Saturday, November 1, 2014

This Week In Space

So space has been particularly dangerous this week for us humans. Never mind my little jab last night at snagging an asteroid. Big-time ambitions like that are all well and good, and if we can actually pull them off, awesome. But this week has presented a harsh reminder that even the most basic aspects of going to space, simply traveling there, or existing there, have always and continue to be fraught with extreme danger.

Six seconds after launch on Tuesday, an unmanned Antares rocket blew up on the launchpad at Wallops Island, Virginia, intended to deliver supplies, as well as a group of assorted experiments, to the International Space Station. Nobody was injured there. However, three days later on Friday, a test flight in the Mojave Desert went awry, resulting in the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, killing one pilot and seriously wounding another (the names have not yet been released). SpaceShipTwo was a craft that was intended, when operational, to carry tourists- many of them celebrities- on 15-minute joyrides for $250,000 each. Roughly 700 people had already paid for the trip.

This is far from a rare occurrence. All of the little half-funny gags people make about a plane being a pressurized metal tube blasting through the skies by way of jet fuel? They are very much not jokes when you bring spacecraft into the discussion, and everything powering that plane that also applies to spacecraft is amplified to the point of lunacy. Nothing is easy; every stage of the journey can bring things to a sudden and catastrophic end. The problem is, though, because that is true, every time that catastrophe happens, calls inevitably arise to stop. To cut the funding. To abandon this space silliness and focus on problems on Earth. Sometimes that funding does get cut... leading to cut corners on the next mission in order to stay within a slashed budget... leading to another potential catastrophe.

I hope that doesn't happen. In the grand scheme of things, we haven't been in space that long. We're still in every sense of the word trying to figure out how to make space travel merely a thing that is unlikely to kill people that attempt it. The Age of Exploration saw this same thing with ships; often, crews attempting particularly long voyages, such as circumnavigations, weren't told by their captains that they would be doing such a thing until they were well into the actual trip, because if they had been told beforehand, it would have been nearly impossible to cobble a crew together. But if we were ever going to get to the point we are now, where nautical circumnavigations are less about if you'll come back alive than they are about how many extra pounds you'll be sporting when you do, those early, danger-laden trips into the unknown had to come first. Those lasted for hundreds of years before the danger went away.

Will it take hundreds of years for us to get there with space travel? Since Yuri Gagarin's inaugural flight, it's taken at least 53. This week has proven once again that the end to that wait is not yet in sight. Catastrophes will happen. Spacecrafts will be lost. Lives will be lost. But this planet isn't going to sustain us forever, even if we maintain it perfectly. Eventually, we have to go see what else is out there. And in order to get to the point where we can go see what's out there, we first have to make sure we can reliably get off this planet in the first place, and safely dock at our intended ports of call.

Nobody ever said space was easy.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Today's Thing You Wouldn't Think Would Have To Come Out Of Your Mouth

'Hey, NASA? I know you're all excited about studying asteroids and stuff, but maybe trying to snag one out of midair and hauling it home may not be the best idea you've ever had.'

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fred At TED

Tis time for a TED talk, I believe. On this occasion, with Africa struggling with ebola, and places outside Africa seemingly using it as racism fuel, perhaps we ought to focus there.

You'll be hearing from Fred Swaniker, from Ghana, who spoke in Rio earlier this month. Swaniker is the founder and head of the African Leadership Academy.And as such, his talk concerns just that: how leadership in Africa can go wrong, and how it can go right.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Too Much Man On The Field

So you may notice I've been absent the past couple days. There is a reason for that: I had to swap computers. Over the weekend, my old computer crashed. Just straight crashed. Blue screen, please back up your files before you have to give the hard drive a total factory reset, that whole deal. And as it was getting old as it was, I opted to go out and just get a new one and transfer the files there.

Which I messed up because it meant having to wrestle with Windows 8 and the multicolored boxes for the first time, and it wasn't totally clear as to how to complete the file transfer. In the end I just had to hand it over to a local tech-support guy who actually knew what he was doing, and that took a couple days. But I'm back now, set up on the new one, and away we go again.

Well, I'm set up except for needing to re-buy Microsoft Office because it didn't come with the new computer, and putting all my bookmarks back because those didn't transfer. But anyway.

Today I bring up that old-but-seldom-mentioned proposal to fix many of the world's problems, namely, population control. In its more benign forms, this takes the form of suggesting mothers have fewer children or maybe even forgo having children; in its more sinister forms, it involves killing people until there isn't a problem anymore (never mind the other problems that would pop up). It's controversial at best, ghoulish at worst... but the thing that largely wasn't up for debate was that... well, yeah, you'd grudgingly have to agree that this would in fact bring down the demand on resources.

About that.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences (the original is behind a $10 paywall) is of the mind that even if you did that, it wouldn't much matter. As the summary of the study states, even if, in the middle of the century, you had 2 billion deaths within a five-year window- 2 billion, a number probably beyond anyone's ability to even comprehend- you'd still have 8.5 billion people on the planet come the year 2100. They extrapolated the two World Wars onto our current global population and it barely did a thing.

The population's about 7.125 billion now, for reference. A global one-child policy would put us anywhere between 5-10 billion (and we were fretting about this back at 5 billion, which we hit in 1987).

We hit 3 billion in 1959. You know 1959, right? That's the year Alaska and Hawaii entered the Union, Fidel Castro took over Cuba, Barbie and the Twilight Zone debuted, the Dalai Lama got asylum in India. Keith Olbermann was born in 1959, John McEnroe, Kevin Spacey, Simon Cowell, Weird Al Yankovic, Rahm Emanuel. If you're into gaming, that's when Nobuo Uematsu and Peter Molyneux were born too. All of those folks were born in a time when there were less than half the people on this planet that there are now. And there isn't really a short-term way to solve that anymore that doesn't involve something that would cause... well over 2 billion deaths, really. The point is that given the rate we reproduce at, we're going to find ourselves back at this point sooner or later unless we figure out something more sustainable and hopefully less omnicidal.

What is the suggestion? Short-term, there isn't one "short of extreme and rapid reductions in female fertility". We won't see anything come of anything we do in our lifetime, so just deal with it. The solution presented is much better family planning. Like, a whole hell of a lot better than we're doing. More birth control (by any and all means), more opting out of having children (maybe look more into adopting or just going without), whatever provides the end result of fewer babies. If we don't, well, the Earth isn't getting any richer in resources and someone's going to get squeezed out of partaking.

Is it a fun thing to say? Or think about? Oh heck no. Is it something people are going to consent to if they don't want to? Absolutely not, but that's the issue here. Earth doesn't care. Earth will give people whatever resources can be gathered, and no more, and if there are so many people using so many resources that the supply runs dry, well, Earth doesn't care. Nature is beautiful, but nature can also exact inhumanly brutal consequences for failing to properly mind it. There are families on this planet where one mouth too many can very easily condemn everyone to a slowly starving existence.

It's no fun to consider, but at least in certain parts of the world, what's fun isn't really the operative consideration. You do what the planet says you can do, or you pay whatever price it decides to exact from you.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Krog Street Tunnel

Every major city has its own tiny little nubbins of local flavor, the kind of things the locals love and the non-locals have very possibly, even probably, never heard of. Madison has things like Owen Conservation Park or Lake Wingra, Milwaukee has the Milwaukee Public Market or the Gertie the Duck statue. In Atlanta, one of those things is the Krog Street Tunnel, linking the neighborhoods of Cabbagetown and Inman Park on Atlanta's east side. The tunnel is completely, continually, constantly painted and repainted with the work of local graffiti artists. There's a tumblr based on this, The Daily Krog. Because that's how often the painting is happening.

But as I type this, there isn't much art there at all. Not because the city cracked down or anything. The artists did it themselves. You see, there's a masquerade ball, the Krog Masquerade. It was scheduled for Saturday, in the tunnel. They had to get a permit first, though, and the artists- and locals aligned with them- argued that the art they put up is supposed to be publicly enjoyed, as opposed to being a backdrop for a private event that makes money for someone else and doesn't give them a cut for their work. (And closes off the bike routes allowing access to the tunnel in the meantime.)

So on Wednesday, after it became clear the masquerade ball would get its permit anyway despite all the complaints, dozens of artists and activists showed up at the tunnel and painted the entire thing grey. The organizers seem unconcerned- they argue that as a portion of the proceeds are going to the Georgia Lawyers for the Arts, their conscience is clear (never mind that the Georgia Lawyers for the Arts are not the actual artists, which is kind of the point of the protest), and that they can just pay some other artists to repaint the tunnel by Saturday night. And indeed, some people are already repainting, though right now it doesn't look much different from any other graffiti-laden surface because there's so much surface to cover.

In the case of art, ultimately, the artist is king. Unless they have been paid for the work and relinquish their rights to that work in the process, it is, at the end of the day, their work, to release into the world- and yes, take out of the world as well- as they see fit. Whatever ground rules the artists set for themselves, so long as they're legal, are the ones that ought to be respected. The understood agreement among Krog Street Tunnel artists is that you can come and paint whatever you want, it is intended to be publicly and freely available at all times, and that at any time someone else can and will come and paint over what you did with art of their own.

Sure. It is technically city property, and the city can do with it what they will. But if the organizers had really understood what the point was behind their intended backdrop, they'd maybe have picked a different backdrop, maybe near the tunnel but not actually in it. But this is what they did, and what is likely to be a shadow of the tunnel's true nature is what they get.

Or maybe they do get the true nature of the tunnel. People have seen canvases that are only one solid color and wondered if it's art. But if that one solid color is meant as a statement of protest, as this grey is, if that color has emotion and purpose behind it, of course it's art. And if the masquerade ball can't see that, even as it's being explained to them... they're not very good patrons of the arts, are they?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Little Tip For Taylor Swift Fans

Hi, fellow Swifties. yes, I am going to be buying 1989 this coming Monday like the rest of you (save for those of you who already preordered). I am excited for that as well. But I have one little piece of advice, since some of you are kind of upset right now over this.

When buying music on iTunes- and this applies to those of you who are fans of other artists too, so listen up- it may pay off to run a quick check, maybe at the running time of the track, perhaps, or playing the preview sample, to make sure the track you're buying isn't, oh, say, 8 seconds of white noise that Taylor released by accident. The fact that enough of you bought it to send it to #1 on the Canadian iTunes charts (at $1.29 Canadian a pop), says... something. I'm not really sure what.

Time and the Atlantic have had quite a bit of fun trying to find out, though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It's rather taken for granted that the NFL isn't merely regarded as something that people want to watch, in spite of all its myriad problems and issues (and with Michael Sam having been cut from the Cowboys' practice squad today, go ahead and add that). It is regarded, rather, as something people have to watch. They have no choice but to watch or else they'll miss out, and not be part of the one conversation everyone will be having the next day, and you don't want that, do you? So you better watch.

No matter what.

And I see that in my life. I've stopped watching college football, but as Wisconsin is heavily, heavily behind the Badgers, people just start talking about the game to me at work even after having told them several times that I don't watch anymore. They still, even after having that explicitly explained to them, just assume that I've seen the Badger game anyway. Because what Wisconsinite isn't watching the Badgers? That's just silly. The Packers are no different, and as I not only root for the Packers but have bought a share of stock (for my dad), I CAN be expected to have seen the game. Or listened to it on the radio, at least, because there is one at work and it always gets tuned to Packer and Badger games (and the Brewers, when possible).

But a funny thing happened this season. My hours at work this year shifted to the least hospitable possible for a football fan. I start at 11 AM, before the noontime kickoff of the early games, and get out at 8 PM, around the second quarter of any night games. Furthermore, my off days are Tuesday and Wednesday, the two days of the week when there is no football anywhere. No high school, no college, no pro. It is now going into Week 9, and I have not seen a single day game this season. I have not seen any game this season played out start-to-finish. I have not, because work says so. You'd think I'd be going crazy right now. I'm missing out on all the football, after all.

That doesn't seem to be happening so far, though. I haven't been making any real sort of outsized effort to take in football this season. Not highlights, not even really the game portions I am able to see (unless the Packers happen to be involved). I am very nearly at a cold-turkey state. And I'm okay with that. I am fine with largely skipping a season and, in the meantime, taking the time to reassess where, precisely, football stands with me. With the actual games, and the perpetual hype attached to them, out of the picture, I can see the scandals, the misplaced priorities, the inherent violence of the sport, and ask myself, really ask myself, how much I want to still associate myself with it all. How much the games, as games, really truly mean to me when I take a step back from them.

And I'm increasingly asking myself if the answer is the one Roger Goodell would want to hear.

The Super Bowl is still going to be watched. That's a family thing that I can recall us having gathered around for since Super Bowl XXIX (49ers over Chargers), and 20 years later I don't see that changing. But if it turns out in the long run that I really don't need that much football in my life anymore, I'm seeing that that's okay. Missing out need not drive you nuts. There are other sports out there, and there's other aspects of life out there.

And then I need to figure out if the fact that my relationship with soccer, which will remain unchanged and undying either way, makes my relationship with football look hypocritical. Because soccer's problems make football's problems look like the kiddie pool.