Monday, August 24, 2009

A Job Gone Bad

Today in my ongoing project to re-read books from high school literature classes, it's John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

If you're like me, this was your first exposure to the character of Lenny:

Not that those old cartoons aren't art in their own right -- they are -- but prolonged exposure to Mel Blanc's nigh-perfect imitation of Lon Chaney's portrayal of Lenny from the 1939 movie version makes it really, really hard for a young man to take the book seriously. Which is a pity, because the book is worthy of serious thought. But be warned: it's not a fun, light read.

The writing isn't as tight as Fitzgerald's, but given that Steinbeck chose to present the story mostly through conversations between characters, I suppose that can't be helped. It's an effective storytelling device, though; it pulls you quickly through a story that becomes quite unpleasant and uncomfortable. The quickness is a saving grace. The territory the book covers would be unbearably grueling if it lasted much longer. My wife said that reading Steinbeck leads to suicidal thoughts, and I won't say she's wrong.

The one thought that occurred to me as I was reading this was: life was ugly before Welfare. Think on it. If this story were to occur today, there's at least a chance, maybe even a good one, that Lenny would be a ward of the state. He'd have gotten treatment, help to learn how to live within his condition, and a measure of supervision. Back in the day, family or friends had to do all of that. As long as they could do so, all was well. But when that ran out ... You're basically up the creek without a paddle, a boat, or a life preserver.

I've always been of two minds about this issue. I tend towards minimalism in government. That's because I don't trust people with lots of power and/or authority. Also, if freedom is to mean anything it should also mean the freedom to fail. But failure shouldn't be final -- there should be a safety net, so that you can learn from your mistakes and do better next time. There's a balance point somewhere between benign neglect and smothering supervision. Finding that balance point is extremely tricky, and while I don't think we've found it yet, we're certainly closer than we were when this book was written.

I can't recommend this book to everyone. It's a harsh read. Horrible things happen to people that don't deserve them. But if you think you can take it, go for it. But follow it with a chaser:

You've got to maintain an even strain. Moderation is good in all things, including serious thought.

Friday, August 21, 2009


The Dog Days of Summer are upon us, the time of the year in Texas where God turns the oven on "broil" and goes away to do something else for six weeks or so. Mostly I try to stay out of the sun as much as possible. If I could hibernate my way through August, I would. But I can't, so here we are.

The relentless fury of mean ol' Mr. Sun has sapped most of my desire for deep thinking, but I do have a few quick thoughts:

(1) There's a part of the health care debate I find grimly amusing. Everyone says they're against rationing, but rationing is precisely what's going on already. It's simple, really; when you have a finite good and a near-infinite demand, you will have rationing. There's simply no other way. Health care is in finite supply: there are only so many doctor-hours in any given day. And it's also in near-infinite demand: who doesn't want to live longer and healthier? So, the question isn't whether or not to have rationing, the question is what kind. Currenly, by and large, we ration health care by the ability to pay. On the other extreme of the spectrum you have a pure first-come, first-served system. I find both extremes unsatisfactory. I'll go into the details another time, but the basic idea is that you almost never find the optimum point on the extrema of a curve. The balance point is almost always somewhere in the middle. The fallacy of the excluded middle is a perennial favorite in American politics.

(2) As part of my effort to reduce my need to consume health care, I have been spending more time in the gym. I am by no means a fitness expert, but I do have to say that, so far, the StrongLifts 5x5 program has been excellent. I've been doing it for about five weeks now, and feel magnificent. Better than I have in years, as a matter of fact. You do have to take care that you do the movements properly, or you're liable to hurt yourself; but that's the point of starting light and working your way up. Highly recommended.

(3) Apropos of this item I wrote about back in June, CNN has a piece today on the outing of anonymous bloggers. No need to repeat myself, except to say that anonymity brings out the Inspector Detector lurking within your opponents. With a handful of exceptions, it's more trouble than it's worth.

(4) Finally, The Augustine panel, appointed by the Obama Administration to review NASA's near-term human space flight plans, will report its results soon. It remains to be seen if the Administration, and NASA's leadership, take the recommendations as a plan of action. This may be NASA's last chance to regain the initiative in the manned space sector. Lately, most of the interesting headlines have been coming from private industry, not from government laboratories. This can change, but only if NASA is willing to change the way it does business. Can they? Will they? The next few years will tell the tale.

That's about it for now. Is it September yet?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Now What?

December 17, 1903: First powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight.

October 4, 1957: Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.

April 12, 1961: Vostok 1, flown by Yuri Gagarin, carries the first human into Earth orbit.

July 20, 1969: Eagle, flown by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, land the first human beings on the Moon.

August 7, 2009: Now what?

It's a fair question. In the forty years since the days of Apollo, we've done a lot of things, some of them pretty great. For all its problems, the Space Shuttle has carried more humans into space than any other vehicle in history. We've explored our solar system with increasing sophistication and confidence. But where do we go from here? What should we be doing? At the end of the day, what's it all for?

In my opinion, any discussion of human spaceflight must begin with this realization:

Human spaceflight is entirely pointless unless we, as a people, intend to expand into the Universe and make it our home.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about the benefits of such expansion. I'm not going to pretend that it'll solve all of our problems, but there are two or three in particular that it can solve. Three of the major problems that we face as a civilization are a shortage of clean, sustainable energy, a shortage of material resources of all kinds, and the lingering problems associated with large-scale industrialization. Each of those can be addressed, if we're established Up There.

First, energy. One of the problems associated with making solar power practical is the fact that it's so dependent on the availability of sunlight. Clouds interfere with it. Shorter days in winter do, also. But I know of a place where the Sun shines almost all the time, save only a few hours twice a year. It's also a place where there are no clouds, ever. This place can be found 23,000 miles above the Earth's equator. Solar arrays can be built there, and power can be beamed back down to Earth via microwaves. The capital start-up costs are significant, but once built the energy itself is almost free. Relatively cheap, clean energy in a sufficiently abundant supply will change things. Imagine energy universally available, with blackouts being a thing of the past. It could happen...

Second, resources. Name the metal, and it's available in million-ton quantities in the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. And available without destroying a biosphere, without any environmental consequences whatsoever. (When the environment consists of hard vacuum, there's not a whole lot you can do to it...) Wars have started, and still start, over scarcity of resources. Why fight, though, when you can just wander over and grab some? An end to scarcity will change things. Gold may never be as cheap as tin, but neither will it be worth fighting over.

Third, manufacturing. Most of the expense of space travel is involved with clawing our way out of Earth's gravity well, and getting back down again. Given that most of the resources available in the solar system aren't on Earth, there's no reason our factories should be here, either. The factories will naturally migrate to where the energy and resources are. That's always been true, and it'll still be true in the future. Once our energy and resources are coming from space, it will make sense for the factories to be there, too. Essentially, this could mean the end of pollution. Imagine clean air and clean water for everyone, everywhere. It could happen...

Now the question is, how do we get from here to there?

The first priority has to be building an affordable, economically sustainable infrastructure for spaceflight. Apollo is a bad model for this. As great an achievement as it was, it was still a one-off surge effort. We don't need any more of those surges. Simply put: NASA's job shouldn't be to put a man on Mars. NASA's job should be to develop the technology that will allow the National Geographic Society to send people to Mars. We need to develop the technology to allow the Carnival Cruise Line to sell excursion packages to see Halley's Comet close up, the next time it comes through. This sort of thing is happening. It's happening in NASA, to be sure; but it's also happening at Scaled Composites, at SpaceX, at Virgin Galactic, and a dozen other companies looking to cash in on a new and lucrative market. This part, I don't worry about as much as I used to. I'm pretty sure we'll make the tools in time.

The other problem is legal. I've talked about this before, a couple of years ago, and much of this will be a repeat. The basic problem is that, as the laws stand, there's no real way for an individual to assert property rights. Given that, risking money on an extraterrestrial resource venture is a really, really bad bet. I don't really care how we clear that particular hurdle. But one way or another, we have to establish some legal framework for guaranteeing the legal rights of companies to own factories, mines, and the like out there away from Earth. The only way we've been able to do that to date is by asserting national sovereignty over the land in question. Possibly we can work out some other kind of deal. Again, like I said, I don't care how we settle that, so long as we get it settled. It's an impediment to our progress as a civilization.

We have a choice between two futures: one where everyone in the world can enjoy our standard of living, where the poorest of us will be richer than the kings of antiquity ever dreamed; and one where declining resources doom us all to equality in poverty. I know which one I'd rather live in, and which one I'd rather bequeath to my daughter, and to her children. As Jerry Pournelle often says, it's raining soup Out There, and it's about damn time we started making some bowls.

We can do this.