Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part I: DNC 1860


[Ed. Note: This is the beginning of a five-year project, examining the Civil War 150 years after the fact, in real time. It's been said before -- and I believe it to be true -- that the Civil War was fundamental in shaping the character of our nation. You cannot understand what America is today without understanding the nature of that conflict. And since none of us are as smart as all of us, I'd appreciate all the help I can get from other bloggers out there. Let me know what you've written, and I'll publish links.]

First, let's get something out of the way before we start: the Civil War was about slavery. Any other bone of contention between North and South could have been resolved through negotiation. Slavery was at the core of the Southern economy, though, and it was something for which the leadership of the South was willing, even eager, to fight. This will become crystal-clear over the next year, as we examine the events in the run-up to Fort Sumter.

A century and a half ago this week in Charleston, South Carolina, the Democratic National Convention came to order at Institute Hall. You have to understand that conventions worked differently, back in the day. These days, we know who the party's nominee will be before the opening gavel, since the primaries have settled the issue months ahead of time. There will be some negotiating on the fine points of the platform, but the broad outlines of that will have also been settled. Not so in 1860. Both nominee and platform were totally up for grabs. And that was a problem, since there were serious divisions between the Northern and Southern wings of the party.

The Dred Scott case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1857, was extremely unpopular in the North even among Democrats. Stephen A. Douglas, the front-runner going into the convention, had only narrowly beaten off a challenger in the 1858 Illinois Senate race by repudiating the Dred Scott decision. This was a very unpopular stance with the Southern delegates, particularly those among them known as the "Fire-Eaters", who wanted an explicitly pro-slavery platform.

Negotiations on the platform lasted for about a week. Douglas' argument, that a pro-slavery platform would cost them votes in the North, carried considerable weight. The minority report on the platform, the Northern position, was adopted on April 30 by a vote of 165 to 138. Fifty Southern delegates then promptly walked out of the convention. They went down the street to Military Hall, convened themselves as the "real" convention, and basically waited for the rest of the convention to cave to their demands. They didn't. With the platform settled to the majority's satisfaction, the convention proceeded to nominations.

The dueling conventions, therefore, produced two Democratic candidates for President that year: Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois representing the Northern wing of the party, with Herschel V. Johnson of New York as his running mate; and John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky representing the Southern wing, with Daniel S. Dickenson of New York as his running mate.

You don't need to be a professional political consultant to guess that a split convention wasn't going to end well for the Democratic Party that November. Everyone in both of the Charleston conventions had to have known that. By and large, these weren't stupid men. On the other hand, though, their opponents had also recently undergone a split themselves; the Republicans were still a very new party, and there were still a few Whigs running around here and there. A split party couldn't contest a three-way race, but they might have a fighting chance in a four-way race.

Still, one thing is undeniably clear. The Southern delegates were perfectly willing to throw their party's chances on the fire for the sake of their "peculiar institution." They were utterly inflexible, unwilling to move, steadfast in their refusal of compromise. Other issues may well have provided fuel for the conflagration to follow, but the Southern intransigence on slavery provided both the spark and the dry tinder.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXVII

I've been getting my amateur spaceman groove on with Orbiter. While I was looking for new and nifty things to try, I came across a really interesting video:

The Apollo Applications Program started out as a fairly ambitious effort to find interesting uses for the expensive hardware NASA was developing for the Moon landings. In the end, the only parts of AAP to come to fruition were Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In one of its original iterations, Skylab was to use what had been called the Wet Workshop concept. That is, the spent S-IVB stage itself would become the interior of the space station. The empty fuel tank would be pressurized, and then filled with equipment for an extended stay ... pretty much anywhere. Plans had been drawn up for a variety of options, from Earth-orbit stations, to Lunar orbit, to flyby missions to Mars or Venus. None of them came to life, though. Mounting costs led to the cancellation of the later Apollo lunar landings, which freed up a couple of Saturn V vehicles. This meant that a two-stage Saturn V could launch a fully-prepped S-IVB dry workshop all in one go, crew-ready. Arguably, Skylab was more effective as a dry workshop than as a wet workshop.

Still, this would have been one freaky mission to have been on. President Nixon would have seen them off ... and President Ford would have welcomed them back on their return.

"President who? Ah, Houston, did something important happen while we were away?"

It's just as well that we didn't. Glorious as it might have been, it carried a steep opportunity cost in terms of other things that couldn't have been done. Between them, Pioneer Venus and Magellan cost maybe a quarter what this would have, and returned far more data.

Still, it's fun to imagine.

[Addendum: This video was put together by the same person who did the Voyage video featured earlier. He's got a pretty great sense for timing and music. I simply must get a copy of that Beethoven piece.]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spring is Sprung

Springtime is once again upon us, at least for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. I've been spending more time enjoying the splendid weather than doing deep thinking. But I do have an assortment of thoughts about what's going on hereabouts:

1) I don't get baseball. I don't dislike baseball, I just don't really get it. In a strange way, baseball is a lot like space flight, in that participant spend most of their time standing around waiting for something interesting to happen. There are bits and pieces of the game I find entertaining. Such as, for example, the time Nolan Ryan had this fool twenty years his junior in a headlock, administering an impromptu lecture with his pointer knuckles on the virtues of respect for one's elders. Along with Zinedine Zidane's last play, surely this was one of sport's finest moments. But such things are few and far between. And it's entirely possible that I'd find baseball more interesting if my home team were anyone but the Texas Rangers.

2) I don't get basketball, either. If baseball is too slow, basketball is too fast. By the time I figure out what's happened, play has long since moved on. I've no doubt that I could figure it out if I really wanted to ... but I have no real desire to do so. I spend enough time on the couch as it is.

3) Andy Reid WILL rue the day. Granted, Philadelphia was in a rut, and had to do something. Making the move to your QB of the future makes good sense in that regard. But trading McNabb to a division rival? Someone you know you'll play at least twice every year? Sure, on one hand you could argue that the Philly defense knows all about McNabb, and you could say that this means they're not afraid of him. But, the flip side of that same coin is that McNabb knows the Philly defense inside and out. He's going to be powerfully motivated this year to fold their defensive playbook 'till it's all corners, and stick it somewhere it's gonna hurt. And he just might be able to do it, too. One thing I do know: the Philiadelphia-Washington games for the next couple of years are going to be good, old-fashioned grudge-ball. McNabb's return to Philadelphia, in particular, will be fine sport.

4) J. K. Rowling will be writing a new book. Exactly what it's going to be, no one knows. That said, I've daydreamed about what a sequel series could look like. We do know that Harry and Ron went to work for the Ministry as investigators of a sort. But you have to wonder: who would they be investiating that they'd be all that worried about? They'd already put paid to the biggest Big Bad that they're ever likely to find. So it'd be a more light-hearted series, with a couple of wise-cracking agents foiling the schemes of the bad guys. Now, where have I seen something like that before?

"The Man From U.N.C.L.E." plus wizards could be really fun.

5) Polywell marches on. I've talked about the Polywell project before. Last year, we covered the latest Navy research contract. We know nothing definite yet, but the indications seem to be that interesting things are afoot. They have not released any results, but they are seeking funds for development of a full-scale 100MW reactor. One of two things is true here: either they're running a scam, or they've got solid enough results from their Navy work that they want to begin work on a commercially-available version. I'm inclined to think it's the latter. And while I'm not sure that I want to donate, if they offer stock I'm damn sure buying. This could be the real thing, folks. And if it is, hold on to your hats, because the whole world's going to change. We'll know more in about a year or so -- the thing to watch for are the follow-on contract awards -- but at this point I'm guardedly optimistic.

6) START me up? I happened to be in a position to catch the signing of the new START treaty between the United States and Russia on live TV. The interesting thing is how little both parties actually give up. Nuclear weapons are acknowledged by most professionals as having little to no military utility. This wasn't true when they were introduced in 1945. Back then, atomic weapons were strategic bombing writ large; if I showed you a random decimated cityscape photo from WWII, unless there was a distinguishing landmark present or you were a dedicated scholar, you probably couldn't tell me if you were looking at a photo of Hiroshima, Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden, or Berlin. The only difference is that in the first of those cases, the devastation was wrought with one bomb in one sortie. Now, however, if we want to shut down a city, we can identify a dozen or so weak points -- single points of failure in the infrastructure -- and destroy them simultaneously without touching anything else. What need, then, for nukes? They chew up tremendous resources without contributing anything really useful. Except, that is, for deterrence. Their only use is to stay the hands of those similarly armed. I'm not sure we'll ever be able to be rid of them entirely. That bell probably can't be un-rung. But, we can reduce our stockpile to the minimum required to present a credible threat. This treaty goes a good way towards that goal, provided that the Senate will ratify it.

And that's about it for now. Spring calls!

Friday, April 02, 2010

We Have Met The Enemy ...

When it comes to your health, and the care thereof, your worst enemy isn't any political figure. It's not either of the major national parties. It isn't anyone -- or any agency -- within the Federal Government. Nevertheless, it's someone you're fairly familiar with. Allow me to share a story by way of illustration:

A longtime friend of mine has a hangnail. No, that's not quite accurate; he has THE hangnail. He's had it for a long, long time. It's old enough to vote, buy its own liquor, and qualify for discounted auto insurance. Most of the time, he ignores it. The rest of the time, he attempts to treat it himself with a terrifying array of hand and power tools. I don't think he's tried a soldering iron or belt sander yet, but really, it's only a matter of time. He's tried just about everything ... except, that is, the services of a qualified podiatric surgeon, which would pretty much fix the problem for good. But that's far too easy.

His problem isn't that he doesn't have insurance. His problem is that he just doesn't like doctors.

So: my worst enemy? Like just about everyone else, it's the fool that stares back at me out of the mirror when I'm shaving. He'll be the death of me if I give him half a chance. And at the end of the day, my health is my responsibility and no one else's. I enjoy the benefits if I take care of business, and I suffer the consequences if I don't.

I've been doing a much better job of that lately. I've learned a few things since I first got serious about this last summer, and this is as good a time as any to share them with you. It's possible that you've heard it before. Actually, in summary, you have heard it all before: diet, and exercise. But the summary omits a few important details ... such as a form of exercise that's vitally important if you're truly interested in re-making yourself.

But first things first: it must start with nutrition. Steve over at Nerd Fitness likes to say, "You can't outrun your fork." He's absolutely right. This can be really hard at first, but it's really important. Like trying to run your car on scented lamp oil, you won't get far without the right fuel. For some, this was an easy step. For me, it meant changing my whole relationship with food. This has been an ongoing effort for over ten years on my part, and I've managed to stop over-eating, and basically eat the "right" thing more often than not these days. However, this by itself is not enough.

The next layer is, of course, cardio exercise. What kind isn't quite as important as intensity and consistency. It has to be vigorous, and it has to be at least three times a week. It almost goes without saying that you really need to pick something you enjoy doing for its own sake, or at a bare minimum something you can tolerate. I hate running. But for some weird reason, my brain doesn't really interpret elliptical machines as running, even though it's basically the same motion. And I love cycling and swimming. So, ten minutes of each, three times a week, and there we are.

But, as I said earlier, the summary -- diet and exercise -- omits an important detail. There's a leg missing from the tripod: strength training. I didn't get serious about this until nine months ago. Until I saw what it did in conjunction with the other two, I never realized how important it really was.

Mehdi makes a pitch for the benefits of strength training both here and at his own site. At the risk of repetition, I'll put in my own two cents. Simply put, muscle tissue is denser than fat. If you build muscle, even if you don't lose an ounce, you'll look trimmer. But you will lose weight, because muscle tissue burns fat constantly, even at rest. But that's only the beginning. I find that I have more energy. I find that I don't get sick as often, and recover faster when I do. I sleep better. And I have the confidence that comes from knowing that I have never been stronger, not even when I was half my age.

I've found the StrongLifts program very useful. It has several key advantages. First, it's free. All you have to do is go to the website, write down the routine and/or download the free e-book, and it's yours. Second, compound exercises are a great time-saver. Bodybuilders spend hours at the gym, working one or two muscles at a time. But with compound exercises, spend 30 minutes a day three times a week, and that's all you need. And third, you can start small and build up. It's great for beginners. You feel a little bit silly the first few weeks, lifting nothing but the bar and a few tiny weights. But soon, you work up to some respectable amounts. Within six months, I was squatting my own bodyweight. I'm aiming for twice that, and will probably be able to within the year.

And while it's easier with a gym, you don't need much equipment to do good strength training. You don't actually need anything: Pavel Tsatsouline's book Naked Warrior shows you a solid strength routine that requires no equipment at all. And here's a kettlebell routine that requires only bare-bones equipment.

Life's hard. It's even harder when you're weaker than you need to be. Do yourself a favor, and look into strength training. It may be the best choice you ever made.

Video Del Fuego, Part XXVI

Presented for your viewing pleasure, ten of the best high-speed passes ever, each of which proves that "Maverick" from Top Gun was, in fact, a sissy.