Missing Inaction

Contrary to what it may appear, I ain’t dead — and neither is this blog.

Anybody see a pattern? It never fails. Things are rolling along, I’ve got a bunch of blogging irons in the fire and then poof! Real life interference blows the whole thing to hell and gone and it’s two months before I manage to remember that I have a blog.

In this instance, the real life interference is entirely my own doing. All of the blog damage is completely self-inflicted.

Some of you may have been thinking that one of the graphic artists or designers I panned in my ‘geometry’ post back in April showed up at my door with an old Macbook and clubbed me to death. Nope. I just decided to wander off and fiddle with something else for a while. It’s how I roll. Continue reading

Débile and Dumber

There are many wonderful things I appreciate about France. I’ve visited there a number of times and have always enjoyed the experience — except for driving a van around Paris, which was, um, “exciting,” to be polite.

Unfortunately, since the turn of the last century (maybe a bit earlier), French foreign policy has hardly been what I would call subtle and effective. Not to be too insulting, but it’s pretty much been on a par with our own; to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, “Mumble a lot and hit yourself in the head with a big stick.”

To be fair, not too many countries are doing any better. Over the last 100 years or so, the world has seen at least three major shifts in the character of international affairs. I’m not sure any government has really managed to keep up. Continue reading

Et tu, George?

In a post some time ago, I grumped and grumbled about how the Internet is enabling the human tendency to reduce our social and intellectual interactions into circles of ever-shrinking tribal orbits. Instead of using the Internet to reach out and discover the diversity of the wide, wide world, we use it to devolve inward upon ourselves, pulling a small community of like minds and self-affirming information “sources” in after us.

The Internet and so-called “social” media don’t create the tendency; they merely serve to magnify it or make it more obvious. How we humans interact with our technology often seems at odds with why we create the technology in the first place. But I’ll argue that, ultimately, it’s not the intent of the creator that matters. Our interaction with the creation is what tells us the most about ourselves; that same interaction is also what defines the desire to create. Technology doesn’t create the behavior; rather, it enables behaviors we desire to express. Continue reading

Another sacrifice in the interest of science

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

I was thinking along those lines on Saturday afternoon as I stood in one of the large, open areas of property surrounding our church. The occasion wasn’t nearly as melodramatic as the quote: my turns-seven-too-soon son, my wife and myself were getting ready to launch some model rockets. Continue reading

Starship: Banquet Tent

It’s funny the stuff you learn if you go poking your nose into big, unmarked tents at Kennedy Space Center.

For our official Touristy Moment during a little camping trip over to the Space Coast, we decided to pay a visit to KSC yesterday. The weather was horrible, but it would be our last chance ever to see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad. So off we went.

Florida summer squalls never last very long, right? Or so we figured. I dropped the family off at the entrance in a thundering downpour, parked the truck, snugged into my big poncho and waded off across the flooded parking lot.

It rained pretty much all day, although the downpour slackened to a drizzle after 30 minutes or so.

Truthfully, the gray skies and morose drizzle sort of seemed to fit the occasion. Nine days until the end of the space shuttle program. Nine days until the end of America’s manned space program, with nothing much else on the horizon. For a space geek like me, that’s pretty depressing.

We rode a tour bus out to Launch Complex 39 and climbed the observation gantry. A few miles away, on Pad 39B, sat Endeavour — the “full stack” as they call it. Ready for STS-135, the mission being billed as “The Grand Finale.” Later, in the Space Shop, I eyed a couple of different t-shirts with “The Grand Finale” logo on them, but the idea of celebrating the end of the manned space flight progam just seemed too depressing to me. Instead, I bought a more defiant shirt with “I NEED MY SPACE!” splashed across the back.

“I hope we’re not about to enter another run like we had in the late 70s, after Apollo ended,” I said to my wife. We were sitting under cover at the Visitor Center playground, while Junior Crazy Boy bounced around and whooped it up.

“What’s that?” the Missus asked.

“You know, where we stick our heads up our butts because we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. We stop exploring. Stop wondering. Science goes into neutral.”

“No,” she pointed past my shoulder. “What’s THAT?”

I turned around. There, just behind the playground, sat a big tent. It was one of those extra-large tents with fancy windows, like caterers put up at outdoor wedding receptions and charity auctions.

“I dunno,” I said. “Looks like there’s something in there, though. A truck or something.”

“Go see what it is,” came my orders from HQ.

So I walked over and stuck my head in. Inside stood a couple of “prime contractor” engineering-types, wearing “prime contractor” polo shirts. They were standing beside a large-ish cradle truck that supported a big damned space capsule. It looked something like the recently scuttled Orion capsule, but a bit different. More angular.

“Come on in,” one of them said.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see that the capsule was accompanied by a bunch of stand-up banners — you know, the type of promotional stuff Prime Contractors like to put up at trade shows. It was a prototype MPCV. If you haven’t been keeping up with current events, that’s this thing:

The MPCV. (NASA image)

The MPCV. (NASA image)

http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-164_MPCV_Decision.html

This particular capsule had one of the hull sections replaced with plexiglass. Inside, the thing was packed with gadgets — computers, sensors, wires, connectors.

“It’s actually flown,” one of the engineers informed me. “We used this one for the first live test of the new launch abort system last month.”

OK. That would be this test:

 

“I was lucky enough to be in the control room for the test,” the engineer continued. “We’re a little late getting the capsule here because we recovered it in good enough shape that we thought about re-using it.”

I told him that I thought it was too bad they didn’t have a new booster lined up for the system.

“Well, we’ve got a full test flight scheduled next year on a Delta IV Heavy,” he replied. “The new booster we’re developing for it is scheduled to fly in 2013. It’s a lot more powerful than Ares, which could only reach low earth orbit. We want to go a lot higher than that.”

“The program is funded?” I asked, more than a little surprised.

“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “The new flight schedule for the MPCV is being announced July 8, after we launch Endeavour.”

So there it was after all, sitting in an unmarked banquet tent behind the playground. The future of manned spaceflight.

And, no. They don’t have t-shirts for it yet. But they do have little paper cut-out models, thoughtfully produced by Lockheed Martin. My kid snagged three of them.

All I can say is that I hope the real MPCV goes together easier than the paper model.

Meet the Jetsons

My son Juan Carlos encounters a Mayan shaman in Chichicastenango.

My son Juan Carlos encounters a Mayan shaman in Chichicastenango.

Here in These United States of the 21st century we’re pretty proud of our technological progress, our online connected-ness and our tweet-every-time-we-fart social media.  We invented the Internet, dammit, and look how cool it’s making us. Or so the theory goes.

But I’m working on a little theory of my own here, so bear with me. I’m thinking that, contrary to current cultural myth, the Internet is an abject failure in communications. Rather than taking advantage of our new digital tools to expand the horizons of our knowledge and improve our understanding of the world, we’re instead using them to draw inward on ourselves and create self-centered villages of pseudo-information and half-truths.

It’s not a big surprise. Television — another revolutionary medium pioneered here in the USA — was also a failure. TV placed in our hands the ability to both see and hear the world as experienced by others, but instead we used it primarily to recycle bathroom humor and watch Monday Night Football.

I got to thinking about this the other day after showing around my workplace some photos from my family’s just-completed vacation to Guatemala. The general theme of my co-workers’ comments was basically “Wow, that’s so strange. I can’t imagine living in a place like that. It looks like another planet.”

Well, no. It’s OUR planet. In fact, more of our planet “looks” like Chichicastenango than it “looks” like the suburban US. How is it possible, in this era of lightspeed social networking, that so many people can have such a narrow worldview?

Simple, really. Just consider for a moment the typical, modern-day social media experience. Who do you interact with most frequently on services like Facebook and Twitter? Are they strangers, foreigners, people who see the world differently and who challenge your understandings and beliefs? Or are they people you know, like-thinkers who share similar worldviews and who generally serve to confirm the beliefs you choose to hold? Do you use social media to reach out curiously to the wide-wide world, or to create a tribal ‘orbit’ that circles inward upon itself?

Obviously, I’ve got a strong opinion on the topic. Let me be clear: I despise incuriosity.

[Note: I don't use the word "despise" frequently, and I intend it here with all of its old-fashioned vitriol and malice.]

The way I see it, curiosity is THE driving force in the development of humankind.  The incurious stunt our progress, crush our capacity for growth, diminish our acquistion of new knowledge, destroy creativity and just generally screw things up. What saddens me most is the historical example — repeated frequently — that demonstrates each time we create new tools which carry the promise of exponential human growth, we instead use them to turn more tightly in upon ourselves and erase from our view everything that isn’t us.

So how did a short vacation to Guatemala turn into a rant against vapid anti-intellectualism? That’s easy. A properly-executed vacation is a big pull on the flush handle of my mental toilet. All of the crap goes glug-glug-glug down the drain, to be replaced by a new bowl full of sparkling, fresh thoughts.

Now, back on topic. Since I’m taking a dim view of collective curiosity today, I’ll further theorize that our Internet use has grown so quickly — and the formerly ‘traditional’ media have collapsed so rapidly — primarily because media like television and newspapers didn’t fail fast enough to suit us.

What the explosive growth of blogs and agenda-driven ‘news’ websites tells me is that we like our information sources fragmented and unregulated, enabling us to pick and choose those sources that most closely fit our comfort zones. With first cable, and then satellite, television tried to fragment into this same sort of universe of tightly self-centered information galaxies — but compared to the costs of running a website, TV production is vastly more expensive so the effort produced only half-assed results.

But now with the Internet we can quickly and easily get the whole ass. People who get their news from parroted headlines on Facebook and re-tweets on Twitter can get just about any version of the ‘truth’ that they want: Obama started the war in Iraq, trickle-down economic theory really works, the Earth is flat.

Take your pick. And why not? Just about everybody else does.