Resting On Our Laurels

20 07 2016

Forty-seven years ago, a small spacecraft from Earth set down on the surface of the moon. There were two humans onboard, with a third remaining in orbit. Everyone on Earth- or at least those who had access to global information- looked up into the sky at that moment in awe. For a brief moment in time, everyone on Earth connected to international news looked skyward and said, “D-a-a-a-a-amn!”

Since that day, almost a half-century ago, ten more humans travelled from Earth to visit our nearest neighbor in space. They conducted some scientific tests and collected a lot of samples.Then, they all came back home. By any standards, the Apollo program was an amazing technical achievement. Never mind the fact that it would never have happened if not for political and military posturing by earth’s two most powerful nations, it was a truly amazing feat of engineering and science.

Since December in 1972, when Apollo-17 departed, no one has gone back.Think on that for a moment: the high-water mark of manned spaceflight ended forty-four years ago.What happened? Why did we stop?

The late Carl Sagan also wondered about this. He wrote an article in 1989 saying, among other things, “The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, made those odd skipping motions they called ‘moonwalks’ on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured there. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother’s skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the solar system. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened?

For one shining moment, humanity looked out at the vastness of space and knew that the stars were in our future. Then we turned our backs on the stars and went home. Despite the fact that semi-literate children in countries without regular electrical service now walk around with pocket radios with more computing power than any of the Apollo spacecraft, we’ve never gone farther than low-Earth orbit.

Apollo cost the US about $25 Billion at the time. Adjusting for inflation, that runs to a bit over $100 Billion today. One hundred billion dollars today is only about 16% of the US Defense budget (roughly $600 Billion), or a hair under 3% of the entire US budget ($3.54 Trillion).

By the way, do you know how much of the current US budget goes to NASA? $18.5 Billion. Basically one half of one percent (0.52%) of the US budget is used to fund NASA. That’s for everything at NASA- toilet paper, administrator salaries, office supplies, and space.

To put all the data into words: NASA has been achieving amazing science and developing mind-blowing technology, putting robot spacecraft into orbit around planets, moons, asteroids, and comets and dropping robot scouts onto the surface of Mars on a budget consisting of the spare change Uncle Sam found under the couch cushions.

Those robots are doing some outstanding work. For some exploration, they’re actually preferable to humans. But the robots just aren’t as adaptable as a Mark One, Mod Zero educated plains ape. For one example, the Opportunity rover has been on Mars since 2004, and has travelled a bit more than 26 miles in those twelve years. On Earth, humans routinely run that distance in a few hours.

Humans are far more versatile and adaptable than our robots. But they require a lot of very heavy equipment and infrastructure to get them to the exploration site and keep them in working order long enough to get some science done. This is a significant downside to manned spaceflight, but something we can fix. It just takes time and effort-which means money.

We are totally getting our money’s worth out of the Space program using robots, but manned spaceflight could be accomplishing so much more. All it takes is money and the will to use it. We have the money. Hell, trim 5% off the military budget and give it to NASA. That’s roughly $30 Billion dollars more for space exploration, and the military obviously doesn’t need it- the US spends more on our military than the next dozen countries combined. Almost forty percent of all military spending on Earth goes to the US military.

Granted that we need our military to be the best in the world, even by American standards this is overkill. Let us put some of that cash to use out in space, instead. Let us also note that I am not NASA’s friend. Too many scientists and engineers are being sidelined by paper-pushers and politically-connected bozos. But they are the best game in town, so we (the US) has to use NASA, or nothing.

It’s been 44 years since the last humans left the moon. We have been resting on our laurels for far too long. Humans from the United States once walked on the moon. Sooner or later, more humans will be exploring and exploiting the solar system. If we don’t get off our collective asses, we can be fairly certain those people exploring and exploiting the system will not be speaking English.


Current status: Pissed off

Current music: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

Just a Little Pin-Prick

17 12 2012

I have been remiss in not talking about a very important subject. Like most topics I deem worthy of a rant, the people at whom I direct my ire routinely disregard evidence and scientific inquiry in favor of what they believe the truth to be. The more evidence is provided which completely disproves their idiotic beliefs, the more strongly they cling to their irrational ideas. I am speaking, of course, about the anti-vaccination movement.

This could probably fall under the heading of “First World Problems”, mainly because this misguided effort to inflict misery and death in the form of preventable diseases seems to be solely the prerogative of wealthy Americans. Not content with helping measles and mumps make a comeback here in the US, these cretins are now trying to spread the misery to areas of the world already miserable from the prevalence of preventable illnesses.

Their stated objection is the presence of a chemical called Thimerisol in the vaccines intended for use by the UN World Health Organization in Africa. Thimerisol, for those of you who aren’t deeply involved in the anti-vaccination movement, is supposedly the embodiment of pure Evil which causes autism in children. Never mind that there is no evidence that Thimerisol causes autism, or that study after study has proven there is no link between vaccinations (with or without Thimerisol) and autism, a bunch of well-off white women think there’s a link, and that’s good enough for them. They’re not even content to just allow their own kids to fall victim to diseases which ought to be nearly non-existent in a First World country, they have created crusades to spread the word about this horrible conspiracy by doctors, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies to make their babies autistic.

Why is Thimerisol added to vaccines anyway, a more reasonable person might ask? It turns out that Thimerisol is a preservative, and is used to prevent the vaccine from going bad if un-refrigerated. Refrigeration is ubiquitous here in the US, but is much more rare in other parts of the world, such as a lot of Africa. If the vaccine is not kept properly refrigerated before being dispensed, the recipient can develop a nasty case of meningitis. Thimerisol prevents this from happening. Apparently the shrill suburbanites who oppose vaccinations would rather have 40,000 children die from measles in Africa (last year’s number) than be exposed to the living Hell that is life-saving medicine.

In a rational world, these frantic harpies would be ignored byeveryone with a functioning cerebellum for their willful ignorance. Sadly, the United States is apparently chock-full of people desperate to prove that it is someone else’s fault their kid has autism. “They gave my baby a shot right after delivery, and now he’s autistic!” “They’re giving our kids too many vaccinations too soon, and this overwhelms their little bodies and makes them autistic!” “It isn’t my fault- it has to be those evil pharmaceutical companies!”

Let’s see now. The doctor in the delivery room gave your baby a shot right after birth, and this somehow contaminated the poor tyke and caused permanent mental impairment. Here’s a clue for you: when your baby took its first breath, it inhaled several trillion microbes into its lungs along with the air. By comparison, the drug cocktail in the syringe is as close to sterile as medically possible. Furthermore, there’s a damned good reason to get that shot immediately- it protects the child from Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) causes chronic illness and roughly 3,000 deaths every year. 30-40% of those chronic illnesses result from childhood exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a schedule of recommended vaccinations for children, developed from research on preventing childhood diseases. Of course, to the anti-vaccination crowd, this only means that the CDC is part of the conspiracy.

How about that idea that the vaccinations are too much, too soon? Sorry, but that is also a crock of shit. Despite howls of protest from the anti-vaccination wing-nuts, yet another study has shot down this idea. There is no link between childhood vaccinations and autism- or any other neurological problem.

Every single time these anti-vaccination imbeciles come up with a new reason why no children should ever be protected from preventable and life-threatening diseases, doctors and scientists sigh heavily and conduct another study which proves that the anti-vaccination folks don;t know what the Hell they’re talking about. With every scientific defeat, these loons dredge up yet another outlandish theory about the causes of autism. They absolutely refuse to look at the scientific evidence which suggests that there’s a strong genetic component to autism. In some cases, the neurological abnormalities associated with autism have been observed in babies still in the womb. This alone should put the entire “vaccinations cause autism” bullshit to rest, and yet the “movement” continues to try and convince everyone else to refuse childhood vaccinations.

Why should we care? What does it matter if a bunch of suburban housewives refuse to let their precious snowflakes get vaccinated? It’ll be too bad for the kid when he or she gets dangerously sick from an easily preventable disease, but that’s the parent’s problem, right?

Wrong. There is a substantial minority of people in this country who cannot be vaccinated for some diseases, or who have depressed immune systems for a variety of reasons (such as cancer treatments). Very young children aren’t scheduled to get the Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) shot until they’re 12 months old, so they are at risk until properly vaccinated. Older people whose vaccinations have lapsed or who may be allergic to a particular vaccine are also at risk. Ordinarily, they would all be protected by what doctors call “herd immunity”. If enough members of a group (such as the United States of America, for one example) have or are given immunity or resistance to a particular disease, there will be so few cases of the disease that the few who lack the immunity/resistance can be relatively safe.

No longer. Thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, the number of measles cases in the US doubled between 2008 and 2009, with 89% of the victims being children whose parents had refused vaccination. In 1996, there were four deaths from Pertussis (whooping cough) in the US. By 2001, the number was 17- most of them infants under one year old. Since the deeply stupid anti-vaccination craze took hold, there have been roughly 5,000 cases of mumps across the US, with roughly 15 deaths per year.

For those of you not really paying attention so far, allow me to sum up: People (including children) are dying of easily preventable diseases here in the US because of a group of anti-scientific imbeciles who refuse to listen to facts and evidence. Is that clear enough for you?

Here are some more facts for you:

Fewer youngsters worldwide are dying of childhood diseases now than at any other time in history. About 80% of children today are vaccinated against such deadly illnesses as measles and polio, compared with 20% in the early 1980s.

There were an estimated 30 to 40 million cases of measles in 2000, causing some 777,000 deaths.

…immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Health officials say aggressive efforts to vaccinate young children against measles have resulted in a 74 percent global decline in the number of deaths due to the illness [between 2000 and 2007]. Experts say the biggest decline, 90 percent, occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”

In England and Wales, measles cases increased 36% in 2008. Measles cases more than doubled from the year before during the first half of 2008 in the United States.

“Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality.”

Amy Wallace

Pay attention to the numbers above. Doctors are often accused of only providing treatments, but not cures. Vaccines have provided one of the really few bright spots in medical history, where the docs can say they have a definite win. Polio is almost extinct. Small pox now only exists in a few laboratories. Those diseases once devastated millions, and are now all but eradicated, thanks to vaccines. Are we going to throw all that away because a few deeply stupid people in the US “don’t feel right” about it?

Special thanks to Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, whose excellent writing on the subject convinced me to add my miniscule voice to the chorus.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Youngblood by Naked and Famous

Reality vs Fantasy

19 11 2012

When I was in High School, I used to spend lots of time creating worlds. I mapped out continents, developed what I thought were internally consistent climate and weather patterns, designed and built centers of population, created languages and religions, and wrote extensive backgrounds (history) for all of the above. All of this was part of my responsibility as game master for my group of friends when we played role-playing games. As I grew older and learned more, my creations grew ever more complex. This had the effect of consuming huge swaths of time which ate into my social life, such as it was. Much of that work was apparently lost on the players in my games, who never seemed to wonder why a particular dungeon was where it was, or why a particular warlord acted the way he did. This took away from my enjoyment of the labor somewhat, but I still enjoyed it. As an intellectual exercise, it requires at least a cursory knowledge of history, geography, geology, linguistics, biology, physics, and a host of other disciplines. Role-playing gaming, then, was the “gateway drug” for a lifelong interest in science.

The point of this blather is not merely shameless self-congratulation. Despite my often intense focus on building “realities” for fantasy universes, I never thought they were real. They were mental playgrounds, a shared experience with my friends in which we could exercise our imaginations, nothing more. My position as game master did not grant me any special status or authority with my friends outside the game, nor did I expect such. The games were fantasy, not reality, and we all knew the difference. As a side note, we never allowed our fantasies to unduly interrupt the reality of such things as girlfriends or parties. All this is as it should be. The fantasies we built and shared during the game were no more than fantasies, and the fantastic realities of “real life” always reigned supreme. Since High School, I have continued to indulge in my hobby of building fantasy worlds, but I am far more intrigued and awed by the sheer spectacle of the real world, which is far more fantastic than anything I’ve created.

That brings me to the real point of this rant. My political views haven’t changed much over the past couple of decades, and I was always considered fairly conservative until the last ten years or so. The “conservative” portion of the US political dimension has shifted so far to the right that I’ve been recently accused of being a democrat. So far, not much of a problem. Political winds are always shifting, and political labels are- in my opinion- largely a waste of time.

The problem arises from the flavor of the red shift. Far too many who call themselves conservatives conflate that term with “religious”, and specifically with a particularly vexatious form of evangelical christianity. You can believe whatever you want to believe, and even try to convince others of the rightness of your beliefs. If I want to believe that the current republican party should rename itself the christian nationalist party, that’s my privilege. Likewise, it is the right of the fanatical christians currently infesting the conservative position on the political graph to consider me a communist because I refuse to allow them to make my country into a theocracy. You have the right to your beliefs, but you don’t have the right to your own facts.

Let us take a look at what makes the US the preeminent military and (for the moment anyway) economic power on Earth. Science, and the technology that pursuit of science gives us is what made the US a superpower. The pursuit of science has enabled and sustains our current extravagant way of life. So why, then, are the christian nationalists republicans so hell-bent on destroying our scientific and technological edge?

Case in point: Current US Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the science and space subcommittee in the US Senate, was recently asked if he knew the age of the Earth. I don’t know about you, but everyone I know could easily answer that question with a modest margin of error- including my teenage niece. Rather than directly answering the question, Senator Rubio decided to try and waffle his way out of the issue. You see, if he had given the right answer (defined as the one with mountains of physical evidence and scientific consensus), he would have angered the christian nationalists, and this would have a deleterious effect on his future political aspirations as part of the christian nationalist party. On the other hand, if he had given the preferred answer of the christian nationalists (the wrong answer), he would anger the entire rest of the voting population. So he waffled, and tried to please both sides. This satisfied no one, of course. Perhaps the Senator should take a hard look at the demographics of the christian nationalists and realize that they are (fortunately) a dying breed, and act like a well-educated US citizen with at least a middle-school grasp of basic science.

And it is basic. You are reading this tripe courtesy of advances in quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and electronic theory. It is a fair bet that at least a few of those reading are eating something recently warmed up in a microwave. That microwave is not powered by magic or witchcraft. If your textured-vegetable-protein burrito got hot when you hit the “start” button on your microwave, then quantum mechanics, physics, and electronics all work the way they’re supposed to. All of those same disciplines work because they’re based on fundamental principles of science developed from observation and experimentation over centuries. Those same fundamental principles also govern the scientific disciplines which tell us the age of the Earth with a fair bit of precision (4.54 billion years, plus or minus about 30 million). All of these disciplines together give us things like the global positioning system satellites, which would not work if those fundamental principles were wrong.

Despite all of this, the rabid god-botherers among us refuse to accept objective reality. They have built a fantasy world wherein bronze-age mysticism is somehow equivalent (or superior) to what they can see with their own eyes. They refuse to believe that their particular version of their sacred texts is anything less than the Laws of the Universe. The fact that they aren’t even following their own texts doesn’t make a lick of difference to these people. They have decided to live in a fantasy world which they like better than the real one.

Okay, so what? They can believe whatever they want, right?

Up to a point. That point is where they try to force the rest of us to live in their fantasy world. The religiously deluded are convinced that they have the duty to force everyone else to believe as they do, and they are working very hard to make their fantasy a reality. Several political candidates in the latest demopocalypse even went so far as to say out loud beliefs they normally don’t mention outside their little circles of like-minded co-religionists. Note carefully that every one of those candidates got treated harshly by the US electorate. Note also that, in the aftermath of the electoral kick in the balls the christian nationalists suffered on November 6th, the refrain from the religious conservatives has not been calls to bring their party in line with objective reality, it has rather been calls to stop saying what they really believe in public.

These people are literally deluded. They really believe that they can enforce their religious totalitarianism on the rest of the country, and they cast their votes accordingly. Altogether, they aren’t that numerous, but they can all be reliably counted upon to vote, and this gives them influence far beyond their numbers. Thus we have a US Senator with possible hopes for a future run for the Presidency trying desperately to avoid causing these irrational people any distress.

If that doesn’t scare you, perhaps you are living in a fantasy world.

Current status: Profoundly irked

Current music: Long Cool Woman by the Hollies

Fractal Commentary

27 08 2012

I have some bad news for you all- we live in interesting times.  For those of you nodding at your screen and saying, “Duh”, allow me to remind you that the phrase “may you live in interesting times” is a traditional Chinese curse.

Dual Tragedy

Neil Armstrong died this past weekend at the age of 82. Assuming there are some readers of my intermittent tripe who don’t know anything that may have happened before disco, Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon. From all accounts, he was generally self-effacing and a genuinely good person, and there are damned few people like that. That makes his death a tragedy- irrespective of his fame. The other tragedy is the fact that America has actively retreated from the literal heights reached by the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This is not to say that good science and engineering is no longer being accomplished. ar from it. Curiosity was successfully dropped onto the surface of Mars, the Russians have managed to work past their launch vehicle issues and successfully deliver supplies to the ISS, a private US company managed to do the same thing, the European Space Agency has launched a series of exceptional satellites for peering into the dim past of the Universe, CERN has very probably identified a Higgs particle, etc. The tragic bit is the fact that we are unable to repeat a forty-year-old scientific and engineering achievement today. NASA says we won’t be capable of sending humans back to the moon for at least thirty years. There will almost certainly be Chinese and possibly Russian manned missions to Luna long before Americans can return there.

We could really use a few more humans like Neil Armstrong and his Apollo teammates these days.

Alarums and Excursions

A disgruntled former employee’s poor decision-making skills were widely splashed across the headlines in New York city last week as yet another example of a mass shooting. The usual suspects quickly leaped in to denounce America’s gun culture, lament the senseless tragedy- and coincidentally put forward their own pet theories and solutions to take political advantage of the situation. Almost as horrible as the shooting itself, in my opinion.

Alas for the “American Gun Culture” narrative, it turns out that the Bad Guy only shot one of the victims of the “mass shooting”. The remaining people wounded or killed were all shot by two police officers trying to take down the original gunman. That’s right, two of “New York’s finest” blasted out sixteen rounds at the Bad Guy from about eight feet away and missed more than half their shots. Nine completely innocent bystanders were wounded by the wild shooting- three of them critically. The cops did manage to kill the Bad Guy, if that’s any consolation. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about the competence of US police forces in general and NYPD in particular.

Basic firearms safety rules, for those of you who haven’t learned them yet: 1- Always assume any firearm is loaded until you have personally verified it. Even if it is not loaded, treat every firearm as if it was- ALL THE TIME. 2- Never point any firearm at anything you do not wish to immediately shoot. 3- Know your target and what is beyond it. Even if you are Wyatt Earp reborn and never miss, modern firearms are very likely to over-penetrate- especially at the literal spitting distance of most gunfights. Anything on the other side of your target is likely to get shot as well as the target. 4- Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. “Ready to shoot” means that you have a valid target, you have properly aimed at that target, and you know where the bullet will go past (or through) the target once you shoot. Until ALL of these requirements have been met, keep your booger-hook off the bang-switch. These are universal firearms handling rules, but somehow “New York’s finest” managed to forget them. Yes, they were under pretty serious stress, but that would not have been a legal excuse for non-police under identical circumstances. We expect our police to be trained to handle such crises.

For a period of perhaps thirty hours, the usual suspects took to the airwaves and internet to proffer their own politically-derived solutions to the “gun problem”. Far too many of those who try to prevent erosion of the rights of civilian firearm ownership immediately jumped into the fray by claiming that the gunman could have been stopped sooner if only more civilians had been permitted to carry firearms in the historically gun-averse city. I am philosophically opposed to New York’s traditional hostility for civilian firearm ownership, but: (A) I do not live in New York, so it’s not my business; and (B) they’re objectively wrong. Given the notoriously poor marksmanship of the rank-and-file NYPD and their demonstrated equally poor target acquisition skills, I’m reasonably certain that the number of dead and wounded would probably be much higher if civilians on the scene had tried to use their own weapons to stop the original shooter. The NYPD would likely have ventilated half the city trying to put down what they would doubtless see as multiple shooters.

On the other hand, those who are hostile to civilian firearms ownership were ever so quick to put forth a bewildering number of legislative restrictions on civilian rights to keep and bear arms. There were the usual idiotic suggestions that all would-be gun owners be required to undergo rigorous psychiatric screenings, limiting the number of firearms any one person was permitted to own, mandating training and licensing of all gun owners before allowing possession, etc. The typical knee-jerk attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of “undesirables”. The problem is that none of those measures would have prevented the most recent shooting, nor would they have prevented Columbine or Virginia Tech. The people who advocate restricting firearms to police and military personnel are also having trouble with the fact that all but one of the people killed and wounded in New York were shot by the supposedly well-trained police.

Once it became clear that NYPD had caused all but one of the casualties at the Empire State building, the story disappeared rapidly from the headlines.

Zen and the Cartoonist

If you haven’t already found it, please point your web browser to Zen Pencils. The artist takes quotes from literary or otherwise notable public figures and draws inspirational cartoons around those quotes. There are several strips which will probably make you think.

Speaking of Cartoons

I note that Jen Breeden from The Devil’s Panties (one of the webcomics I read regularly) is trying an experiment at getting rid of advertisements. She is basically extorting money from her readers with the threat of allowing the ads to return. All seriousness aside, Jen asks her readers to donate money to defray the site’s operating expenses. As long as the donations exceed the cost of keeping her site running, she keeps the comic ad-free for the next month. Good for her. It seems to have been working so far. Please give her some money if you like her work.

That’s all for now. I shall withdraw until such time as some new public iniquity arises to wake me from my torpor and return to vent my spleen all over the internet. Given that this is an election year, it’s good odds that time might be measured in hours rather than days, but I’ll do my best to resist the temptation to wallow in the politics.

Current status: Annoyed

Current music: Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton

So Much For Space

14 02 2012

I’m none too fond of NASA. In lieu of advancing the frontiers of manned spaceflight, NASA spent a couple of decades wasting time and energy on the pretty-but-largely-useless shuttle program. The space shuttle could have been a worthwhile component of a larger drive toward orbital manufacturing, followed by exploring and exploiting the inner solar system. Could have been. What it turned into was a political show-horse which leeched desperately-needed funding from actual science and exploration projects and essentially crippled the US space industry when the photogenic but limited-utility orbiters were inevitably retired without a useful replacement vehicle. The stupidly wasted opportunities over the last three decades make my blood boil.

NASA has managed to pull off some staggeringly good science in spite of the shuttle debacle. Rovers on Mars; robot spacecraft visiting other planets, moons, and asteroids; orbiting sensors watching the solar weather; and the enormous work of searching for and tracking potential Earth-impactors were all getting accomplished during the lean years when the lion’s share of the funding was poured down the shuttle rat-hole. Despite my misgivings about NASA management in general and the shuttle program in particular, the non-shuttle folks at the agency have been almost textbook examples of making bricks without straw. My mixed feelings about NASA aside, I am firmly convinced that a robust presence in space- specifically meaning more than just low-Earth orbit- is a key underpinning to continued US economic and military superiority.

The US got a huge amount of payback for the money spent on the Space Race in terms of follow-on technologies and spin-offs. We also got the infrastructure to maintain a constellation of satellites which continue to provide vital real-world service for our high-tech civilization. Learning how to put men on the moon taught us how to safely and reliably put stuff into orbit, which in turn gave us the ability to see and hear most of what goes on all over the world. This ability- taken for granted by the average American citizen- is literally priceless, and gives the US an enormous military advantage in preventing or fighting future conflicts. Our ability to see/listen-in on potential enemies and communicate with friendly units anywhere on the planet is a direct result of the US space program. Our current military peerlessness is based on it.

Despite all of this well-documented benefit from the space program, there are loads of people in this country who are chomping at the bit to gut or eliminate the US space program in a stupid rush to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Apollo program cost the equivalent of about $200.oo per US citizen when it was running. This was (and is) a bargain of stellar magnitude by any measure, but there are people in this country- sadly including many of our professional political class- who shriek and gibber about “wasting” money on space when we could be spending that money on vote-buying schemes here on Earth. The truth is that the US could have funded fifty Apollo-style missions for the price of a week of combat operations in the Sandbox. The space program has delivered proven real-world benefits for the money. Can our military adventures in the Middle East make the same claim?

When the current administration chose to retire the shuttle fleet, I was among many who were unhappy with the decision (they were lovely bits of engineering, and I’m a sucker for well-designed equipment), but accepted it under the assumption that the budget formerly allocated to the shuttle fleet might be turned to more useful ends at NASA. That assumption turned out to be so much wishful thinking. The people I once chastised for what I deemed hyperbole about “abandoning space” turn out to have been correct, as shown by the latest budget proposal from the White House.

In a time when the US is falling behind in science and engineering- historically American strong suits- the President has decided to throw the fiscal worrywarts a bone called NASA. In the interest of appearing to be financially prudent, the President is scaling back the poster child for American engineering and technological progress. How many kids will struggle through the tough scholastic requirements for engineering and the sciences when the biggest market for those fields is cutting back funding? Fewer NASA programs means fewer companies will be getting money to design and build spacecraft. Those companies will therefore have a reduced interest in hiring new engineers and technicians. Tighter NASA science budgets mean fewer science missions, which in turn mean less interest on the part of universities and businesses to employ scientists. Fewer engineers, scientists, and technicians being hired reduces the need for students of those disciplines. So much for American excellence in engineering and the sciences. The one thing America is traditionally good at is being put at risk to create the impression of fiscal restraint.

You want fiscal prudence? Try trimming back on wasteful military adventures. Stop paying farmers to not grow food. Stop paying those farmers who do grow food to turn perfectly good corn into largely useless ethanol for fuel. Trimming a few million dollars from a few NASA programs is the height of folly when we waste billions on the items I just mentioned. And those are just the ones I thought of while typing. Anyone willing to do a little research could almost certainly find more. Please do, by the way.

Reducing America’s presence in space- which is what the current budget amounts to- is a bold statement to the effect that the US is no longer looking outward. We’re no longer interested in pushing the boundaries of what we can do, because we seem to be more interested in wallowing around in what we can’t. This attitude has historically been a symptom of a civilization in decline. I’m not interested in contributing to the decline of the United States of America. I’m interested in science and engineering and technology, not least because those things make life better for everyone- including Americans. As an American, I want to do well while doing good. The technology we build today will help feed, clothe, and heal the people of tomorrow. Reducing the overall level of misery on the planet also reduces the competition for resources and the need for military genital measuring contests. This helps make the world to come safer and more stable than the world we live in now.

Why us? Why should America expend the time, money, and manpower to maintain a presence in space? Because- flawed and occasionally idiotic as we may collectively be- a future with an America strong in technology and the sciences is more likely to be a better future than one built in the absence of a US presence in space. Rest assured, humans are going to explore and exploit the solar system. I think it would be better for humanity as a whole if the ones who speak English didn’t have to use foreign currencies to buy tickets as passengers on another country’s spacecraft.

Current status: Peeved

Current music: Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh

Got Change?

17 10 2011

There used to be a BBC radio program called, “My Word“. This was a panel game about words, featuring a regular panel of people who made a living with words, but was really more of a vehicle for Frank Muir and Dennis Norden to display their wit to a large audience. The show is still available- in reruns, of course- on NPR in some markets. Due to the timing of the re-broadcasts (at noon on Saturdays here in the Shallow South), I have managed to hear most of the shows while the wife and I do our weekly shopping.

Many BBC programs get stolen and modified for the American market (The Office is a recent example, and Sanford and Son is a more antiquated one), but I doubt anyone would ever try to adapt My Word. Without exception, the panelists on the show were extremely knowledgeable on the subject, and this alone dramatically decreases the likelihood of a successful adaptation. While it may be possible to find American writers and thinkers who are equally adept with language, vocabulary, and etymology, I find it hard to believe that any American academics who qualify would have the ability to demonstrate it with the easy humor of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Then, too, there is the real possibility that any putative literary wit would be completely unable to make the average American audience laugh, given the generally dismal level of American education.

This depressing thought brought me to a realization about the enormous cultural divides so visible in the US today. Among the many artificial divisions in American society (black vs white, north vs south, east vs west, coke vs pepsi, etc), a far more subtle division is growing: tolerance of change.

The US has long been a major source of what are frequently world-shaking changes, so it seems odd that so many in this country now want the changes to stop. America is built on change, and our scientists, inventors, engineers, and salesmen have mass-produced that change and sold it to the whole world. Our current leadership position in many scientific fields is based upon anticipating and exploiting change. We owe our extravagant lifestyle and standard of living to embracing change, but now there is an increasingly vocal minority in this country who are demanding an end to change. Worse, they are deliberately trying to roll back many of the changes that make their standards of living possible.

Some of this resistance to change is coming- as usual- from religious extremists. Religion in general basically says that certain things are beyond human ken, and people should spend all their time and energy preparing for some sort of afterlife in lieu of improving conditions here and now. Despite the available evidence, the religious extremists refuse to admit that their holy texts might be wrong, because to admit the possibility of error opens the door for questions the religiously deluded are incapable of answering. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” does not allow for differences of opinion (or evidence to the contrary), so the religious types can almost be counted upon to be intolerant of change.

Another group intolerant of change are those who aren’t willing to expend the energy required to learn how to cope with- and profit from- the rapid pace of change. Granted that many of these could also be religiously deluded, this is not universally the case. Part of the problem is the fact that the stupefying complexity of our universe can only be properly described using purely mathematical terms, and the bulk of these change-resistant people think that algebra is some sort of magic trick designed to make them look stupid. The upper-level maths needed to properly describe the universe and how it works might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs, as far as the people I’m describing are concerned. User-friendly scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are very helpful in trying to explain the nature of reality in everyday language, but only if the target audience is willing to listen. Too many are not willing to listen, and they end up resentful of those who are increasing the amount and pace of change. They also end up increasingly resentful of anyone who- unlike them- is comfortable with change.

So we end up with another artificial division, this time between those who are willing to adapt to change and those who are not. Those who are unwilling to adapt clamor foolishly for a return to a golden age which never actually existed, and decry the “decadence” of those who embrace changing times. The change-intolerant, with their rose-tinted 20/20 hindsight, never seem to realize that the “good old days” never really were all that good, and the “golden age” they pine for is nothing more than 24-carat gold-plated wishful thinking and selective memories.

Every new set of changes also changes us- how we see ourselves and the universe. For centuries, the Catholic church was philosophically wedded to the idea that Earth (and humanity) was the center of the universe. Church rituals and dogma were all derived from this “fact”, as was the stratified social order the church tried to implement. Small wonder that the leaders of the early Renaissance church were so adamantly opposed to the new evidence that not everything revolved around Earth, humanity, or even the church. Those who had a vested interest in the social order saw these new facts reducing them from the heavenly-annointed center of the universe to just another rock hurtling around a not-particularly-impressive sun in a distant corner of a medium-sized galaxy in an ever-expanding universe. The political ramifications of that one discovery resonate to this day, and the church has been forced to grudgingly admit that they were wrong … eventually. Galileo wasn’t forgiven by the church until almost four hundred years after his death.

A similar firestorm still rages about evolution by natural selection. Despite the mountains of evidence supporting the theory of evolution, millions of people absolutely refuse to accept it. Like all discoveries, this one changes how we see ourselves. It turns out that we are not divinely created in our current forms, but are rather the result of millions of years of natural selection, whose DNA is nearly identical with that of chimpanzees. Instead of being the lords of creation, we’re just a weird, bipedal mammal with a minor genetic quirk that makes our brains work differently. Some people just cannot accept these repeatedly demonstrated facts, because it means they’d have to see themselves as just a hairless plains ape with a damaged gene sequence.

This particular cultural gap is nothing new, of course. Every generation has its radicals and reactionaries. The bulk of the population, as always, will grumble a bit about the pace of change and then get over it. Those who embrace change and try to push it along will chafe at the reins of what they see as indifference by the public at large and continue to push the boundaries of what we know. Those who are unwilling or unable to adapt to change will eventually die out, because the one constant in the human universe is change.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Current status: Sick and tired

Current music: If You Only Knew by Shinedown

Yuri’s Night

12 04 2010

Lest we forget, today is April 12- the 49th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s becoming the first human in space.

Please watch and- more importantly- listen to this video. In a very short time, we- as a species- have climbed out of the abyss of ignorance to the point where we can physically leave the planet that gave us birth. Think how much more we could achieve if we were not so Hell-bent on dominating this or that tiny corner of an otherwise unremarkable world orbiting a fairly common star in a relatively unimportant section of a modest galaxy.

We have everything to lose, and the entire universe to gain. All we have to do is raise our eyes from the ground and cast our gaze unto the skies … and wonder.

Current status: Humbled

Current music: Universe Song by Monty Python