Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Story

The story that follows is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The year 2001 started out well enough, but with September began a bit of a slump, for reasons that should be obvious. Christmas left me with little to celebrate that year, newly unemployed and wondering what I'd be doing next. So, when we all decided to go to the midnight Christmas Eve service, that gave me something to look forward to. I had never been to a midnight service before. It promised to be something new, something wonderful, and something inspirational.

It lived up to the new part. I'm still not sure about the rest.

We had been attending the little Presbyterian church for about three months, maybe four. We had all enjoyed the experience so far. The interim minister had just preached his last service, and we were sorry to see him go. The new minister hadn't started yet. As I understand it, there's a list of pastors without regular commitments who will preach on an as-needed basis, and we had rounded up one of these. He came with good recommendations, and had done well with the earlier service. So, we settled in for a comforting, enlightening message about the Advent of our Savior.

Right away, it became apparent that something was simply not right.

You have to understand something about Presbyterians. They live and die by the Book of Order. There is a very specific sequence in which things are to happen within a service. You can almost set your watch by the order of worship. In, say, a Baptist service, the minister might well deviate from the plan if he thinks of something better; in a Presbyterian service you bloody well stick with it to the bitter end. It is simply the way it is done.

So, when the minister began skipping around within the order of worship, we suspected something might be up.

He called for the offering mighty early. He skipped around with the hymns, which flustered the choir director mightily. He even skipped a few hymns, I think. Parts of that evening are still a blur. But the staff rolled with the punches fairly well, and the thing hung together, up to the time he began his message. We settled back into our pews, expecting a sweet message on the miracle of Christmas, the birth of the Christ child.

Oh, no. It wasn't going down that way, not at all. Those poor, unsuspecting Presbyterians looked on in mute horror as the Right Reverend Punchy MacAngry regaled them with a fiery sermon on the Gospel of the Two-Fisted Fightin' Jesus.

"I hear all this talk about love, but no one ever wants to talk about SIN," he thundered from the pulpit. I thought this to be a decidedly odd way to begin a Christmas sermon. It went downhill from there. He went on to rant about his sister, who had apparently told him once that being a military chaplain wasn't a man's job. His response: "It takes more of a man to preach the Word of God than to be out WHORING AROUND!" I had never actually heard anyone curse from the pulpit before. Oh sure, I have heard ministers talk about Hell and damnation. But outright cursing is something I hadn't heard in that venue before that night. And the fist-shaking rage, the purple-faced profanity-laced tirades, which would not be at all out of place for a Marine Corps drill instructor, but not quite what you expect from a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister.

Me, I was bewildered and somewhat confused by all this. But I had been raised by a retired Senior Master Sergeant, cussed at by an experienced professional, and didn't take any of it personally. The other poor people in that room, who had not been so inoculated, stood transfixed like deer in headlamps. The white-hot profanity seared their ears like branding irons. When the tirade finally wound down to a conclusion, you could hear a pin drop.

The choir director somehow had the presence of mind to direct the conclusion of the service, Christmas hymns sung by candlelight.

It was more or less at this point that my sister-in-law's hair caught fire.

Part of our goal in going to the late service was to tire out the children so that they would sleep in the next morning. (A dismal failure, by the way. They woke up as early as they always do.) Problem was, they were so tired, they couldn't hold the candles without setting fire to themselves. She leaned down to help one of her kids hold it steady, and one of the locks of her hair dipped into the candle's flame. The fire wasn't big, thank God, but she had to beat it out or it would have spread.

After the last hymn, the crowd filed out in silence. Not the respectful silence following a solemn service like, say, Good Friday, but the stunned silence of the witnesses of a massacre. Not a word was spoken, until we were in the car, on the way home. Then, I think I turned to my wife and asked, "Did I imagine that, or did he really go there?"

And so it has come to pass that re-telling this story is now part of my family's Christmas tradition. A very surreal ending to what had been a pretty dismal autumn. Sometimes the things that happen make no sense, no sense at all, but you just have to get through them anyway.

Life does, after all, go on.

More Christmas cheer can be found in a piece by David Sedaris. Part One can be found here, Part Two here, and Part Three here. Or, if you would prefer not to patronize YouTube, the transcript is here.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Delegates For You!

Well, isn't this interesting?

To recap the news flash, the Democratic Party has stripped the Michigan delegation of its, erm, delegates to the national convention. The Republican Party has also levied sanctions, though not to this degree.

Michigan's sin, for those of you keeping score, was scheduling its primary on January 15th. Only three states are allowed to have primaries ahead of February 5th, those being Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

While part of me applauds at any attempt to forestall the inevitability of National Plebiscite Day, most of me realizes that it's spitting in the ocean. When you're well and truly on the roller coaster to Hades, the only thing for it is to raise your hands and scream "Woooooooo!"

It won't make you any happier to get there, but you may as well enjoy the ride.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Minor Complaint

A while back, I made a note about the upcoming election to the effect, "Wake me after football season." Well, that's proving to be a bit of a problem. This election season is beginning to look ridiculously front-loaded to the point that if I were to wait until after the Super Bowl to start thinking about things, the primary contest would be essentially over and done with. So, I need to give some thought to the candidates a little earlier than I'd originally intended to. But before that, I'm going to gripe a little bit about the schedule.

This is just slightly nuts.

A look at the calendar reveals that half or more of the delegates to each party's national convention will have been decided by the time polls close on February 5th. The national conventions aren't until late August and early September.

Can someone tell me why it's a good idea to have a five-month gap between the time when we know who the party's nominee will be and the national convention? Can someone tell me why such an insane amount of front-loading is a good thing?

Look: You know, I know, everybody knows that we're eventually going to have a national plebiscite primary system. It's going to happen by default, if for no other reason. I don't know that it's a good thing, necessarily, but it has it's own momentum and will be darn near impossible to stop. So let's try to think about how we can make it make some kind of sense.

There is no good reason for said plebiscite to happen in early February, with the general election in November. That's just a hair short of raving idiocy.

What would a sane schedule look like? Well, consider this: there's about two months between the national conventions and the general election. That seems like a good idea to me. Now, let's back up about two months from the nationals, and that sets a pretty good window for the state conventions. If the national conventions are in late August and early September, then the state conventions should happen in June, possibly early July. I think that most of them do take place in this time-frame already.

Now, prior to the state conventions, you need to hold local conventions. These can happen in April or May.

There is, therefore, no good reason for the national plebiscite to happen any earlier than March. Late March would be good. Early to mid-April would be a fairly defensible choice as well. This shortens the campaign season by a good bit, and lessens the extent to which the American voter succumbs to election fatigue. Not that this necessarily means that the campaigns will be more focused on serious issues as a result. No, they'll still engage in a race to the bottom with gusto and vigor, same as always.

But we'll have less of it to endure. That's worth something.

Friday, August 31, 2007

She's Warming Up...

According to this piece in VeloNews, we may well be approaching an end to the Floyd Landis case. The proverbial fat lady hasn't sung yet, but I can hear her warming up. Mind you, this probably doesn't end the whole case, just the USADA arbitration part. There will probably be an appeal to the CAS in Switzerland, whether Floyd wins or loses.

There appears to be one last closed-door meeting on the docket, with Dr. Botre on September 12. There's a strong possibility that the arbitrators will close the hearing at this point, which starts a 10-day clock, by which time they're required to render a decision.

The peanut gallery over at the Daily Peloton Forums has been reading the tea leaves, trying to figure out what the delay from May's hearing means. I plead insufficient data. You can argue either way, that a long deliberation is good news for Floyd, or not. I'm leaning towards good news, guardedly. It seems reasonable that, if they really believed the laboratory testimony, they'd have little trouble rendering a quick decision. So, maybe...

What I'd love to see is a decision that raps LNDD on the nose for shoddy procedure. Lousy procedures only help the cheats. Imagine how the hearing would have gone, if they'd had a bulletproof chain of custody, meticulously-documented procedures, and fully-archived test results. Every defense question would be met with hard data. Or, it would never have gotten this far; they'd have known the sample was too degraded to test and that would be that.

My point is that the science needs to be sufficiently solid that the cheats won't have a leg to stand on. A good enough lawyer can poke holes in just about anything, but it takes a freaking genius to shred well-documented scientific evidence. "Racehorse" Haynes might have been able to do it, but not many lawyers are quite that [ahem] inventive. Most of you won't have heard of him. He was said to have advised one client: "Deny everything. Even if they have pictures, deny everything."

But I digress. As I said earlier, I want to believe that Floyd didn't cheat, but I can see how you could read the circumstantial evidence that way. But that's almost beside the point. To deter cheating, the testing has to be good enough to detect fiddling, and it also has to be solid enough to stand up to the harshest scrutiny. That would go a long way towards restoring the public's confidence.

Other measures are needed, too, and several teams are making good starts by gathering out-of-competition data on their athletes. This establishes a solid baseline of what constitutes "normal" for a particular athlete's system, and can give a team an early-warning indicator if they're doing something funny.

But in the end, we come back to the fate of one man, whose life has been on hold for better or worse since last July. One way or another, he can finally figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Win or lose, this isn't the end for Floyd, but a new beginning. What sort of a beginning remains to be seen. At least he won't have to wait much longer to find out.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

1984: The Year That Wasn't

I probably would never have come across this book if I hadn't had to read it in high school. But I'm glad I did, because it has been one of the most influential things I have ever read. It's an extraordinarily important book, and if you only re-read one book from your high school experience, make it this one.

This is the book that George Orwell wrote as he knew he was dying. It's filled with a driving sense of purpose, a sense of warning. Orwell wrote us to warn us of what the world would look like, if we ever lost the Long War.

The Long War probably isn't what you're thinking, although what we call the Cold War was part of it. The Long War is the eternal struggle of enlightened individualism against totalitarianism, liberty versus tyranny. 1984 spells out in painful details the cost of defeat. It also shows us, obliquely, how to avoid going there.

In the world of Winston Smith, liberty had long since gone down to defeat. The Party ruled all. It governed you from the moment you opened your eyes in the morning to the moment you closed them again at night, and held you to account for what you mumbled in your dreams. If the contents of your thoughts weren't sufficiently orthodox, the Ministry of Love would fix you. We get to see the entire process through to its horrific conclusion. Winston Smith goes from Party functionary to rebel, rebel to prisoner, and finally prisoner to ... what? In a real sense he was always a prisoner. His final transformation was a final realization of that fact. He is, at the end, a completely broken man.

But the world doesn't have to end up like this. That's the key message here.

Our best line of defense at home? A healthy suspicion of those we keep in power. My current blog tagline as I write this states my position perfectly: "In God we trust. Everyone else, keep your hands where I can see 'em." We the citizens have a duty to stay informed, and keep our elected leaders' feet to the fire. Most of them are good, honest people. But even so we dare not trust them with too much power. This means that the government will never be as efficient as it could be. This means that there are things the government won't be able to do. We simply have to accept that as the price of freedom.

But it goes beyond that. For example, this is the reason that I really don't like hate crimes legislation. I do not like the idea of criminalizing the content of a man's thoughts. It is irrelevant to me that those thoughts are indefensible or uncivilized. Because eventually someone will work their way around to criminalizing mine. It's far, far easier to stop this thing from snowballing now, than to try to stop it once the Powers That Be get used to the idea of legislating what you're allowed to think.

It's also why I really don't like political correctness. Mind you, I do think that a proper gentleman should self-censor his speech. I do not always do a good job of that. Some words have no place at all in polite communication, and if you cannot express yourself without vulgarity then your vocabulary is sadly lacking. That said ... There are substantive conversations we cannot have today, because they are not PC. We all know what we are not allowed to say, and about whom we are not allowed to speak. Try to have a serious conversation about a taboo topic, and you're branded a racist, a sexist, or worse. This is distinctly unhelpful, and does no one any real good. Pretending that an issue does not exist does nothing to help the situation.

But forewarned is forearmed: we do not go forward in this struggle unguided. And because an Englishman looked ahead and told us what he saw, we have a better chance to avoid the abyss.

Give it a read if you haven't done so lately. It'll make you think.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Latest Project

Coming soon to this space: I will be re-reading some of the novels that I was compelled to read during high school, and see if I can get anything more out of them now that I'm an adult. The tentative list includes, but will not be limited to:

The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Gatsby
The Scarlet Letter

There are several that I've forgotten, I'm sure. Feel free to remind me.

Updates will follow, as I finish the books in question. I've already read 1984 relatively recently, I just need to think about what I want to write.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Property: It's A Good Thing

Last time, I snarked off about a Russian expedition to the North Pole. There are actually some serious implications that probably need to be talked about. To wit: property rights.

A staple of sci-fi for several years was the undersea colony. We've had things like SeaLab, SeaQuest DSV, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and all that good stuff. Well, there's a good reason why none of that is happening. It's not because the technology isn't up to it, though that's part of it. No, the real problem is that no one in their right mind is about to sink big money into deep-sea mining unless and until sovereignty issues have been sorted out.

You see, without sovereignty, there is really no guarantee of personal or corporate property rights. And without property rights, there's no development. You'd have to be nuts to put good money at risk that way, if no one were standing overwatch to guarantee that no one jumps your claim.

Let's leave the particulars of Russia's claim as beside the point for the moment. It's sufficient to note that, unless Russia were able to establish clear title to the sea floor in question, there's no way any Russian company would set up shop drilling there. And there's plenty of legal wrangling to be done, because Canada isn't sure that they can't make the same claim.

But that brings us 'round to the other link from that post.

As much as I might like to think so, the United States has no territorial claims on the Moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits such claims. And that's a problem. Why? Because, as I said before, without sovereignty there's no guarantee of property rights, and without property rights there's no development.

Anyone who wants to start up a business based on extraction of extraterrestrial resources is treading on very uncertain legal ground. Which is why no one has seriously explored such options to date. Oh sure, we're years away from having the technology to exploit such resources. But if the legal basis were more firm, there'd be more of an impetus to develop said technologies.

This is a problem, to be sure, but not necessarily an insurmountable one. I'm not going to guess precisely how this problem gets resolved -- there's more than one way to paint a fence, after all. As long as the path doesn't involve anything heinous, it's the goal that's important. But, sooner or later, we have to come to grips with this problem.

It's raining soup Out There, and the sooner we get 'round to making bowls, the better.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


So the Russkies have planted a flag at the North Pole seabed, in an effort to secure territorial rights along the Lomonsov Ridge.

Well, fine. If they want to go ahead and press that claim, fine.

Just so long as if they can plant a flag and claim the North Pole, we get to assert a certain flag-based claim of our own.

Hey, it's only fair.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

All's Well That Ends Well (?)

It came down to the wire, in the closest spread between the top three finishers that anyone can remember. After yesterday's time trial, Alberto Contador only led Cadel Evans by 23 seconds, with Levi Leipheimer nipping at Evans' heels by 8 seconds more. Team Discovery kicked commanding butt this year, taking the overall GC lead, the best rookie rider, had two riders on the podium and three in the top ten, as well as taking the overall best team title by a huge margin. And although they're looking for a new sponsor since Discovery won't back them next year, I don't think they'll have much trouble. They've won 8 of the last 9 Tours. That's easy money. [Addendum, 10Aug07: Or not. According to VeloNews, the team is folding for lack of a continuing sponsor. Sic transit gloria Mundi.]

If Cadel Evans had gotten a little running room, he might have made a run for the lead there at the end, but if there's one thing Discovery knows how to do, it's protect a lead. The poor guy never had a chance. But on the bright side, he's the highest-placing Aussie ever at the Tour. He'll be back next near.
And so will Contador. At 24, he's one of the youngest winners ever. With a little more training and experience, he can only get better. Good years ahead for Team Discovery... [Or not: see above.] Well, not Discovery anymore, but you know what I mean.

And now that we've crowned a new King in Yellow, we can go back to waiting to see how the arbitrators rule on last year's case. Maybe we'll find out this week, maybe not.

I almost hope not. It'd be nice to give Contador some time to bask in his well-earned glory before that particular story breaks out again. He's the future, not the past. It's his time now.

Friday, July 27, 2007

High Flight

Well, this certainly lends a whole new meaning to the High Life.

For crying out loud ... is there no adult supervision anymore over at the Astronaut Office?

Mind you, there are some people who think that it's perfectly reasonable to get schnockered before climbing on top of a couple of million pounds of high explosive. I have to disagree. There is no procedure in manned spaceflight that I know of that is improved in any way by crew inebriation. And besides, I kind of preferred things the way they were back in the day when we could reasonably expect our astronaut corps not to embarrass us in public.

Ladies and gentlemen, can we please have some professional conduct? You know, keep 'em zipped, stay sober on company time, the sort of thing us civilians generally have to do? And once in a while, do remember that you're representing America to the world. The best and brightest, and all that jazz. At least, you're supposed to be the best and brightest. Even if you're really not, can you at least act like it?

Because I never before had to worry about the competence of the people riding the rockets. The managers, yes. The politicians, yes. But I always had absolute confidence in the eyes at the instruments, the hands at the controls.

I do not like having to worry about that. Fix this now. This kind of doubt, we cannot afford.

[Addendum, 30Aug07: According to this report, NASA has found that there is no evidence of astronauts partaking of liquid courage prior to boarding any spacecraft. While this is cause for relief, the fact that I can take a story like this at face value is still cause for concern. NASA needs to be seen to be tightening ship, whether they really need to or not. Perception takes on a reality of its own sometimes, and the public needs to see things happen so that they can regain confidence.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Hits Just Keep Coming

I keep a private list in my head of all the jobs that I don't want. If I ever find myself with one of them, I will know that I have done something grievously wrong with my life, and need to take immediate corrective action. The list has included jobs like cab driver, missile launch officer, and President of the United States. Today, though, I must make a new addition.

I never, ever want Christian Prudhomme's job: Director of the Tour de France.

Why? Well, this year's Tour is well and truly in an inverted flat spin with all engines on fire.

Oh, it's been a hoot to watch. There's been plenty of good racing. The sprint to the finish of a stage has always been great fun for me to watch. It's always exciting, especially when you're pulling for one rider or another to cross the line first. And the silver lining for me in this is that Alberto Contador of Team Discovery will start tomorrow's stage in yellow. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself...

In the space of two days, three riders have been bounced for doping-related offenses.

Alexandre Vinokourov: alleged homologous blood doping.

Cristian Moreni: failed testosterone test, after which he owned up to doing the deed.

And now ... Michael Rasmussen. Not for doping per se, but for lying to UCI officials about where he was when he was supposed to be taking an out-of-competition test. He said he was in Mexico, when he was actually in Italy.

Yes sir, my end of the stick looks pretty damn spotless. I will go to work tomorrow whistling a happy tune, 'cause I don't have this poor bastard's job...

Two observations:

First, hard as it might be, you have got to keep a positive attitude. This had to happen. If you're really going to get serious about eliminating doping from cycling, you have to be ruthless about removing cheaters from competition. Even suspected cheaters, even if you really can't claim to have proven the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. You have to make the sanctions sting enough to deter people from trying. What we'll end up with after the dust clears is a cleaner sport.

Second, props to Moreni for sacking up and owning his deed. While he'd have been a better man not to have done it at all, it still takes a real man to 'fess up and take the hit. I hope he serves his suspension and comes back clean, and I hope some team welcomes him when he does.

Stout hearts, guys. Better days are ahead. And look on the bright side:

You don't have Prudhomme's job.

Mr. Fusion?

There are people who lament the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot run for President. I would offer up the point that, possibly, he's doing a sufficiently good job as Governor of California that he shouldn't leave that job any time real soon. Case in point: According to this piece at Next Energy News, Governor Schwarzenegger is set to pony up some cash to Robert Bussard's fusion energy outfit. (Hat Tip: Instapundit)

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be huge. Beyond huge. In fact, this may well be the most important thing to happen yet this year.

One of our most significant problems today is the fact that our energy economy depends upon materials that are relatively rare: oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. Even uranium is not especially plentiful. What we really want to do is break away from that, and find an energy source that is more plentiful.

The obvious choice is fusion, but this carries some problems with it. The most easily sustained fusion reactions involve deuterium and tritium, and D-T reactions spit out stray neutrons. Neutrons are not wanted, not even a little bit. For one, being neutral particles, it's damn hard to extract energy from a hot neutron. For another, stray neutrons tend to make things around them radioactive. But fortunately for us, that's not the only fusion reaction available.

The one that Bussard has been working with lately involves the fusion reaction bewteen a proton and Boron-11. Boron-11 is the most abundant isotope of Boron, and can be found in abundance in the mineral borax. It's sufficiently common that it's often used in detergents. And best of all, the proton/Boron-11 fusion reaction releases no stray neutrons. The proton fuses with the Boron-11 nucleus to form Carbon-12, which decays to Beryllium-8 and Helium-4. The Beryllium-8 nucleus, in fairly short order, decays to two Helium-4 nuclei. So you start the reaction with one proton and one Boron-11, and end up with three Helium-4 nuclei, and energy.

This could be revolutionary. This could change everything.

Applications abound beyond stationary plants to power cities and industry. Units can be built small enough to power ships, both of the ocean-going variety and the kind for going into orbit. A rocket based on this technology will be both vastly powerful and very efficient, something current rocket technology cannot achieve.

More information on Bussard's work can be found at Wikipedia. I've been following this topic for quite some time, and this article seems pretty accurate.

Now, there's many a slip 'tween the crouch and leap, and results will be some years in the making. But keep your fingers crossed that this actually takes off and starts running. The sooner we get started on this, the sooner we can tell those primitive cretins in the Middle East to go drink their damn oil.

A worthy goal, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fatum Iustum Stultorum

Holy Groin-Stomp, Batman!

Alexandre Vinokourov has been bounced from the Tour de France, for injecting himself with extra red blood cells to boost his sagging performance. More coverage can be found here, if you care to look.

You know, this just proves the old adage: Some men can learn by reading about others' mistakes, and some can learn by hearing about them, but there are a few who just have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.

Team Astana is probably toast after this, and for their epitaph I nominate this post's title: Righteous is the destiny of fools. Because the guy who told Vinokourov that this stunt was a good idea is a true paragon of drooling idiocy, and anyone taking his advice isn't far behind.

It boggles the mind. But Vino, after suffering two crashes and falling far behind in the general classification, was a desperate, desperate man. Desperate men take desperate measures. Even when they don't make a whole lot of sense to those of us standing on the outside.

Granted, we are talking about the same lab whose clown-tastic methodology I spoke about earlier. But this test is sufficiently idiot-proof that even LNDD couldn't screw it up. You mix in a little dye with the blood sample, you run it past a laser, and if the colors change, presto! You've found evidence of blood-diddling. A trained monkey could probably run this test.

So: If this doping technique is so damn easy to spot, why does anyone bother using it? Beats me. But people do stupid things all the time. Hundreds of times daily, poor dumb bastards lose their shirts in Vegas trying to draw to inside straights, for example. And every spring some fool goes on an impromptu boating trip when he tries to drive his truck across a rain-swollen creek. And every last one of them thinks that they're the clever one who'll beat the odds.

Right. Sure they are.

Vino gambled and lost, and in the process has dug a nice smoking hole for his career. And like the leader of a flight demonstration team who augers in, he's liable to take his team with him. And you know what? I really can't say that I feel for them.

There's no way this is the result of lab incompetence. This is something that Vinokourov and Astana have brought upon themselves, and they only have themselves to blame.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sony: The Punchy MacAngry School of Customer Dis-Service

Apparently, Megan McArdle has had her Sony VAIO laptop die and go to Customer Service hell. They claim that they're going to fix it, but they're making it inordinately difficult to do so.

Words to read and heed, if you're in the market for a new computer. There's a certain manufacturer whose name starts with "S" that you'd be well advised to steer clear of.

Do yourself a favor. If you need a new PC, you can do much, much worse than to get a Dell.

Mind you, there are still days when I want my Mac back. But I haven't had a moment's trouble out of this Dell desktop in almost two years. And when we bought our laptop through Dell and started having trouble with the keyboard, they sent a tech around to replace it. No charge. Took me maybe ten minutes to arrange the house call through their service department, and haven't had a moment's trouble out of the laptop since, either.

For these reasons, Dell has earned the TTS Seal of Approval.

Yeah, I know, that and a buck might buy them some coffee. I still say they're a great company to do business with.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Orion: Have You Called Jenny Yet?

My suspicions have been confirmed, sort of, by a post over at Transterrestrial Musings. The new Orion spacecraft is having some [ahem] girth issues. Now, to a degree, this is a chicken-and-egg problem: is Orion too damn heavy, or is the Ares I booster too puny? Most experienced spacecraft engineers will tell you it's the former. There are a number of good reasons for that.

As I said earlier, I was rather less than astonished to see that the estimated mass of the Orion spacecraft grow during the various iterations of the design process. There hasn't been a flying vehicle yet from the Wright Flyer on up that hasn't experienced weight creep. It just happens. You think you've hit all the angles, and toted up everything you're going to put on the vehicle. But every time you turn the crank to re-compute the gross weight, more mass appears almost as if by magic. Because there's always something you didn't consider. There's always a bracket that doesn't quite fit, and needs re-design. Always, re-design means that the part in question gets heavier.

No, that's not what's got people talking. Some weight creep is expected. What's causing the uproar is the amount of weight creep. And more to the point, the amount of weight creep relative to where we are in the design process.

What I find somewhat unnerving is the number of changes being made, as suggested by this document. They're fiddling with a whole bunch of things that really ought to have been nailed down tight already. I worry rather less about the specifics of the trade-offs than I do about the fact that they're being made NOW, not two years ago. This ain't good. But on the other hand, it's been thirty years since we last designed a manned spacecraft. To an extent, we're having to re-learn the discipline. The guys what did it last time are retired, dead, or both.

Doing it for real isn't the same as doing it on paper.

That said, we're just going to have to face facts, and accept that the schedule is going to slip to the right as they iron out these problems. They're going to have to force Orion onto a strict diet, and find a way to shed some unsightly pounds. And as I said earlier, there are plenty of good reasons they're going that route, rather than either beefing up the Ares I booster or upgrading to a more powerful model.

Every extra pound at the top of the stack has many, many unwanted effects. You have to burn that much more fuel to get it there. The extra fuel translates into bigger fuel tanks, more structure, more weight, and so on. It's easy to get into such a vicious spiral that you no longer have enough power to leave the ground at all, much less reach orbit. Plus, every pound you shave off of Orion is an extra pound of payload that can go to the Moon lander. More equipment, more sample return capacity, more flexibility on that end of the mission. These savings can also have unexpected benefits. The Apollo spacecraft had similar weight problems, and a design decision was made to shift some of the mass budget over to the lunar lander. The extra fuel and consumables ended up saving the lives of the Apollo 13 crew, since the upgraded LEM now had the capability to function as a lifeboat.

So, bearing all that in mind, my mood is slightly annoyed, but not truly alarmed. These are some pretty sharp folks. They might have to go through a few more iterations to get it just right, but they'll get the job done.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fear and Loathing at Pepperdine

Meanwhile, back at the Batcave, we still don't know for sure who won last year's Tour.

That's because the title is in limbo, pending the decision of the arbitration panel that heard the Landis case in early May, at Pepperdine University in California.

They have about two months, give or take, to render a decision. I don't envy them their job. This decision could swing either way, and truthfully, you could defend their decision either way. It's not that I don't care, although I don't have much emotional investment one way or the other. The evidence is sufficiently convoluted that it's damn hard to figure out what's what.

The process goes something like this: At the outset, the accused enjoys a presumption of innocence. That is, until the USADA presents evidence of cheating from an internationally-certified laboratory. Then, the burden of proof shifts to the defense, who has to prove somehow or other that the results are tainted. If they can do that, the burden shifs back to the accusers, who then have to prove the validity of their results.

Grounds for doubt were shown, I think, in two key areas: chain of custody, and laboratory procedures.

I worked part of my way through college as a credit clerk, processing credit applications for a national chain of jewelry stores. We maintained an airtight custody chain for those applications. When we got one in over the fax, it was timestamped and logged. When an operator got it, he/she noted the time they began to work on it. When a supervisor approved or declined the application, the time was also noted. You had a cradle-to-grave hand-to-hand chain, and you could tell by looking exactly who had it at which time, and what they were doing with it. Where I work now, we also deal with sensitive information. These items also have a cradle-to-grave custody chain. By glance, you can tell from the log exactly where it was and who was responsible for it, 24/7/365, no questions about it.

The French lab has an appallingly lax chain of custody. There were hours -- hours -- when the only evidence you could present about the location and custody of a sample was the tech's say-so. Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable.

Second, laboratory procedure. Adherence to process is vital. For me, at my job, our processes are the key to repeatable success. We know what works, we know the steps to take to achieve success at every step in the development process. Deviation from the process in not acceptable, without project-specific tailoring approved in writing. Execute to plan, and routine success is very likely.

The French idea of process adherence is also appallingly lax. They didn't even have the freaking manual for the machine they were using to run the tests! How in the name of God can you testify to the results, when you can't even know for sure that you're using the machine right? Basically, every time they bring a new tech in, they're playing "telephone". You remember that old campfire game, where one guy thinks of a sentence, and whispers it to the guy on his right. The process is repeated, until you work your way around the campfire. What usually happens is that the original sentence mutates beyond recognition, and everyone has a good laugh. Except that this is scarcely a laughing matter.

So: I can completely understand if they decide to throw the results out as invalid. This lab has some serious issues that need to be addressed before they can regain any shadow of credibility. It's particularly telling that the French Open elected to have their compliance samples sent to a lab in Montreal, rather than use the lab in Paris.

But on the other hand...

Cheating is endemic in cycling. Let's look at the record:

Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, and Floyd Landis have all either been implicated in, or have outright admitted to cheating. Even Lance Armstrong, who has never failed any test, remains under suspicion in some circles. These five men comprise every winner of the Tour de France since 1996. As the podium goes, so goes the rest of the peloton, if they desire to be competitive. It's open knowledge among cycling fans that just about everyone does it.

If that's to change, some big names have to go down.

To an extent, that's happening. Jan Ullrich was forced into retirement. Ivan Basso, a favorite for this year's Tour, admitted his role in Operacion Puerto, and has drawn a two-year ban. Bjarne Riis admitted to doping in the 1996 Tour, and is giving back his jersey.

This is a good start.

So, while there's enough reson to doubt the lab results that I won't be very upset if Floyd wins vindication, I will have no sympathy for him whatsoever if the panel rules against him. If he cheated and got caught, he deserves to pay for his poor judgement.

And maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to a good, clean race this year.

They start rolling again next Saturday, July 7, in London. It's anyone's race again this year, and I'll be watching to see how it turns out on the road.

May the best man win!


Generally speaking, I try not to skip whole months. I blame two things. One, World of Warcraft has eaten into my blogging time, for which I make no apology. Two, not much has caught my interest of late.

It's been a slow summer. You'll notice I've pretty much stopped writing about Iraq. That's because (1) all the important decisions have already been made, and (2) I don't much care to beat a dead horse. My opinions haven't changed much: Saddam had to go, but the occupation has been mishandled with an ineptitude that would shame the Italian General Staff. Not mishandled by our soldiers, mind you, they've performed with bravery and tenacity, largely in the finest traditions of the service. Our civilian leadership, on the other hand, has let them down terribly. This is unlikely to change, as the Bush Administration limps through its last two years like a gut-shot mule. So it goes.

Another interest of mine is space exploration, and while quite a lot has been going on, it hasn't lent itself to much writing. Supposedly, the Ares I booster is up for a design review, but I haven't heard how that went. Rumor has it that it's underpowered, and can't lift the Orion spacecraft to orbit. Color me shocked, he said sarcastically; vehicles always gain weight during the design process. Design is an iterative process, and they'll arrive at a workable solution eventually. I'll keep an eye on it, and when something interesting happens, I'll chime in.

Politics is one of my favorite indoor sports, but it's too damn early to start bloviating about the next election. Wake me after football season.

But buck up: It's July, which means that the world's cycling aficionados are converging on the land of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The Tour de France is always good for some entertainment. More about that in future posts.

It's a good life. But I don't always feel motivated to write about it...

Friday, May 18, 2007

Better Living Through Chemistry

Oh. My. God.

It all starts sanely enough. Floyd Landis finally gets his day in court, and the case begins to unfold before an arbitration panel. The question at hand is a very technical one, and no one in the media is paying close attention to the arguments, with the exception of a handful of obsessives. [raising hand] I admit to some curiosity. If it can be proved that the labs were grossly negligent, then the positive test result is called into question. The first three and a half days of testimony are fairly routine. Dull as dust, but going pretty well for Landis and company. They make a few salient points. LNDD's chain of custody is pretty shoddy. They have a fairly relaxed understanding of blind testing, and when it comes to the press they leak like a sieve. Does any of this seriously compromise the test results? That's for the arbitrators to decide. Be that as it may, things were looking pretty good for Team Landis.

But then, things gurgled noisily down the toilet when Greg LeMond took the stand.

Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France, and one of only eight riders to win it three times or more. His reputation has suffered of late because of numerous criticisms he's laid against Lance Armstrong. Nevertheless, he knows wherefrom he speaks, and he cannot be dismissed out of hand.

What he actually had to say was not especially interesting, in a sense, since LeMond claimed months and months ago that Landis had implicitly admitted doping in a private phone call. This much is old news, old enough that I'd forgotten it. The bombshell was that, the night before, Landis' business manager had left LeMond a voice mail, obviously intended to intimidate LeMond. I shan't go into the sordid details of that message, they're easy enough to find if you're interested. But the implications are shocking. And it's made me think.

This is a huge unforced error for Landis' team. Greg LeMond is a cyclist, not a scientist, and can not possibly have anything to say relevant to laboratory testing protocols and procedures. So why bother contacting him at all? Especially when your case seems to be going well so far? Mind you, the bombshell does bugger-all to further USADA's case. Yes, it was a reprehensible and dishonorable thing to have done. Yes, it was a felony under California law.Yes, it proves conclusively that Landis' manager is dumber than a bag of hammers. Yes, LeMond's testimony might be thrown out anyway as being irrelevant to the case. But...

It makes me think back to that day in July, and look more critically at what took place.

Testosterone has a fairly short half-life within the body. The kidneys process out any excess fairly rapidly, generally in a few hours. This short half-life is what cheaters rely on. If you only use a little bit, and drink plenty of water, the evidence is left on a roadside somewhere. And, testosterone use actually does have some short-term benefits: it increases aggressiveness, and energy.

Looking back, what I remember seeing was a man on fire, face lined with rage, drinking a seemingly endless supply of water. "Hydrating like King Neptune" was a phrase I remember a commentator using that day.

Well, hell. The circumstantial evidence starts to look pretty bad at this point, doesn't it?

Which means exactly squat, as far as the hearing goes. The hearing isn't about the circumstantial aspect, it's about the physical evidence, and the test results. But now, even if he wins the hearing, Landis' public relations case has taken a hit at the waterline.

Because, seeing what I've seen and knowing what I know, it's awfully hard for me to come to any other conclusion but that he's guilty as charged.

Brave New World?

Every so often, I get to wondering about the future, and how things will be. My overall impression is that while things are never going to be quite as nice as some futurists would have you believe, neither will they be quite as bad as the doom-criers say. We'll muddle along, much as we always have. Well, maybe...

Because, every so often, something happens that forever changes what follows.

For example, the last hundred years changed two fundamental facts about the human condition. For most of our history, no one ever moved faster than a horse could gallop. And for most of our history, doctors were pretty much confined to treating the symptoms of disease. In the last hundred years that has changed. Now, at least in the industrialized world, we have unprecedented mobility: cars, planes, trains, you name it. Also, many diseases can be treated quite effectively with modern medicines. Doctors can fight back against disease now, and win more than they lose, these days.

This has changed us in ways we don't often think about. Our cities look vastly different, now. They're sprawling and decentralized. It's easy to tell a city that grew up before the automobile. It's got a well-defined city center, and people still live there. It's got a great subway system. And almost no one drives. As much as people bemoan urban sprawl, that bell isn't likely to be un-rung. People like living in the suburbs, and like the convenience of driving, for the most part.

Anyway, what will the next hundred years bring? Charles Sheffield is a science fiction author, which means he speculates on the future for a living. He's got some interesting conjectures. Money quote:

Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.

He's extrapolating the convergence of two technologies here: the ubiquity of GPS technology, combined with the ubiquity of mass storage. The social changes this will bring about are quite astonishing, when you sit down to think about them. Further, Andrew Sullivan linked to a rather interesting line of research being pursued at a university in Germany. Apparently, your brain is very nimble when it comes to interpreting new sources of sensory data. You can learn to "see" by touch-sense input on your back, even on your tongue. Wild ... And there's more, like the compass belt Andrew mentions in the snip that he listed. If you always know which way is north, the world begins to look different to you.

As an engineer, I tend to see tools as the means by which we shape our environment. I tend to think about shaping tools to solve a particular problem at hand. But to what extent do our tools shape us? And is this something we should start worrying about?

Or should we just embrace it?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

And Then There Were Two

Sad news today: Wally Schirra is dead of a heart attack today, age 84.

Only two of our original seven Mercury astronauts are left alive: John Glenn, 86, and Scott Carpenter, 82. Wouldn't it be somewhat ironic if Glenn, the oldest by far of the original seven, would also be the longest-lived?

Grissom was the first to go, in his prime, at the relatively young age of 41. He was only 33 when selected. Could anyone even qualify today, at age 33? It was a different world, then, and many of the most qualified test pilots either didn't meet NASA's requirements (Yeager) or just didn't want the job (Crossfield). Grissom was also the only one of the seven so far not to die of natural causes.

Deke Slayton was next, in 1993, of a brain tumor. Then Alan Shepard died in 1998 of leukemia. Gordo Cooper, one of the more colorful and interesting characters in the Mercury story, died of Parkinson's in 2004. And now, Wally.

Which is inevitable, of course. Time catches up to everyone, eventually. But it's still sad, and still diminishes us, when living minds who witnessed such great things are no longer with us. But we who are left behind can remember, and teach our children to remember.

Because hereoes never really die, as long as their stories are freshly re-told.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What Can We Do?

If there is one perfectly predictable result from the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, it's that lessons would be learned almost immediately, and that they would be the wrong lessons. Dr. Pournelle wrote much the same after the Columbine shootings, and not much has changed in our body politic since then.

Predictable response number one: calls for more gun control.

And this would have helped ... how? Virginia Tech was already a gun-free zone, and there's already a law against murdering your classmates. Besides, "gun-free zone" derives from the ancient Sanskrit phrase meaning "target-rich environment." A bit of prompt return fire might have cut his spree short, don't you think? But any time is a good time for the usual suspects to take more weapons out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. Feh.

Predictable response number two: super-vigilant crackdown on "suspicious writings."

While this makes sense on the surface, and comes a little closer to the mark, it still doesn't address the root problem ...

Generally speaking, I detest "root problem" arguments. They're a shuck, a dodge. They allow an intellectual to bloviate, pontificate, and otherwise wax eloquent, looking very in-touch and knowledgeable, without any messy necessity to actually try to solve the problem at hand. But at the same time, band-aid solutions are scarcely any kind of solution at all, when we're talking about problems of behavior that have roots that are decades deep. Cracking down on students who turn in works of "creative" writing full of violent fantasies isn't going to help much. The roots of what's going to cause him to snap run deeper than that.

But what can we do about it? Because we all know what the problem is, don't we?

We have a kind of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" acceptance of bullying in our schools. Boys will be boys, and all that rot. After all, any TV program about high school will show you that there are the cool kids, and then there are the nerds, and of course the nerds have to be ridiculed and humiliated.

If he'd had one real friend, just one, would he have gone off the deep end like that?

Mind you, he might have: sometimes something's just not right with the wet-ware. Wet-ware problems scare people. We don't understand them, and really don't know how to deal with them. Sometimes we can treat them with medication, sometimes not. Sometimes we can identify a physical cause and remedy, sometimes not. Sometimes they just go away, as mysteriously as they came.

But sometimes, monsters are made, not born.

But what can we do? As parents, we can do our best to insist that our children not mistreat their peers. Tell them, and show them by our actions, that making fun of the weird kid is not OK. Encourage them to befriend them instead, and be nice to them. Be the one who makes their lives better, not worse. And for those of us who are teachers, stress the same things with your students. But I don't have to tell you that, do I? You see it every day, and surely know the situation far better than I.

The only real answer here is one of the most difficult things that I know of: loving the unlovable, and becoming instruments of mercy and grace. Love is the only thing that can heal the wounds of bitterness and hatred. As it was written so long ago: "And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wheels of Justice

On April 11, 2007, a terrible miscarriage of justice was averted when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed all charges against the three Duke students accused of a variety of crimes that never actually happened.

One might wonder why I took almost two weeks to chime in on it. Mainly, I wanted some time to chew on a couple of issues. I've been considering, pretty deeply, a comment noted by Instapundit on the day after the dismissal. To wit: "A lefty blogger wonders why people care." Never mind that it's a lefty, it's a serious question, worthy of serious consideration. And so, why indeed? Why have I even paid a moment's attention to this case? Several points follow:

Numero Uno: Presumption of innocence. It is difficult indeed to overstate the importance of this principle. I don't always follow it scrupulously myself, and so find myself jumping to wrong conclusions at times. This principle has evolved over the years precisely for this reason: when we rush to judgement, we often rush to the wrong judgement. We need to wait for the information to come in, need to evaluate the evidence, then make a decision. But with some people, all it takes is an accusation to convince them. Especially if it's an emotionally charged situation, and especially if the alleged victim is of a particularly (ahem) victim-worthy group. BUT THAT'S WRONG! A man's reputation is a very fragile thing. All it can take is one slanderous whisper to ruin it. Upholding the presumption of innocence protects all of us, by forcing us to examine the actual evidence.

Numero Two-O: Presumption of innocence. I realize that, technically, this is the same as Numero Uno. But I thought it was so important, it deserved mentioning twice.

Numero Three-O: Correct Police Procedure. When you have the entire weight and awful majesty of the State arrayed against one man, it is absolutely imperative that the authorities adhere to their procedures scrupulously. It is far too easy for the State to manufacture convenient evidence, to tinker with suspect line-ups, to cherry-pick what they show or don't show to a grand jury. As one law enforcement professional told me once, you could indict a ham sandwich for larceny if you really wanted to. It is far too easy for the State to railroad someone with the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time into a lengthy prison sentence, and this has happened more often than we'd like to admit. We must be absolute sticklers on this point. Yes, we occasionally free the guilty on technicalities, but we also keep innocent men out of prison. That's worth something, isn't it?

Numero Four-O: Exculpatory Evidence. A subset of Numero Three-O to be sure, but worthy of mention. When you have ironclad, tamper-proof evidence that you cannot possibly have been in the same building that the crime was committed, that must be taken into account. When the case hinges on genetic material left by the perpetrator, and yours does not match, meaning that there is no possible way that you could been the one to do the deed, that must be taken into account. Next door in Dallas County, many men have been set free this year alone because new DNA tests on case evidence has proven that these men could not possibly have been guilty of the crimes for which they've been imprisoned. Some of these men have been in prison for ten, twenty years -- or more. How much better, if we can rule out innocent men before conviction, even before indictment? Naturally, hiding exculpatory evidence should be -- and is -- beyond the pale. Prosecutors who do this are beneath contempt.

All that said, the Duke players are undisputably, undeniably guilty of one thing. In my opinion, they are guilty of crass, boorish behavior that probably shamed their families when it came out. And one sure lesson you can draw from this case is that there are problems that a young man will never have, if he does not attend parties where a stripper will be present. But crass drunkenness and lechery, deplorable as they may be, are not legally actionable. You expect young men to exhibit the occasional lapse in judgement.

In a sane world, we'd have never heard about it. The lack of physical evidence, and the constantly shifting story from the accuser, would have sunk the case before it went to a grand jury. But it's not a sane world, and three families spent a great deal of money defending their sons against false charges. But at least it's a just world, once in a while, and they're free men today. More, the despicable shyster responsible for this farce will, in due course, be disbarred and lose his job. AG Cooper's statement on the 11th ripped Nifong up one side and down the other. It's pretty rare to see one official tear into another so viciously, and probably a precursor of paddlings to come. When it's all over, I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Nifong in an orange jumpsuit.

So that's why I care. I love my country, and I support my government -- but I want 'em to keep their hands where I can see 'em. They work for me, not the other way around, and some of them forget that from time to time.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Go Tell The Spartans

As much as I enjoyed 300, I find the reviews to be just about as entertaining. Once you understand a few things about reviewers, the reviews practically write themselves.

For starters, in liberal intellectual circles (and, pray tell, what other circles would a movie reviewer move in?) it's the height of fashion to sneer at soldiers and soldierly virtues. They'll accept a "war" movie, provided that it's got the requisite amount of "balance", that the "heroes" are suitably cynical, and that nobody does anything particularly admirable. If it shows soldiers as being at best deeply conflicted and at worst mindless homicidal maniacs, excellent. If it shows clear-minded patriots, it's to be scorned.

Second, it's pretty common amongst bookish people to have varying degrees of resentment for people in better physical condition. They look at someone who's obviously spent a fair amount of time on their physique, and sneer, "Well, he's probably not all that bright." Never mind that Dolph Lundgren attended MIT on a Fulbright scholarship. Granted, he's unusual, but a healthy mind in a healthy body is an ideal we can all strive for. But you can always count on some sour-grapes carping, from some who feel that their minds are not as well-appreciated as they think they should be.

And third, it's also very stylish in lefty sets to sneer at anything that might possibly put America and American values in a positive light. No need to elaborate, there; blackguarding America is a well-known cottage industry on the left. Case in point: virtually everything Michael Moore has ever been involved with.

As I say, the reviews practically write themselves. I see a drinking game: print out a bunch of these reviews, and take a shot whenever you see a predictably snarky comment. Except that you'll probably lose the ability to read a coherent sentence after the second or third review.

This just goes to show how truly, how deeply, how consistently they just don't get it.

People have gone to this movie in droves, despite the reviews, because it's a deeply resonant story. It's one of the watershed moments in history, brought to rampaging life. Yes, painted with a broad brush, and yes, liberties were taken, but the main point is still there.

The real facts are this: Xerxes had come to Greece with the world's largest army, and the world's largest navy. He had conquest in mind. Most Greek city-states were busy with their Olympic games, or the Carneia in the case of the Spartans. But nonetheless something had to be done. Leonidas, King of Sparta, assembled a force to hold the narrow pass at Thermopylae. He picked only men who had fathered male children to carry on their families, because he knew he wouldn't be coming back.

The movie does not relay Leonidas' last words to his wife, Gorgo. When she asked him what she should do while he was gone, he replied, "Marry a good man, and have good sons."

When Xerxes found the pass blocked, he dithered for several days about what to do. There was no landward passage around. Nor could he sail around with his navy, since the Athenian navy under Themistocles was blocking that route. There was only one thing for it: try to carry the pass by main force.

The story is fairly well-known from there: they fought for three days, until a traitor named Ephialtes showed Xerxes a shepherd's path around to the Spartans' rear. Thus surrounded, the Spartans were killed to a man. But not before they had exacted a fearful toll. They slew fully a hundred Persians for every Greek that fell.

Even after the battle, it took time for Xerxes to get his army moving again. You don't start -- or stop -- that large an army in an instant.

Thermopylae bought the Greeks fully two weeks. They put that to good use.

Yes, the Persians took Athens and burnt it to the ground. But Athens-the-people, and Athens-the-army, had escaped to the hills. And the Athenian navy under Themistocles had one last trick up their sleeve: they drew the Persian navy into ambush at Salamis, where they handed them a splendid mauling.

Without that navy, you see, Xerxes could no longer keep his army well-supplied. He had to withdraw a great portion of his force back to the Hellespont, where he could keep them fed. That ended the campaign for the year.

A year later, at Plataea, the Persians met a fully-prepared Greek army, thirty thousand strong -- with TEN THOUSAND Spartans!

Without the stand at Thermopylae, it would all have been for naught. The Persians would have steam-rolled Greece, and the Greek experiment in democracy would have been extinguished. As imperfect as it was, as flawed as it was, it was the greatest hope for liberty that humankind had at the time, and the brave stand of three hundred Spartans saved it.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The tree of Liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots." We Americans are free today because every generation has faithfully taken its turn to water that tree. Go, see 300 today, and raise a glass in memory of the brave lads who took their turn to water that tree when it was but a sapling.

Because no one will care even ten years from now what some reviewer said. But as long as there exist warriors, soldiers, and free men, the legend of Leonidas the King and his Three Hundred will blaze with a golden light, freshly remembered with each re-telling. It is well to remember that there are things worth fighting for, and it is well to remember the men who made the ultimate sacrifice for them.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ah, Houston, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Over?

You cannot make this stuff up. It reads like a bad plot treatment for a movie of the week.

Since hearing about this, I occasionally find myself in denial, sure that I had somehow imagined it. Then, I get worried:

Did I dream all that up? Am I just imagining things? Because if I did, man, I got problems. I got bad, bad problems that my insurance probably doesn't cover.

I oscillate between horror and giggling incredulity. The news is rather plain that it really happened, but my mind cries out, THINGS LIKE THIS SIMPLY DO NOT HAPPEN IN THE REAL WORLD! What the roaring purple Hell was she thinking? Was she thinking? That's what I'm secretly afraid of, that there was some sort of logical thought process going on, that it all makes sense somehow. Because if that's the case, I'm hopelessly screwed. Because from where I sit, there's no possible way that scenario plays out without somebody going to the Stoney Lonesome. But she thought it was a good idea at the time...

Criminy. She drove a thousand miles -- a thousand miles -- with a BB gun, some pepper spray, a knife, and a disguise. Plus, she wore a diaper, so she wouldn't have to stop on the way for anything.

That's the corker for me, the thing that sends my brain back around the track, giddy with shock.

To think that a plan like that would work, that it would come to a good end, requires one of two things: that (a) you're stupid, or (b) you're crazy.

I think the record argues against stupidity. Annapolis-trained engineer, Naval officer, astronaut; you don't get where she got being stupid. No, the only rational explanation is that she is, in fact, nuttier than a short ton of Almond Joy.

Part of me wants to know what the Hell she thought she was doing. Part of me is deathly afraid of finding out. The rest of me has its metaphorical fingers in its ears, yammering "I'm not listening, I'm not listening, I'm not listening..."

You simply cannot make this stuff up. Indeed, the world is stranger than we can imagine.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Important Pictures

Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words. It's a phrase that's been over-used to the point of being trite, but it's still true. A good picture can change everything, and can alter how you see things forever. Consider this picture:

This picture, snapped by the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve, 1968, was described by Galen Rowell as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken." It's worth noting that this wasn't a planned picture. One of the crew noticed the Earth rising over the limb of the Moon, and grabbed a camera. Without intending to, he made one of the most eloquent statements about the fragility of our common home, ever. Here's another picture like it:

This one was snapped by Jack Schmitt, coming home from the Moon on Apollo 17. It was the first picture ever taken of a full Earth, famously described as the "Blue Marble". Together, these two pictures became icons of the environmental movement of the 1970s. Together, they did more to elevate concerns about pollution than all the words written up to that point.

And neither one would have been possible, had it not been for the application of the most advanced technology available to Man, and the observational training given to the men who flew them.

That's all by way of introduction. I saw a picture earlier today that absolutely stunned me.

This one is from Cassini, in orbit around Saturn. We have a lot of pictures of Saturn, but this one is an image that we would never, ever see from Earth. That's because it's taken from the other side of that planet, a side that we never see. All the rings are backlit by the Sun, displaying details we'd never see, otherwise. And did I mention it's a stunning picture?

If anyone ever asks you why we spend any money on NASA, if anyone ever asks you why space exploration is worth it, show them these three pictures. Even if we never learned anything else out there, the perspectives we've gained by looking back over our shoulder have been immeasurable.