Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nick's Wild Summer

This post is the third in what I'd originally intended to be an on-going series, re-reading some of the required books from my high school literature classes. Re-reading 1984 proved a very illuminating experience, but re-reading The Scarlet Letter was every bit as much fun as beating myself in the head with a drywall hammer. I have to admit, that experience dimmed my ardor for the project ... and now, a year and a half later, I'm plowing back into it with The Great Gatsby.

If you haven't read this one yet, by all means, do it. It's quite good.

Plot and story aside, Fitzgerald's writing is tight. He wastes no words. The edition I read tips the scales at a scanty 180 pages, while modern novels can ring up eight to ten times as many. Without being eight to ten times better, I might add... And, despite the direct, no-nonsense style, he still manages to paint quite a detailed picture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what good writing looks like.

I also enjoyed the story. The basic idea as I see it is a treatment of class and social mobility in America. Jay Gatsby, Nick Carroway, and the other "new rich" lived in West Egg, while the "old money" aristocracy lived in East Egg. They're basically like oil and water: they go together, they move together, but they really don't mix. Which sets up the central tragedy -- Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, who married into the "old money" aristocracy. He had dedicated himself to the goal of becoming rich enough to move among the established families as an equal, without realizing that you really can't. That group, you have to be born into.

Some bits of the story look, well, odd to a modern reader. Take the racial attitudes as an example. Tom, Daisy's husband, is quite un-self-consciously racist, and pretty much assumed that everyone he talked to was as well. "It's all scientific stuff; it's all been proved," Tom would say. A modern reader might wonder how someone could say that in polite society ... but then, you remember that this was written in 1925. That sort of thing was common, and one must say, broadly accepted as true. On the other hand, Fitzgerald has these things being proclaimed by one of the book's least savory characters. So even then, you could see the tectonic plates of opinion shifting, ever so slightly.

But how relevant is the story today? Somewhat relevant ... and somewhat not. Social mobility in America is a generational process. A son of a working-class family can become a professional, and in turn his children can move another rung up. But you can't make that leap in a single lifetime, not without some fairly extraordinary circumstances. But on the other hand, education is a much more potent leveling force now than it was in the early 20th century. The fact that the sons of working-class families can become college-educated professionals, and do so with some regularity, is a thing that would be unheard-of a hundred years ago. I am, by and large, accepted in society based upon how I behave, not on who my parents were. Education opens doors.

And the doors it can't open? What of them? For some people, that becomes an endless, unscratchable itch. And that's sad: if you define yourself by what you can't do, or what you can't have, you doom yourself to a life of misery. But even today, there are plenty of people who destroy their lives trying desperately to bash that door down. Most of us don't go there. We're content with the opportunities we've had, and continue to have. Sometimes we may dream of what might have been, but at the end of the day we're content in our own lives.

In the end, that's what Nick did. At the end of that wild summer, he decided the East wasn't for him, and moved on with his life. Nick walked away from the locked door that Gatsby died trying to break down.

Final verdict: Highly recommended. Great writing, memorable characters, and a pretty fast read, too. They don't write 'em like that anymore...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sick and Tired

There's been a lot of noise lately about health care policy. Congress is liable to pass some form of health care reform, probably in the form of universal health insurance for all Americans. Which is a nice goal, although it kind of misses the point, in my opinion. To an extent, it matters that everyone should be covered such that they can have routine access to doctors, affordable medicines, and so forth. But simply addressing the issue of who pays won't fix the underlying problems. That's only one side of the equation. The other side also needs attention, otherwise overall costs will continue to soar out of sight.

To illustrate some of the problems, allow me to relate a recent experience. Over the last several years, I have been suffering from cataracts. Well, "suffering" is probably too strong a word. It was a nuisance more than anything else. But it was something that really had to be taken care of sooner rather than later, so my eye doctor and I scheduled lens replacement surgery for this last January.

The day rolls around, and I go to the hospital for my procedure. There's some paperwork to fill out, and I pay my share of the cost beforehand. Then, a few hours later, I went home with a bandage over my eye and a thundering headache. But a week later, I was seeing more clearly than, well, ever. I was, and still am, thoroughly happy with the result.

Then the bills started coming in. Apparently, everyone involved with the procedure is an independent contractor, and has to get paid separately ... complete nonsense, if you ask me. Anesthesiologists are the worst. Near as I can tell, they only do their books once a quarter. So here we are, six months later, and I still can't say with certainty that I'm free and clear.

Like I said, complete nonsense. And it's nonsense that drives up the overall cost of doing business, I'm sure.

So, changing who pays the bills won't make a bit of difference unless some other changes go through as well. Here's a short list of my suggestions:

(1) Coordinate record-keeping. For crying out loud, guys, this is the 21st Century, here! Why in the world can't you all get together beforehand, settle up charges ahead of time, and present the customer with a single bill at the point of sale? We have the technology to do this. It's not even particularly hard. The patient's privacy is never endangered. What's more, it saves everyone time and trouble -- doctors and hospitals get paid faster, not slower, and the customer is free and clear. This alone would save immense amounts of time and effort in paper-pushing, and time is money.

(2) Tort reform. A non-trivial fraction of that doctor bill goes towards paying malpractice insurance premiums. Lawyers bear part of the responsibility for the ballooning costs of health care. Now, if the doctor truly did screw up, he is and should be liable ... but on the other hand, if he followed best practices and used good judgement, he ought to be left alone. We've gotten too sue-happy, and that needs to be dialed back quite a bit.

(3) Prevention. A lot of the health problems we are seeing these days are, in fact, preventable. Mind you, we can't mandate diet and exercise, but we can do more to encourage them. Tax credits for gym memberships, for example. And reduced rates on health insurance if you actually go more than four times a week. Granted, it's hard for someone working two jobs to find the time, but most of us aren't in that position. Most of us can find the time, if we really want to, and at the end of the day, your health is ultimately your responsibility. With a real push for prevention, with incentives, future pay-outs for health care can be reduced substantially.

There are probably other items you could add to this list. But my point is that focusing on the front-end financial part only solves half of the problem. If you ignore the other half, the system as a whole stays broken, which makes all the hard work fixing the first half wasted effort.

And we don't really have that kind of time, or effort, to spare.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Forty years ago today, a three-hundred-sixty foot tall tower of aluminum rose slowly on a pillar of flame, arcing away from the coast of Florida across the Atlantic. At its top rode three men, beginning one of the greatest adventures in the history of mankind. They were riding the most powerful machine ever built by human hands, not on a mission of conquest, or of destruction, but of exploration and discovery. Over the next week or so, those of you who remember will probably take time to savor your own memories of those days. Me, I was an infant at the time. But nevertheless, I was born on one side of a historical chasm. For most of human history, our world had gotten steadily smaller. On that day in 1969, though, mankind's world became much larger.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about today. Better writers than I will say these things, and probably say them better. Today, I wanted to talk about the also-rans. In the decades leading up to Apollo 11, there were a lot of different ideas thrown about as to how to get people up to the Moon, and bring them back again safely. Naturally, I probably won't be able to list them all, but I'll try to hit the high points.

Pride of place really has to go to Jules Verne. In his famous novel From the Earth to the Moon, Verne tries to write a serious story about a voyage to the Moon and back, based upon the best knowledge of the day. He dealt with the challenges and hazards the best he could, based upon the science known to him at the time. Sadly, it wouldn't have worked. A gun launcher big enough would have smashed its human passengers flat. But for inanimate cargo, a gun launcher might still become workable. Gerald Bull worked on the concept for years trying to find backers. Unfortunately, he chose poorly. Israel's Mossad took umbrage at his working for Saddam Hussein, and Bull contracted a fatal case of acute lead poisoning.

The next group of people to think about the problem seriously was the redoubtable British Interplanetary Society. They began to work on their design in 1937, publishing their results in July 1939. The only engines they had experience with were solid-fuel black powder rockets, so their design made use of those. It's an ... interesting approach. And it might even have worked. By clustering a whole bunch of solid rockets, and throwing them away as they burn out, they figured that they could achieve the velocity necessary. Sir Arthur Clarke worked on this project, so I have some confidence in the numbers. However, they got one thing dreadfully wrong. They assumed they'd need a heat shield on the way up, that they would discard after launch, but not on the way down. We know now that's totally backwards. So they'd have landed on the Moon just fine, but would have burnt to a crisp on the way back. Pity... But the parallel-cluster-staging idea they proposed didn't entirely die. The Russians used a variant of parallel staging on their R-7 rocket. And there was a private German attempt during the '70s, OTRAG, that used a very similar arrangement with liquid-fuel segments instead of solid. Near as I can tell, it ought to have worked. I expect that's why there was so much pressure on the German government to get it shut down.

The next serious design came after World War II, once German rocket expert Wernher von Braun relocated to the United States, and began working for the U.S. Army. Von Braun wrote a series of articles for Collier's in the 1950s, beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, describing the near-future exploits of man in space. Von Braun's moonship was gigantic, massing nearly 4,000 tons -- yes, that's right, 4,000 tons -- in low Earth orbit. The expedition would consist of three such ships, carrying a total of fifty men to explore Sinus Roris for six weeks. We who are children of the electronic and computer ages might well ask why the heck so many crew were necessary ... but you have to remember, back in those days, all electronics were vacuum-tube based, and things often broke. You had to carry along repair technicians. And you had to have three shifts of crew, since you had no automatics to watch over things while the crew slept. Also, no one knew if any man-made material could even withstand re-entry from Lunar distances ... so, the vehicle had to brake its way back into Earth orbit entirely on rocket thrust. Most of the ship's volume was taken up with fuel tankage. Needless to say, as splendid as the illustrations looked, this was a totally impractical plan. Ah well, back to the drawing board ...

Von Braun was nothing if not persistent. By the end of the '50s, he had another scheme hatched, and this time he had official Army backing. Project Horizon was intended to build a base upon the Moon capable of supporting 12 soldiers. The Horizon LERV lander was a much more realistic vehicle than his early '50s design. It still required fueling in-orbit, but no longer required assembly; the LERV was launched all in one piece by a Saturn II rocket. The lander was capable of carrying 10 to 16 men, and/or 22 tons of cargo. The plan was probably overly ambitious. The plan called for a 1965 landing, but most likely could not have landed any earlier than the 1970s, given the technical problems to overcome.

Naturally, this challenge was not going to go unanswered. The Space Race wasn't merely between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it was also between the sister services within the Department of Defense. There was a joke going around right after the launch of Sputnik. A junior Army officer ran up to a general and said breathlessly, "Sir! They've launched a satellite!" The general, startled, demanded "Who?" "It's the Russians," the junior officer replied. "Thank God," said the general, "for a moment, I was afraid it was the Navy." Both of the other major services were also getting into the game.

The Air Force's entry in the Moon derby was Project Lunex. Sometimes, I think this is the one we should have tried to do. But with the direct-ascent lander, and the lifting-body re-entry vehicle, it was probably a bridge too far, technically speaking. They also would have had a 12-man base as a goal, and thought they would be able to make a first landing in 1967. It's a fundamental law of engineering that everything costs more and takes longer, so I don't think they would have hit that goal. Early to mid 1970s would have been more like it. Still, that's a neat-looking lander.

The Navy also got into the lander business, albeit briefly. They never actually had any official plans for a base, but of all the military programs of the era, the Navy is the only group that got as far as building actual test hardware. The Navy SLV got as far as a test-stand prototype. But they got no farther. In 1961, the Kennedy administration cut all of these shenanigans short, and made the command decision that there would be one and only one American moon program, and that would be the Apollo program, run by NASA.

Which leads us to a partial answer for one of the perennial questions surrounding the Space Race: Why did Russia fall behind, when they had such a commanding lead in the early '60s? One answer is just this: they didn't have one Moon program. There were two or three going on simultaneously. Mostly, you had a bureaucratic knife-fight between two design bureau chiefs, both of whom wanted to be in charge: Sergei Korolev, and Vladimir Chelomei. If they had worked together they might well have beaten the Americans to the Moon, but they despised one another. A second problem, somewhat more serious, is that the Russians didn't get a firm go-ahead for lunar lander work until 1964 -- when the American design effort had been going full-blast for at least three years.

Korolev's first entry was a 1963 design he called L3. What happened to L1 and L2, we may never know. Korolev played his cards close to his vest, a habit learned the hard way via the Gulag. (This was another problem with the Soviet system, by the way; they had a penchant for wasting their best talent by throwing them in prison for stupid reasons.) This version never actually got official backing. Instead of making real progress on this design, Khruschev instead had him waste time on the Voskhod series, stunts of no real engineering value.

Meanwhile, Chelomei wasn't idle. He was pitching a different rocket and lander entirely, based upon his work for the military. is first design was the LK-3, based on his proposed UR-700 booster. With time, his design would mature to the somewhat more polished LK-700. Both were direct-ascent designs, which both suffer from the problem common with direct-ascent designs: you need a freaking ginormous rocket to lift it. Mind you, the UR-700 would have qualified, but it never got built.

But Korolev wasn't exaclty idle, either. Once Khruschev got sent to the knacker's yard in 1964, Korolev finally got a real go-ahead from the Soviet government. He had to return to the drawing board, and he had to come up with a plan that would work quickly. His final lander design was the LK, the closest thing the Soviet Union would ever have to the Apollo LM. But they started too late, and were never able to gain the resources to test things out properly. The N1 rocket Korolev needed for the mission never quite worked properly. Had he lived long enough, Korolev probably would have made it work; but he died in 1966. As it was, the N1's first stage was a plumber's nightmare, with thirty engines in the first stage alone. There were more powerful engines available, but they were designed by this chap named Chelomei, you see... The N1 was test-fired four times, none of them successfully.

For von Braun, though, the third time was the charm. With the creation of NASA in 1958, his Redstone team transferred to the new agency all at once. He brought his Saturn designs with him. The final evolution of that series was the mighty Saturn V, a towering beast taller than a football field is long, and as heavy as a World War II destroyer. On the morning of July 16, 1969, he watched from the firing room as his rocket rose into the Florida sky, bearing the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their rendezvous with destiny.

And our world would never again be the same.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Return of the King, Part II

As a team, Astana has been fairly dominant in the race so far. They have four riders in the top ten, and three in the top five. It is expected that one of Astana's riders will take the leader's jersey pretty soon, now that the race has gone into the Pyrenees. What no one knows yet is which of Astana's top riders it will be: Alberto Contador, or Lance Armstrong.

This is something the team's director Johann Bruyneel needs to sort out sooner, rather than later. If a serious rivalry for team leadership festers, the team's performance could suffer accordingly, and neither rider will win. If one thing is clear, in order to win the Tour, the lead rider simply must have the total backing of his team.

The thing is, having two really good riders is a massive advantage. Your rivals cannot focus on a single rider. If you give chase to one, the other can make a break for it. Then, you try to chase him down, and the first rider scoots off. That constant change-up of speed can exhaust riders faster than just about anything, especially on a climb. The down side to having two really strong riders is ... well, they both want to win.

Right now, Contador and Armstrong are just about even on time: Contador rode a better time trial on Stage 1, and launched a late attack today to hang a few minutes on his rivals; but Armstrong took advantage of rough side-winds during Stage 3 to keep contact with a breakaway group. Not only are they about even on time, but it's probably fair to say that they're about even as cyclists. Contador is younger and stronger, and a better climber; but Armstrong has years and years of experience as a guide.

Bruyneel has an unenviable job ahead of him. He has to decide which man should take the lead from here on in. And he has to decide quickly. Making the decision will definitely put an end to one man's ambition, but failing to make the decision could be worse.

Of course, there's also the outside chance that this "controversy" is a put-on, a sham orchestrated amongst Bruyneel, Contador, and Armstrong to psych out the other riders on other teams. I wouldn't put it past them. It's already a fairly psychological sport. Head games are part of the package.

Still, we'll be able to see it play out on the road for another two weeks. Seven days down, fourteen to go...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Return of the King Continues...

Today, in Monaco, a 15-kilometer individual time trial kicks off the 96th Tour de France. This is, arguably, the world's most grueling athletic contest. There are events that are more famous, and that bring in more money, but there are none that demand more of its participants. Between now and July 26th, riders will spend every day in the saddle, excepting only two rest days. One hundred eighty riders will start today. Only 140 or so will end up at the finish line in Paris.

I enjoy riding, but that's not why I love to watch the Tour. The scenery is magnificent, for a start. And I enjoy the subtlety of the riders' tactics. I like to see a small group of riders break away from the main group to try to win an advantage, although this almost never works. The heroics in cycling are different than in other sports. Case in point: back in February, we all marveled at James Harrison returning an interception 100 yards -- 100 yards! -- for a touchdown. For a linebacker, that was a heroic performance. But that took less than a minute. Last July, in the climb of L'Alpe d'Huez, the Schleck brothers executed a masterful rope-a-dope on the peloton while their teammate Carlos Sastre took off ahead of the main group, winning a lead he would maintain all the way to Paris. That was also heroic ... over a brutal climb lasting several hours. And they do this every day for three weeks.

The Tour isn't just about being fit enough, or strong enough. It's also about having the mental toughness to face down the pain and exhaustion. It's about finding the outside of the envelope of human endurance.

This year's race is ... interesting. Four former winners are in the mix, each looking to add to their totals. And two are on the same team, adding to the interest. Alberto Contador wears the top number for Team Astana, but it remains to be seen if he's riding for the win, or riding support for his new teammate, Lance Armstrong. We just don't know yet, and probably won't know for another week. By the time they hit the Pyrenees in the second week, we might have a better idea. But they can't delay that decision too long. They can't afford to waste energy, not with two other former winners nipping at their heels.

Carlos Sastre and Oscar Pereiro are each looking for another win, for Cervelo and Caisse d'Epargne respectively. And you discount Team Saxo Bank at your peril ... Sastre jumped ship last year, but the Schleck brothers are still there. The team boasts three national road-racing champions, and the Australian sprinter Stuart O'Grady. Those four teams are the ones to watch. No one knows who will win, of course, but if I were betting, I'd bet on one of those four teams.

Everyone's looking pretty good so far. Armstrong looks really good -- strong, good form, you'd never know from looking that he'd been away for a couple of years, much less that he'd broken a collarbone this spring. But the day's not done. And it's going to be a long, hard three weeks. No one knows that better than Armstrong. What he gives up in age, he gains back in experience, and he's going to give these youngsters a run for their money.

Ride hard, boys: the King has returned!

[Addendum, 4Jul09 2:17PM: Astana has four riders in the top ten after today's time trial, establishing them as the team to beat for right now. Further, Contador turned in the best performance amongst his teammates, making a fair opening bid for overall team leadership. I still think Armstrong has a good chance, but I would still not be terribly surprised to see him ride in support of Contador should he prove the stronger rider.]

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Emperor's New Spaceship

Two years ago, almost to the day, I was writing about the travails of the Orion spacecraft's weight issues. Well, the Ares I booster had its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) not too long ago, and it wasn't a happy occasion. Two years ago, my general thoughts were that the Orion could probably stand to lose a bit of weight. Now? Now, it's becoming rather painfully evident that the Ares I booster is woefully underpowered.

The kicker, for me, was this item from Universe Today back in April, saying that the Orion capsule could be down-graded from a crew of six to a crew of four. This is necessary because the Ares I cannot lift the six-man version ... which basically makes this iteration of Orion just about useless for ISS crew change-out. For those of you who haven't kept up, recent expansions have bumped the Space Station's permanent crew capacity from three to six.

Taken together, the obvious conclusion is that Ares I and Orion are in trouble. The schedule will slip to the right, which is no big deal. What is a moderately big deal is that Orion will not be able to perform the job originally advertised. At a crew size of four, it still works as a cis-lunar transport for the lunar landing mission, but comes up short by several seats for ISS emergency crew return.

Now, one might wonder: why, if I've known about the PDR hijinks since late last year, and about the crew downsizing since April, why haven't I been kicking up a fuss? Why haven't I, a space enthusiast since I knew how to read, been shouting from the rooftops?

Short answer: because it really doesn't matter so much. Sure, if that were the only egg in our basket, I'd be worried. But it's not.

Last year, I said that within fifteen to twenty years, the center of gravity of the American space effort would be in private industry, not in government. I have seen nothing since to disabuse me of that notion. Indeed, I may have to revise those numbers downward. In September of last year, the SpaceX Falcon 1 launcher became the first privately-owned spacecraft to enter Earth orbit. Its big brother, Falcon 9, is undergoing tests, and later this year will do its first flight with a Dragon space capsule attached. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to use the Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the ISS, once the system is proven out. Further, Dragon comes in two flavors: all cargo, or cargo plus crew.

It's almost a certainty that a man-rated Dragon will taste hard vacuum long before any version of Orion does, and by a margin of not less than eighteen months.

So ... given those facts, why worry?

Mind you, we still need Orion, along with the Aries lander and the heavy-lift Ares V launcher. Going back to the Moon, and onward to Mars, is a goal well worth pursuing. But the Stick is as useless as lips on a brick, and needs to go. It'd be great if the new Administrator, Charles Boldin, would put it out of its misery quickly once he takes office. But like any other fatally-injured Federal program, it'll probably limp along like a gut-shot mule for another year or two before quietly expiring while no one's watching, sometime after the 2010 elections. That's just the way the world works.