter of models, the speech tells us, all a matter of which model we select as our inspiration. And our success in the future is a matter of letting that better vision of the past, those times that we have aspired to and reached our goals, be the one that guides us.

No one who knows me will be surprised that the guy who cheered at the line "We will restore science to its rightful place" is now one of my personal heroes. Now I'm not quite sure what the rightful place Obama envisions is, but I'm hoping that it has something to do with being a place of observation, study, and openness. Science, at least for those of us who care about science, had been a totem for those many things that the Bush administration handled poorly. Few now dispute the allegations of politically based suppression of individuals and findings, hiring pressures and preferences, and other ways in wich the free pursuit of knowledge was tied to maintaining a particular political agenda. This little nod was, to me at least, a nice acknowledgement. And that was, from me, a little rant.

From a political standpoint, the idea that we "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" is a powerful jab. It is a dismissal of the entirely zero-sum, with-me-or-against-me attitude of the past administration. It is instead a look to the complexity of the world, that there are no simple black and white choices and that, as a corollary of that fact, there are better pathways than those reflected by the extremes.

My other favorite phrases? "That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood." Genius. Compare with the standard construction of that phrase, "It is now well understood that we are in the midst of a crisis." Notice the emphasis shift? The former (Barack's) emphasis the crisis, and even more pointedly that we are in the midst of it. The second is comparatively pedantic, emphasizing our clear understanding of the situation. It is from little moments like this, the sort of moments that I aspire to, that brilliant communication is made.

The last favorite turn of phrase is "Men and women, obscure in their labor." This is another deconstructable one. Not "Men and women, laboring obscurely" or "Obscurely laboring men and women." The last one is just horrible, cumbersome. The other option has that icky is-it-a-split-infinitive-or-not thing going on. But it also shifts the men and women into, well, the act of laboring. There they are, busting humps to make a better world. Couldn't they stop and listen? No, too busy laboring. Obscurely. Instead, "obscure in their labor" makes the labor the cause of the obscurity, and therefore the obscurity the most salient fact of these toiling masses.

From all of this speech, as I reread it again and put the finishing touches on this post, there is one particular area that I take home. And, as Churchill inspired the Britons to continue their labor, fight, and bravery, I hope this phrase keeps me and the rest of the country going. It is an antidote to that comfortable urge to settle for second best and to accept standards that fall comfortably within the range of likely outcomes.

Interestingly, it is not a single declarative phrase, a command. Rather, it is a thought attributed to those who would set us up for failure and mediocrity, those who have not noticed "that the ground has shifted beneath them." Those who "question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans." Those who "have forgotten what this country already has done."

And since I refuse to be one of these, I refuse to succumb to the "nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights."

Not for me. Not for my future. Not for my daughter.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Life on the C-32 and the Obama Burger

Well, no sooner do I post an open question about the drinking preferences of the (for just about fifteen more hours) president elect when I run across some indication of his culinary preferences: video of his first meal order onboard an USAF aicraft. Actually, that may not be strictly true, since as a Senator he probably spent some time on government transport, at least while flying in to Iraq, even if that was a C-17 or something similarly box-lunchy.

Anyhow, thanks to Flight International's Flight Blogger, there is a video of this first semi-presidential flight now available showing portions of Barack's first trip on a air force executive transport. Despite some dubious editing that conjoins a shot of a 747 cockpit (presumably the big VC-25) with the footage of Barack on the C-32, it is rather amusing. The step-framed "walking into history" shot at the end is pretty cheesy, but I remember watching that moment from the other side while riding a stationary bike at the gym.

If the link doesn't work, try again. Flight International's site has been a bit cranky lately.

I particularly like how the pilot is clearly trying to deliver some set-piece welcome speech, noting that this is a big moment in history. Barack is trying to be disarming and chummy. Doesn't seem to fly so well (pun not intended) with the pilot, but goes better with the steward.

But I digress.

Somehow I occupy a rare intersection in the great Venn Diagram of personal interests, that of foodie and airplane nut. The result is, through an aircraft website, I know how Barack Obama, number 44, prefers his burgers.

Medium well (a good choice form a food safety standpoint)
With cheddar cheese (notice how particular he seems that it be cheddar?)
Dijon mustard (though he settles for the offered Grey Poupon)
Lettuce and tomatoes (a standard topping, nothing to comment on there).
Fries and veggies on the side (which says something about him from a health standpoint, I think: he works out daily, so feels comfortable with the caloric hit of some deep fried russet potatoes but recognizes the health benefits of getting some vegetables in the diet).

Regretfully, Barack chooses not to order a drink, to order it off camera, or alcohol is not served aboard Air Force aircraft. Though try to tell me that there isn't wine available on board the big VC-25 and there wasn't some hard liquor aboard the EC-135's and E-6's and E-4's that flew the doomsday Looking Glass and Nightwatch missions, and I'll call you naive.

So the great (current) burning question of my life, What Does Barack Obama Drink will have to go unanswered until my people in D.C. can get back to me. Which isn't to say that I have a network of dedicated Barack-watchers, but rather that I know a few people who are there. And I fully expect that, should any of them have the amazing fortune to meet the new president and ask him one question, the question they choose will not be "Pardon me, Mr. President, but what is that drink in your hand?"

It might, after all, be a grape nehi, which would pretty much undo the whole image and would have to put the whole thing into that "questions I wish I'd never actually gotten an answer to" category. Kind of like learning that John Popper is a bit of a survivalist nut job (the kind of survivalist nut job who carries a zip-loc of weed and a loaded firearm in his glove compartment, mind you) who occasionally performs on stage while wearing a shoulder holster. I wonder if he ever gets confused and tries to load one of his harmonicas or to play a magazine?

Anyway, yet again, I digress.

So we do now know a little about Barack's eating habits. Pretty good. Also pretty political, I must say, despite the funny foreign mustard. I'm still pulling for whiskey with ice.

Now we move on to part two -- which is actually listed first in the title but I did that for reasons of flow and timing and other writerish stuff. I'm one of those people who is always interested in those things that I don't know. My wife, charitably, describes me as a "lifelong learner." I prefer the term "compulsive learner," carrying with it the (very true) atmosphere of inevitability and inescapability and (sometimes) uncontrollability. Well, give me a question (like "what is it like onboard one of these executive transports?) and I will find an answer.

It turns out that, thanks to someone at the Air Force who (presumably accidentally) posted a bunch of not-exact-classified-but-not-exactly-for-public-consumption reference documents for fire/rescue crash crews, I happen to have a floor plan of said C-32. If anyone wants a nice tour description and some interior pictures, Boeing published a nice article about the C-32 and it's little brother the C-40B. The thing is, these airplanes (along with the VC-25, the true "Air Force One") aren't so much secret as obscure. It is a crucial difference.

Picture 1.jpgSo here's the floorplan (nose at the top of the screen -- that little doorway goes to the cockpit).

First section (as Boeing's article will tell you) contains the crew rest area and a communication station ("CSO Station" -- presumably "Communications Systems Officer"). I'm not sure what those six interesting boxes forward of the CSO station are, but I suspect that they are equipment racks.

Abaft the crew/CSO area is the main boarding space (757's are often, unusually among airliners, boarded at an entrance other than the forward-most one). Then comes the "Distinguised (visitors) Stateroom." Not as big or fancy as you might expect -- the ordering scene in the video was, I think, shot in this part.

The balance of the plane grows less interesting as you move further aft. A conference area, first-class or business-class sized seats in a facing club arrangement. Then seating for staff, security, and probably family, press, and other supernumeraries. The Boeing article has a few things to say about where the Secret Service dudes sit and various other stuff. But whatever. At that point, it is just an airliner.

I have to say the air transport has come a long way (as has the campaign) since the days of the DC-9 with the incontinent emergency escape slide.

But this guy, the C-32, is nothing compared to the big VC-25. That's the 747, the airplane that everyone thinks of when they think "Air Force One." Gargantuan, roomy, capable of carrying staffs and support crews and all the host of add-ons that it takes to travel as chief of state of the United States of America. And I want to pause for a moment and clarify why the president has such a damn big plane. It isn't ego. It isn't luxury. It isn't international posturing. Ok, it might end up with a little of any of these, but the thing about any of these executive transports is that they are fitted out to act, to some degree, as a mobile, survivable, airborne command post. And not just in even of nuclear war, terrorist attack, giant tidal wave, or any of the other things that show up in fiction (or the news, for that matter, at least as far as terrorist attack goes).

Even if everything goes fine and the Russians (and everyone else) completely fail to launch a bunch of nuclear missiles at us while the president is at 39,000 feet over the North Atlantic, this aircraft serves as a command post and office that allows for true 24x7 work. Leadership never sleeps, and so a leader must always be equipped with the necessary tools. I have to say the same thing to say about the much maligned use of executive aviation by large corporations. The goal isn't necessary luxury (though, to be sure, a G550 is pretty dish digs) but also an ability to fly, with staff and while working, in privacy and safety. An eight hour flight can transform from dead-time into a productive meeting, a final chance to tune a speech or presentation, a chance to convince a client (or lobbyist or politician, depending on the context).

Besides, in the president's case, a non-trivial chunk of press corps flies onboard Air Force One. And once the press corps has gotten used to direct contact like that, press corps being the way press corps are, asking them to please step off the airplane is a dangerous prospect (as Obama has already encountered, of course).

So while I'll admit that the big VC-25 is a reasonable necessity, I have a suggestion for you, President Obama, should you happen to read this. I don't expect you to, since I haven't gotten a call about the NASA thing and it looks like that gig is going to some Air Force guy. Which is fine with me, since it is someone other than Griffin, which was pretty much my one requirement. But none the less, in the way of bloggers everywhere, I will write in expectation of an audience.

I ask you to do something while our nation is struggling with a staggering economy, and while millions of Americans are out of work, taking voluntary pay cuts or working limited hours. While business are taking the heat for their own travel excesses (even if it is as much about image as anything else) and are cutting costs and restricting their own travel budgets (as strong as my own company is, right now, we are all feeling budgetary restrictions and pressure to conserve where possible), fly the smaller jet.

Yes, if the trip can possibly allow it, if the destination is not so far off and exotic that you must bring a massive support staff and press pool with you, fly the C-32. If crossing the continent (and not the ocean), if visiting Texas and not Afghanistan, if carrying yourself and not your team, show a good example of economy, environmentalism, initiative, and restraint. Fly the C-32.

It'll save a few thousand dollars (probably tens of thousands, frankly, though I don't know for sure) per flight. It'll save some precious fuel. It'll save a little carbon footprint. It will send a message, the sort of message that this country can respect, and it will establish your leadership by example, the best of kinds.

I'll grant that you may not control your own airplane choices -- witness the Blackberry controversy -- but the job title does say "Commander in Chief." The Secret Service is a tough group to master -- and they do have your own safety in mind -- but I think you've got the force of personality to make it stick if you need to.

But however you choose (or are told) to fly, Barack, safe travels, good luck, and bon voyage in this new and daunting job you have chosen.

Footnote: a quick summary of the talked-about airplanes.


This is a converted Boeing 747, which entered service at the end of the elder Bush's administration. It is the "Air Force One" of most settings, the biggest airplane of the fleet, the longest ranged and most capacious and capable and obviously most expensive to operate.


This is another converted 747, but one used as an airborne command post for either the president or senior military leaders. Originally intended as a survivable command post in case of a nuclear war, it is now used primarily as a mobile command post by FEMA, though I've heard that Cheney used to like to fly in it, apparently getting his ya-ya's off in some "here is the button, I could push the button" sort of way.


A converted Boeing 757 twinjet, this is sometimes called "Air Force Two" since it is used to fly (less megalomaniacal) vice presidents around. The term is slang, and it often carries first ladies, senior congressional leaders (Nancy Pelosi was often flown in one), and others who don't quite need the full suite that the VC-25 offers. Note that it is actually used by the president when flying to destinations that cannot accommodate a 747 based platform, so my suggestion is not so totally out of whack.


Even smaller than the C-32, it is simply one step down in size though apparently quite comparable in communication and command capabilities. Often used by theater commanders (e.g. General Tommy Franks). Barack, if you really want to get on the bandwagon, see if you can't use one of these once in a while.

Update (totally unrelated to airplanes but about Barack's food preferences).

Note that I've been blogging about him enough that I apparently suddenly feel comfortable using his first name. Like we were chums. The Internet age is a strange place to be.

My local market has posted what they claim is "Obama's Favorite Hawaiian Macaroni." I can't speak for how broad the range of Hawaiian Macaroni is (ie, if the existence of this single recipe constitutes the depth and breadth of the genre or if we are dealing with an expansive field here), but it does constitute another datapoint on my quest to understand the man by way of the things that really matter.

Now I'm going to go to bed and stop googling "Obama NASA" and just admit that I haven't got the job.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What does Barack Obama drink?

Alright, since it is looking increasingly likely that I did not get the nod to head up NASA, I think I'll take a break from my campaign for that position. In reality, I'd no more want to head up that agency, and deal with the challenges it faces and the sheer broken-ness of much of what it oversees, than I would like to do the same for General Motors. Particularly since the latter position apparently no longer comes with a private jet. While the position is as yet undecided, and I'm sure Google's servers are tired of serving up responses to my several-times-daily query "Obama NASA," I just don't think I'm going to get it this time around.

I'm also going to take a breather from joining the giant public orgasm over Captain Sullenberger, as much of a long-distance aeronautical bromance as I might have with the guy.

It is time to get back to the heart of The Noodlebook. The basics, the core of my mission and my calling: cocktails.

But as I do so, and as the inauguration of Number 44, Barack Obama, nears, I think I will not just return to the cocktailing roots of The Noodlebook via the route of politics. And in particular the question:

What does Barack Obama drink?

images-7.jpgThe origin of this question, which burns within me with a fire only slightly exceeded by a desire to understand the interaction between quantum fluctuations and the large-scale structure of the universe, is from a debate party that basically never happened. Back a few months ago, Erica and I harbored the idea of having a few friends over to watch the debates with us. We were going to have candidate-themed cocktails for the guests and the whole sort of thing.

In the end the party didn't come off at anything like that scale, it debate-watching ended up as a much more quiet series of evenings (with friends, but sans custom cocktails).

But I was left wondering -- what do the various candidates drink? We've discussed it and thought about it but to no successful conclusion. Speculation took us all sorts of ways, except for Sarah Palin who was pretty obvious, and Joe Biden, who never really got our interest.

So now it is left with one question that really matters: what is Obama's drink of choice? I'm not asking the man to be a mono-drinker, a creature of routine that only consumes one (alcoholic) beverage. That's a move usually left to the addicts, and ends up as something off the bottom shelf. Not interesting, in other words.

But much as I describe myself as a bourbon drinker, yet will enjoy a cocktail, bottle of beer, or glass of wine as season, mood, event, accompaniments, and inspiration hit me, I wanted to know what is Obama's favorite.

I tried looking on the Internet, using The Google. No success. Found a lot of "Obama Inspired" cocktails, but none that claimed to represent the candidate's actual taste. All seemed hideous, pursuing an agenda that had nothing to do with mixological integrity and everything to do with symbolism. Black and white cocktails to symbolize unification. Red-white-and-blue cocktails to symbolize patriotism. Cocktails with international mixes of constituents to symbolize change and inclusion. You get the idea. All were of that horribly sweet modern style that goes down easy but leaves you with more of a sugar crash than a hangover. There is nothing, no purpose at all, for which Blue Curacao is even remotely legitimate.

I thought I'd found the mother load when some website claimed to have an interview where they talked with Obama about his drink of choice. That was what Google's synopsis showed, so I was excited. Then I read the interview and it was clear that the whole thing was a piece of satire. Opposing Obama, supporting him, supporting McCain, I couldn't tell. I think just making fun of everyone. As humor writing, it has some hope, but failed by means of over using one piece of schtick.

So I'm still clueless.

If anyone out there has any clues, or informed speculation, drop me a note at strauss(dot)nick(at)gmail(dot)com. I've got an old high school acquaintance who is going to be at the inauguration -- at several of the balls no less -- and has a reasonable chance of bumping into The Man, I figure. I'm not sure she realizes how seriously I take this mission, but I have asked for reports of any beverages that might be observed. So while I burn with jealousy, I also eagerly await any intel.

In the meantime, here here are some acts of speculation. I'll start with McCain because I like to save the best for last.


images-5.jpgStraight Whisky John McCain is a "straight talk" kind of guy. So why not a straight shot of whisky. Bourbon, perhaps, or maybe single malt Scotch. The latter is, after all, the drink of old men, of seasoned soldiers and veteran campaigners. He's also got the budget to have some of the rare and old stuff lying around.

Shaken, not stirred Or would John McCain order a cocktail. A man's cocktail, though. A martini. Dry. Extra dry, perhaps, using the old swirl-and-dump trick for the vermouth. I can see him holding one at a cocktail party, clear and shimmering with cold, a stuffed olive on a stick floating inside. But his favorite? The casual drink of a weary evening? I doubt it.

images.jpgRank and file beer The campaign turned into a real "common man" vs. "elitist" thing in a lot of the Republican marketing. So perhaps McCain fits the image he tried to sell, the president a guy like Joe Wurzbacher can share a beer with. Palin, of course, would have a beer. A Bud. In a bottle. But somehow I think that with the half dozen houses and bling laden wife, I don't think the brews, not even the premium microbrews, are the drink of choice.

images-6.jpgWine Let's face it, despite the "friend of Joe-whatever" marketing, McCain is a guy with some cash in the family. And somehow that image (or else Cindy's) fits to a pretty substantial wine cellar. Some really, really good stuff. And somehow, more than beer or whisky, this is what I see John McCain ordering. There isn't a political thing or a diss, I mean my own tiny wine cellar has some non-trivial bottles, but somehow just an image that fits.


Here it gets more interesting.

Political Obama is a consummate politician. Like him or not, you have to admit that the guy knows how to play political cards. A somewhat uncharitable viewpoint of this could see him as devoid of real opinions -- simply doing what would look good. A Red Hook in Seattle district, wine when visiting Napa, Jim Beam when in Kentucky, and so on. Now I'll give anyone the space for a "when in Rome" attitude and the ability to do what is necessary to blend with guests. But underneath even the most unflattering of portraits there still must be a preference, the drink of home and family.

images-4.jpgArugula Martini A lot was made, particularly early on, during the campaign of Obama's supposedly elitist food attitudes. His arugula consumption became a talking point, as if eating a more character laden variety of lettuce somehow disqualified a guy from making good political decisions. The "arugula eater" characterization would see the guy drinking something fashionable, modern. Probably involving a super-premium vodka, perhaps an infusion of Kaffir lime or lemon grass or something similarly exotic. I'm OK with this. I have a broad spectrum contempt for much modern bartending (it is the whole overly-sweet thing again), but I can quite happily see Barack holding a well made, well balanced cocktail, even if a contemporary one. With, perhaps, an arugula leaf floating in it.

images-2.jpgFootnote: wait a second. Arugula in a cocktail...I wonder if I could make that work? A spicy vodka infusion for the what should go in for the sweet and sour components?

images-9.jpgMan of his roots I an also see Barack holding a class of whisky, at least as easily as I can see McCain doing the same thing. Perhaps with ice, but definitely Bourbon, not Scotch. I have no evidence for it, but I can see the man enjoying himself a glass of America's own addition to the distilled spirits world. Perhaps it is the "no-drama-Obama" sentiment, his particular brand of no-nonsense conviction and steadiness. Because Bourbon, at least good Bourbon, is a drink for contemplation and reflection. I see Obama taking his with ice, a couple of cubes. Not entirely sure why, but I can make this image stick more than most of the rest.

But you see I have no evidence of substantiation for any of this. Assessments of character, not of culinary taste, are at the heart of this analysis. And some of them are assessments made by the man's opponents. So what is it, then? Wine? Beer? Whisky? Cocktails?

Friday, January 16, 2009

How do you dead-stick an Airbus?

Well, for starters, you have Cap' "Sully" Sullenberger at the controls. From what I can tell, yesterday's amazing A320 ditching in the Hudson was a case of having the right guy (Sully) in the right place (left hand seat of flight 1549) at the right time (shortly after the impact of a large number of Canadian Geese).

Oh, and regarding those geese, I knew I never liked those things...

Anyhow, as the relevant authorities do their investigative work and aviation-centric press writes its stories (with more insightful information that the one observer, quoted on CNN, who seemed to take pains to point out that it "was not a seaplane.") I thought I'd put a little guidance out there for anyone who wants to try to ditch an 'Bus of their own. You know, on Microsoft Flight Simulator, X-Plane, or the like. If you hold a current ATP certificate and are carrying people in the back, please do not attempt these procedures unless you have recently made the acquaintance of a large number of geese.

Actually, in all seriousness, these are the dual engine failure and ditching drills from a real A320 flight manual -- the drills that would have come in to play yesterday at about 3,000 feet over NY. If you look at Flight International's reconstruction of the aircraft's flight path, it looks like the following unfolded over the span of about four minutes time, beginning at an altitude of about 3,200 feet.

TO help set the scene, he's a snap of the relevant sectional chart, courtesy of the fantastic and

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Flight 1549 took off from LGA heading to the Northwest. It is easy to see why Captain Sullenberger chose to head to TEB -- it was more-or-less a straight shot with no need to turn. But given the alignment of the Teterboro runways, he'd have had to aim for a point quite a bit to the South or Northeast before turning to align with the runway (just making it to the relevant dot on the map doesn't count when you've got an aircraft to land). All that maneuvering takes energy, which is exactly what he didn't have.

Anyhow, the Hudson proved conveniently close and full of helpful (in, I'm sure, a gruffly New Yorkish sort of way) ferry boat captains.

And, as promised, the relevant procedures and hopefully a little (if coldly technical) snapshot of what was going on in the cockpit. Airbus' manuals are dry, technical, and descriptive. More Germanic than Gallic, I find, lacking the sort of wry humor that occasionally pervades the worst-case sections of flight manuals (the Space Shuttle manual is, oddly, a great example of such humor). I do, however, like the blunt statement of the obvious at the top of the dual engine failure list: LAND ASAP.

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Questions and comments, if you got 'em, to the blog or to strauss(dot)nick(at)gmail(dot)com. Damn spammers, gotta' be all cagy now-a-days.

Go get 'em, Captain Sully!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Rational, Science Based Space Program - Part 1

This blog entry was originally to be titled "An Open Letter to the President Elect" but, for two reasons, I retitled it. First off, the multi-part thing just didn't fit the open letter format. I mean, did I really think Obama would read my blog? And more than one entry, particularly at the current pace of production? No way.

Secondly, I wanted to make it clear from the outset that this wasn't a political entry. Not really, at least. It wasn't going to have anything to do with cabinet posts, inauguration day speakers, or any of the other stuff about which people seem inclined to express their opinions at the president elect.

Oh, and I find the phrase "president elect" horribly ungainly. Which, given my sentence structures, is probably saying something.

What this blog is about is space science. And, therefore, at least a little bit about politics. Because, while I will generally steer clear of the whole Griffin-at-NASA thing, a certain degree of politicality is inevitable. But more on that later.

This blog is a suggestion, a plea even, for a well thought out, science based space program. I have some very specific thoughts on what this means -- right down to what missions should get funded. And, frankly, I'd like to be put in charge of this project. Just give me $24 billion. I'll lay the plan out.

As I worked on this entry, I realized that if I wanted it to avoid turning in to a space geek's fantasy laundry list of rocket launches and space missions, I'd need to make the underlying rational clear. And that forced me into a length that well exceeded the patience of even my most devoted readers (who are family members, so you should get the idea I could go on about this for a very, very long time, particularly if whiskey is involved). So today we begin with Part One: what exactly do I mean when I talk about a science based space program.

Well, and I say this partially because I love building suspense, it'll take some time to get there.

I posit that there are five reasons for space exploration. These reasons could apply globally, to an entire national space program or effort, or to a single launch or mission. They can mix and combine and share the drive behind a particular project. An given project can see its genesis in one reason but bear fruit along another axes. Things are complicated. But five reasons is a nice place to start with.

images.jpgNumber One: Achievement
John Kennedy invoked the sense of challenge when he commissioned the high point of American space flight, the Apollo moon landings. The reason was simple: the moon was there, landing a man there was (barely) achievable, and it was a great way to try and compete with the then surging Soviet space effort. The result was a galvanizing technical (and emotional) effort, a great deal of national pride, and a moderate amount of science. Apollo was great. But it was done (to paraphrase Sir Edmond Hillary) "because it was there."

Number Two: Function
Spy satellites, communications satellites, weather satellites all do useful things. They may not be glamorous, and they rarely break tremendous new ground, but they get the job done. Workmanlike, they bring home the results, civilian, military, public sector or private sector.

Number Three: Enabling
Sometimes you do something so that you can actually do something else. Sometimes you spend a great deal of effort building a jig. The jig itself is uninteresting, but the chair that it yields is beautiful. The American Gemini program did this in space -- it taught us how to fly, spacewalk, maneuver, and troubleshoot in the vacuum of space. The Space Shuttle was marketed as a utility truck much along these lines once, and the current International Space Station is often sold as a tool to help us learn how to survive and construct in space.

Number Four: Exploration
Gene Roddenberry, this is your moment. The bold going. Or going boldly. The Pioneers and Voyagers, heading off into regions unknown, to see what has never been seen before. Details are not important -- for every byte of returned information contains precious sights of the here to fore unknown.

Number Five: Science
The explorers set forth with no questions, only open eyes. The scientists set forth with questions, ideas, and theories. They seek explanation and understanding, they want verification or refutation, they require detail and precision. They may find the unknown or unexpected, but they set off not with an empty mind, but a mind full of questions.

Alright, so those are my five. It once started as three, but Enabling and Function appeared as late additions. None of these descriptions are intended to be praising or critical, merely descriptive. For all things can be good in the right time and place. And what, then, is good at this time and place?

Well, let's take a look at Achievement. That one, basically, is politics. It is about doing something (or doing something before someone else does it) for reasons related to motivation, goal setting, national pride, international relations. I am not a politician and do not pretend to a degree of competence or awareness of the full complexities of the international arena beyond that of the average moderately well read adult. And so I check out of this one. Politicians, make your choices. But this is not an area where I will make the call.

And with that goes manned space flight. Sorry, everybody. People aren't part of my program. They are too expensive for what you get back. Great thrills, beautiful video, and a truly motivating and empowering feeling when done right. But the price and the risks are too great to justify human space flight for any reason other than that of Achievement (or politics).

Function is pretty good -- but not with people. I'm tired of the circular logic of a manned space program that justifies its own existence with the endless loop of providing more understanding of how to allow humans to fly in space. Why? What is the point? What is the point of learning how to get people to survive in space for two or five years unless you are really going to Mars. And let's get real. Not happening, that one.

But functional unmanned space flight is doing great. It is very well established by government, military, and commercial agencies.

Exploration is another noble reason that struggles in today's reality. Exploration is about the low hanging fruit in some senses -- you have so little information about something that you are excited to get even a basic glimpse. The implication is that the technological act of getting there is where the challenge lies. Problem is, we've got all the good getting in this regard. Except Pluto and, thank you Allan Stern, New Horizons is on the way and doing great.

Which leaves us science. The serious quest to understand our universe (and a few other things). Not helter-skelter pursuit of goals that look or sound good. But the systematic quest for the deep, subtle, and profound knowledge of how things work. The universe, life, and our planet.

And so from that final remaining reason, we must move on. But first, to review:

Achievement: too political, too expensive (if manned)
Function: already well handled by others
Enabling: only worthwhile if stepping stone to legitimate goals
Exploration: most reachable stuff has been done
Science: bingo!

images-1.jpgSo what is this science based program supposed to be about, then? How do we make sure we stay on that particular target and don't go wandering into another one. Well, for starters, some wandering is going to happen. Apollo, while a clearly achievement based project proved to be very enabling and did a great deal of exploring. So we accept that.

Secondly, devise a clear definition of what sort of goals we want to achieve. Write these goals down in large letters. And make sure that anything you pick fits within this charter.

Now, for my sake, I admit that this was a case of backing into a definition. Because honestly, I found this was one of those things that, like the old joke about pornography, I may not be able to define, but I know it when I see it. But I wrangled and experimented and finally defined myself a set of three goals that express the ideals of the rational, science based space program. In forming this definition I wanted to avoid the trap of forming a laundry list, a long rambling list of commas and (God forbid) semicolons. I wanted a single, elegant, coherent statement. If you can't break it down (whatever it happens to be) into a single sentence, then you have a problem.

To understand our universe, our planet, and the place of life in the cosmos.

And there you have it. One sentence and with fairly few commas. It works better with three, though:

Understand our universe, its origin, evolution, and nature.
Understand our planet, the forces acting on it, and the changes it is undergoing.
Understand the origins of life, life-bearing systems, and the potential for life to exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

I also gave myself a tidy (if arbitrary) limit of ten missions that I could fly. They should all be achievable by the end of the next decade (2020). And they should fit within a budget of $20 billion ($2 billion each, on average) including launch, support services, margins, and a well crafted outreach and education program.

The resulting ten missions span a range of deep space explorers and earth orbiting environmental probes. They include telescopes, radars, balloons, and sample return capsules. They are based on missions that NASA or ESA has studied or is studying for implementation within my timeframe. Later entries will go into further detail, but here is a preview.

A probe to retrieve and return a pound worth of cometary matter to Earth -- providing a potential insight into the building blocks from which our solar system (and life on Earth) arose.

A probe to explore the outer layers of the Sun, diving into the solar corona to better understand the mechanisms responsible for transporting the Sun's energy and triggering solar storms.

A probe to the complex Saturn system and its moons of Enceladus and Titan, both potential sources of rich and exotic prebiotic chemistry.

A satellite to study chemical processes in the Earth's atmosphere with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution to better understand the mechanisms that generate, transport, and sink atmospheric constituents (including pollutants).

A satellite to measure the shape and texture of Earth's surface, providing increased awareness of geologic processes, moisture content and migration (including ice thicknesses), and biosphere composition.

A satellite to observe the Earth's land and seas as well as atmospheric images-2.jpgwater and aerosols to better understand weather cycles and the chemical and biological activity of the deep sea and coastal regions.

An observatory to monitor the faint temperature and polarization shifts in the faint cosmic microwave background, probing for traces of the first infinitesimal moments of the universe's history.

An observatory to search for rocky worlds in 300 nearby star systems and to characterize their masses, orbits, temperatures, and atmospheres - including potential markers of biological activity.

An observatory to map thousands of square degrees of the sky to a depth and detail only previously seen in pinpoint images less than 1/300th of a square degree, yielding insight into the evolution of the universe and the nature of dark energy.

An observatory to image the most dramatic and high energy sources and events in the universe in x-rays, probing the physics of these challenging points where quantum theory and relativity collide.

As for the rest of the details, I'll have more for you soon.