Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why Yes, That IS the Chattanooga Choo-Choo!

A couple weeks ago, I did a day trip to Chattanooga just to get out of the Huntspatch, and my dad suggested I go see "the Choo-Choo." Mostly this was a photo stop, so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. However, I will point out that the famed Chattanooga Choo-Choo has been turned into a permanently moored hotel and entertainment complex. The most entertaining part for me was the model train museum (okay, so I'm a geek--sue me!). The pictures below cover mostly the train and the train museum. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

So What Happened to My Great American Novel?

When I graduated with my bachelor's degree in English Literature, I decided not to go to grad school because I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. However, I did know that a) I needed money and b) it would have been a waste of taxpayer-subsidized loans to go to grad school if I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself. So 11 days after I graduated, I packed up my car and moved to Orlando, FL, to (briefly) live with my dad. The theory was, I'd write the Great American Novel (hereafter GAM, not to be confused with "those" gams), get rich, and be able to go to Disney World whenever I wanted to. Okay, I wasn't very practical at 21, but who the hell is?

Instead, I ended up working at Disney for 12 years to more or less support my writing habit. Still, I knew I wanted to do something with my literary talents, and answering complaint letters for Der Maus was not high on my list of jobs I wanted to retire from. I went to the 1997 International Space Development Conference, got "religion" and dedicated myself to writing of a somewhat more practical nature. Instead of writing science fiction, which I was no damn good at, I'd put my brain to work marketing space travel in--or off--this world. It wasn't quite practical as my father saw it, but there was at least a market for technical writers, and he dug that. I've been steadily employed as one since 2001, and been in the space business since last year, so I must have done something right. I can, for all practical purposes, call myself a writer, in that I get paid for my work--both on the job and occasionally as a freelancer.

From the time I started my master's degree in 1999, my non-fiction, practical writing began to outweigh my fiction writing. In fact, sifting through my files, I find that my "completed fiction" dwindled down to two or three short stories a year from 2002 to 2006, and nothing finished so far this year. The last long story I finished was a Star Wars novel that is perfectly putrid, but something I'd always wanted to write. That done, several other long projects have been started, put on the back burner, or just plain dropped. The "unfinished fiction" pile has always been much, much larger than the completed pile.

So why haven't I written as much fiction?
  1. My stock answer for the last few years has been, "I don't understand people," which is a damned lie, but gets me out of an otherwise very long conversation. Specifically, I don't understand romantic love, which is what powers a great deal of human behavior and generally adds "human interest" to a story.
  2. I've become much more interested in nonfiction. I'm better at explaining what is than trying to guess at what might be.
  3. Fiction writing is a very different skill from technical writing, which is where my writing brain spends most of its time. Skills like dialogue, character development, and physical descriptions of human action tend to get pushed off to the side after hours and hours of describing space hardware or coming up with impassioned or rational arguments for keeping the space program sold. In short, I've been out of practice.
  4. I act like a professional when it comes to selling my nonfiction work: that is, I keep writing, I finish what I write, and I keep the work on the market until it is sold. Fiction writing has always been fun, therapeutic, and somehow not as serious. I don't make the time for it, as I do my other extracurricular writing. And so it goes.

So: lots of excuses, no real good reason except that my interests changed and I've become lazy. What the heck would I write about now anyway? I've been prevented from writing about space for pay, even in fiction (I'd bet--I haven't put that one to the test). I could write about the space advocate's life, but I'm not sure I want to write about that; the process often frustrates me. Harlequin Romances are out for the obvious reasons noted above. My mother tried for years to get me to write children's stories. That, too, is a little beyond me because I never thought like a kid (or liked kids), even when I was one. That is a specialized skill that a couple of my friends and family members have, and they will always have an open and willing market for their works. I wish them well, but that is not my bag, man. I could try writing non-space-related science fiction or sociological futuristic fiction; alternate history, maybe, or a future without space, but how depressing would that be? Hm. Maybe historical fiction is a possibility. I've always admired the works of James Clavell and Caleb Carr.

Otherwise, I might just have to accept that my literary future lies with writing a few "Great American Nonfiction Books." They aren't as artsy or "literary," but nonfiction tends to outsell fiction anyway. And anyway, if my fiction is truly therapy, then it's nobody's damn business what I'm writing, is it?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What the Heck Happened...

...To the price of cabernet sauvignon? It has gone absolutely nuts. Even the "low-end" stuff is now starting at $9.99 a bottle, and odds are you wouldn't want to drink that. The 99-point stuff listed in Wine Spectator (yes, I'm a subscriber) averages $150 a bottle. Who the heck can afford to buy wine this way, much less drink it? As Jean-Luc Picard said in Star Trek: First Contact, "The economics of the future are somewhat different." Indeed.

Welcome to the future.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rewriting Thomas Jefferson--All Men Are NOT Created Equal

There is a specific reason why Americans opted to embody "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in their founding document, not "liberty, equality, and fraternity" like the French. This comes from an unfortunate missing word in Thomas Jefferson's otherwise-rousing Declaration of Independence: all men are created morally equal. Or, if one believes God is the great law-giver of the universe, one might have have said "all men are legally equal." However, such a creed would not arouse the sort of loyalty that held the Colonies together. Perhaps he might have written, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created morally equal; that, being sovereign unto themselves, they are endowed by certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Why does all this semantic quibbling matter? Because we are not (dig it, accept it) a democracy. Such a conceit is heresy now, when the democratic impulse (liberty, equality, and fraternity) is being imposed ruthlessly across the land. No one wants to admit their little darling is a C-minus student; thus, No Child Left Behind. No one wants to admit that Junior isn't going to be QB for the Bears; so we get rid of competitive sports so as not to hurt his precious feelings. No one likes the fact that Betty Beautiful's parents can afford personalized new pencils and school supplies while Polly Poor's parents had to borrow and scrape just to get the kid dressed; so we have teachers redistributing richer kids' school supplies to them that have none. No one wants to see some little punk insulting their D student because he can spell, write, and form thoughts more clearly, so we get rid of grades, encourage self-esteem, and cut funding for gifted programs to one tenth of what we spend on education for the developmentally disabled. Equality is the rule of the day, and it's not just confined to the world of education.

The pursuit of happiness is not a guarantee of outcomes. That's what comes from promising "equality." Instead, it is a promise for equality of opportunity. The Founders hoped to create an aristocracy of merit, and the bottom-line measure of one's success became money. There are people on this Earth who better writers than I am. There are millions who are more physically capable or technically knowledgeable, and thank God for it, because you don't want me designing a rocket motor or fixing your plumbing. Each person has the freedom to pursue individual own gifts to the limits of his or her abilities.

When you expect equality, you have to find ways to enforce it (see the examples given above). The lofty phrase "All men are created equal" created an unreal expectation of how the world should work. The French took that idea as holy writ, eliminated all forms of privilege or inequality, and thus enjoyed the Terror and eventually the dictatorship of Napolean. They haven't had a stable government since 1789 because they've embraced the socialist philosophy that insists on equality of results. Money means little, a plumber must make the same as a rocket scientist much make the same as a ditch digger, and if there are signs that inequality is appearing, it must be suppressed until someone raises hell over all the regulations.

We're heading there. How far are we willing to go to enforce democracy? Equality? We need to think very hard before the guillotine appears on the streets of Beverly Hills and Manhattan to take down the aristocrats of our age.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Busy Day in the Life of a Middle-Aged Geek

So today began with some quality time helping clean up my church. This was followed by a VERY long day helping the Huntsville Alabama L5 (HAL5) Society set up for a rocket motor firing test. This was a big deal, because we haven't had a live firing test in over a year and because the last two motors blew up.

HAL5, I should explain, is the local chapter of the National Space Society, and has been the incubating organization for several new ventures, including HARC and Orion Propulsion, the latter of which was founded by Tim Pickens, who was chief propulsion engineer for SpaceShipOne. In other words, this is a group of serious rocket enthusiasts who just happen to turn their hobby into reality. Aside from helping with publicity on occasion or small, non-technical tasks on the rocket motor ("C'mere and do this; you can't possibly screw it up"), I take no credit for their successes. It's just a fun group to be around.

First, I'll take a moment to describe the motor, which is a nitrous oxide/HTPB (industrial rubber) hybrid. The motor--an "engine," the English major was informed, has moving parts, motors do not--is about 30 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. Obviously there's more to it than that, but why mess with ITAR, right?

A static rocket motor test involves securing the motor to a firm horizontal surface (test stand). The motor has the HTPB; nitrous is provided by tanks attached to the test stand and fed to the motor through "plumbing." The bulk of the setup time is spent setting up the remote actuators that control the various valves for the nitrous tank; the rest of the time is taken up by "instrumentation," in this case strain gages, which measure how much pressure the motor is experiencing during firing, and load cells, which measure how much thrust the motor is generating.

Because we'd had two motors blow up on us (one of them 1.5 seconds after ignition), we used a "battleship" motor, which is made of very thick, heavy material to prevent an eruption. It won't fly, but it shouldn't shatter, either.

I did make one "useful" run during the day, when I wasn't laying cables or tightening bolts on the test stand: I went to Wal-Mart for bottled water (for the group--Disney taught me well), rags, cookies, and ear plugs, all of which were necessary.

You might have seen a Space Shuttle launch on TV or been lucky enough to go to Florida and see one first-hand. Let me confess here that our motor firing is nowhere near as majestic a sight. However, it does offer something your typical Shuttle launch does not, and that is immediacy. We stand behind a steel-reinforced cargo container, inside a semitrailer that doubles as "mission control," or out in the fields a hundred yards off. And brother, it is STILL loud!

I've heard rocket motor firings described as "white noise." Another description might be that of a long-drawn-out roar of flame. For me, the best way to describe the blast of sound is like having a trumpet belt out a high F from a rock concert speaker directly in your ear, and then sustaining that sound for five to 20 seconds. The flame itself is bright yellow, starting out as a cylinder directly out of the nozzle, widening slightly as it expands into the air, and the gradually tapering into a narrow, thin tail about 20 feet behind the test stand. The sound comes on suddenly, and it can either shake the ground or your nerves (I must suspect the latter, given my inability to keep my camera centered). And then suddenly, it is over--like you've been standing beside Niagara Falls for ten seconds and then are suddenly transported to an empty desert. Boom--it's over. The only thing left is a ringing in your ears and a dirty cloud in the air behind the test stand. Pretty cool for 20 seconds' work.

And the good news for this firing was that our motor lasted 18 seconds or so. It might have gone the full, planned 20 seconds, but our chief engineer was detecting some instability in the combustion, either because we were running low on propellant or the combustion itself was failing. In any case, no one complained, and I distinctly heard a "Yaa-HOO!" from one of our normally unflappable engineers.

When the nitrous tanks had been safed and we could approach the motor, the nozzle was still smoking and the casing oven-hot. Lots of beaming smiles all around, as the group finally had its first successful firing in nearly two years. Even as wires and tubes were being disconnected, someone asked eagerly, "Okay, which motor do we test next?" The sun was nearly set by this point, but we decided to hurry up, detach the battleship motor and attach the flight-weight motor. Setup is relatively easy after all the valves and data collection wires are hooked up.

Sunset came and went, flashlights were quickly replaced by driving up someone's car to illuminate the area. The nitrous piping was running fine, and even the instrumentation was functioning fine. It was the igniter that gave the group fits. Three or four shouts of "Five...four..." were followed by thirty seconds of absolute, baffling silence. After the fourth igniter failed, we gave it up, purged the tanks, and called it a day. "The squibs were just no damn good," our chief engineer muttered in disgust. Perhaps we'll try again tomorrow, perhaps not. Most of the group is married now (as opposed to ten years ago, when they were just starting out on this rocket-building adventure), and spouses are only so forgiving toward loud and balky machinery.

I'll try to repost this report with pictures tomorrow, if Blogspot doesn't burp again. Right now I'm exhausted and ready for some down time. But that, dear readers, is what it's like to be a serious rocket geek in these United States.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Advice from My 98-Year-Old Self

Tonight's Guest Speaker is Bart, aged 98, who decided to drop in (briefly, you understand--it was late and past his bed time) to pass on some advice to his younger self.

I'll keep this short, because I know you have a short attention span: slow down. My joints are aching because you spent so much time running around with your hair on fire as if you were so damned important and everything you did was a matter of life and death. Get over yourself, Junior: you weren't, and it wasn't.

Next: shut up. Listen. For God's sake--and your own--take the time to listen to what other people are really saying. As a bonus, pause to think, decide if you really need to say what you were gonna say, and then, if necessary, say it.

Finally: take the time to love people back. You think that sounds easy. It isn't. I've watched myself these past 60 years, and I let a lot of joy pass me by because I thought I was too busy for it or because I didn't think the other person was worth taking the time for. Someone might read what you wrote, but the people you actually lived and spent time with--those are the ones who will truly remember you.

Now: can you fetch me a beer before I go back to the future? It's too damn polluted in this decade.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ev'rybody Loves the Neocon Raaaaag...

I am a regular subscriber to The Weekly Standard and Commentary Magazine, both of which qualify as "neocon" rags (magazines). I have been greatly impressed by the Standard, which I began reading in the midst of the Gingrich Revolution in the mid-1990s. The insightfulness and generally sane tone of the magazine stood out as a welcome change from, say, Time or Newsweek. However, I first began having doubts about the neocon program when they began advocating for invading the former Yugoslavia, an area in which we had little to no vested interest. And yet there we were, and there was the Gingrich coalition supporting Bill Clinton as he sent airstrikes into Bosnia, Serbia, etc.

My next whack upside the skull came on September 20, 2001, when George Bush announced the "Bush Doctrine," the notion that terrorism abroad could only be fought by overturning repressive governments and turning them into democracies. I remember turning to my roommate and saying, "Wow. That's bold. Can we do that?" Still, I stuck with W and neoconservatism through the Iraq war, even when a coworker whose sanity and levelheadedness I respected pointed out to me, "He hasn't attacked us, you know." But in we went, and there we are. The surge might create a desert and call it peace. And yet, as yet another election approaches, this one without Bush as a candidate and with no signs of terrorist attack imminent, it is time to re-think my 13-year relationship with those who call themselves neocons.

In its October edition, Commentary published an article titled "The Past, Present, and Future of Neoconservatism," which details the rise of the neocons and what they stand for. A few pointed passages can clarify my misgivings:
The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.
Note its origins: neoconservative is a liberal phenomenon, not one with its roots based in the conservatism of William F. Buckley or Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, it consisted of a group of Scoop Jackson-type hawks who were disgusted by the New Left's vehement anti-Americanism during the Vietnam War. Their approach to government was and is inherently expansionist. While they are quick to castigate Bush for showing lack of military will on this or that, they are equally silent about the unnecessary, expensive, and distinctly un-conservative domestic expansion of government.

They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp.

In partnership with the limited-government-loving Reagan, the neocons provided useful allies in the military struggles with the Soviets. It might be that Joe Lieberman is the last "neocon" Democrat. He was almost certainly the last hawkish Democrat, and he was hounded out of the party. Yet now lacking an enemy that (so far) does not require mass conscription or sacrifice, these same pro-military boosters have forgotten the "limited" part of Reagan's creed of limited government.

most traditional conservatives believed that America’s own interests were not sufficiently engaged to justify intervention [in Bosnia]

Thinkers ranging back to John Quincy Adams have cautioned against the desire to "seek dragons to slay" overseas. In other words, the evils of the world are not America's concern until they affect America's vital interests. It is also not America's job to force our moral or political system upon the other nations or peoples of the world at the point of a bayonet. Yet that's been the main thrust (pardon the pun) of American foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson. Just because America has been consistent does not mean that it has necessarily been correct in every case.

neoconservatives, like (in this case) most conservatives, trusted in the efficacy of military force

Sometimes, it seems, they trust in little else. World War II was an anomaly to this extent: the enemy was so blatantly evil that, by contrast, any form of government would have been better. And, in fact, by their very evil, they required "unconditional surrender" to ensure that they would not damage the future peace of the world. And the taming of Germany and Japan still took the better part of a decade. Other, lesser tyrants can simply be kept in place through punishment and armed watchfulness. Consider the pounding Qadaffi received by Reagan and how little direct action he took afterward. Indeed, he was the first to dismantle his nuclear weaponry after Gulf War II, just in reaction to someone else receiving the pointy end of the spear. I admit now, albeit three years too late, that Saddam Hussein probably could have been kept in his box through Operations Other Than War (OOTW, as the military commanders call it). Iran might, as well, though Congress is making even military strikes a political hot button.

It is hard to picture what would be better today, either for the Iraqis or for us and our interests, had we just deposed Saddam and left. Numerous scenarios are imaginable, all of them grisly. Saddam might have been succeeded by one of his equally bloody henchmen, like the infamous “Chemical Ali.” An ethnically-based civil war might have broken out, or the country might have devolved into anarchy like Somalia, except with infinitely more weapons available. Or Iraq’s neighbors might have torn it to pieces, with the largest piece consumed by Iran.

A Saddam Hussein with a bloody nose might heed the lesson not to directly support terrorists attacking the United States. Jerry Pournelle (one of my favorite conservatives) suggested an alternative to the Powell Doctrine ("You break it, you fix it"). Instead of destroying a hostile nation's military and then occupying, we could simply go in, pound the nation's military, and leave, as we did in Gulf War I. And if the nation's leader(ship) makes the mistake of supporting our enemies again, they simply invite another reprisal until they learn the proper lesson. Quick, direct victories that instill a lesson are easily understood by the American public (as they were by the British public 100 years ago), and they do not require that we expose our legions to year after year of low-body-count, high-intensity, and media-warped warfare.

What bothers me most about the Iraq situation is that, if we win (say, for ten years), the neocons will feel vindicated in their approach and seek to invade and hold other nations in the future, like Iran. The next Republican president would do well to take a page from Theodore Roosevelt's playbook: speak softly, and carry a big stick. That would be better than following the neocon temptation to do good and seek to remake the Islamic world in our image. And, while that Republican was at it, he or she might try restrain the growth of government here at home. Again quoting Pournelle, a nation that acts imperially overseas will eventually act imperially at home. It cannot help it.

We can help it by thinking long and hard about whom we choose in the next presidential election.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Upcoming Review of The Singularity is Near

I just submitted a review to the NSS Book Review site on The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil (the review hasn't been posted yet). Kurzweil is an inventor and "big thinker" about artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic research, and all manner of scientific knowledge. I rapidly capitulated to his superior knowledge of his central thesis: that our technologies will eventually reach the takeoff point, become smarter than us, and eventually able to provide us with whatever we need or want.

The theme of my review can be summed up by a quotation from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: "Let us redefine progress to state that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing." That pretty much sums up most of the works of Michael Crichton, too, and I can't say that he's far wrong. Would we want al-Qaeda getting hold of machines that could mass-produce weapons of mass destruction or a supra-intelligent computer capable of crashing the codes that protect our national defenses?

I'm not suggesting we stop technological development. I accept it, and also accept that I can do little about it. ("You might as well write an anti-glacier novel," Kurt Vonnegut once said about war, though it could also relate to technology.) All I think we need to do is take precautions against "the law of unintended consequences" and be mindful of the moral and ethical changes that such an embrace of technology will mean to institutions human beings have kept reasonably stable for centuries or millennia.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Facing Off With My Peers--20 Years Later, Part Deux

So: the reunion. I suppose I held up rather well. I was a bit chunkier than some, had a little more hair than others. Where I stood out the most was, perhaps not surprisingly, for my job. I got a paper award for "Most Unusual Job." Ha! But really, when most of my peers become doctors, businesspeople, lawyers, or go into the trades, where does NASA fit on that dart board? It doesn't.

A lot of the things I worried about in the previous post just didn't happen. Why? Because most of the people who pestered me at that age didn't show up to the reunion. Huzzah! I thrive best in a predator-free environment.

One guy I did want to see was X (no, I'm not giving names, if I can help it). He was an on-again, off-again tormentor from way back. The surprised look on his face--from seeing me and from hearing what I was doing for a living--was worth it. We didn't really speak after that, but he did at least make a point of acknowledging me on the way out the door.

That didn't mean there wasn't any unpleasantness. One cheerleader out in the smokers' area singled me out for hostility because a) she was tanked and b) I appeared to be in much too good of a mood to suit her. She decided to come out with a straightforward slam, the kind I haven't heard, literally, in 20 years, basically the sort questioning my manhood. It was so blatantly false and stupid, I laughed at her. She continued her snappishness. "I like smart guys like you. Let's go right now." Then she took me by the arm to lead me toward the bar. I detached her claw from my elbow, said (in a voice offering advice, not singing a song), "Be happy," and then lost myself in the crowd. Someone out on the smokers' area upgraded to something stronger later; I can't help but wonder...

All but one person in the room I'd pretty much not seen or talked to in 20 years, so it was mostly a game of catch-up: finding out who'd gotten married, who had kids, and what sorts of jobs they were doing. Some of the jobs my peers have are truly inspiring, and I was quite surprised to see how many doctors there were among us: human, veterinary, or otherwise. And there were some ladies and gents who must have a painting in their closets that looks like the very Divil because they had not changed one d@mn bit, some of these ladies looked quite fit after several children. All I can say is, they've been blessed.

A couple of the ladies there, who had teased me quite a bit back in the day (mostly because I was gullible and ignorant), were quite pleased to see me. "You always were nice," one of them said, which I appreciated. Everyone, in fact, seemed quite happy to see me and what I'd done with myself and my career. One of the jocks had become an IT manager of sorts and had married one of our classmates. They were both nice people, so I was pleased to see them. And it was good to see some of the solidly good people, the ones who had made GEHS much less of a hell. There were folks I would have liked to see--my two "protectors" didn't show--but there were also people whom, as I stated, I was quited relieved were not.

Someone pointed out to me that because reunions are optional, the only ones who really want to be there, will be, so they're more likely to be pleasant. Of course there are always one or two...

A couple of folks were trying to push me to show up for the 25th reunion. I'm thinking there's no need to get carried away.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Facing Off With My Peers...20 Years Later

Sometime in the 19th or 20th centuries, someone came up with the idea for the "class reunion." No doubt this person (or people) were feeling nostalgic about the ol' alma mater, and the tradition quickly spread to other schools as well. Having hit a nice, round number since I last matriculated at Glenbard East High School, I decided to take the plunge and attend this event.

I've been of mixed feelings about this matter for years. Any more than two years ago, and I would've told you, "No way in HECK am I going to square off with these people again. I haven't seen them in [X] years--did it ever occur to you that there might be a good reason for that?" And yet.

My friend's mother heard me expressing the above sentiment and told me I needed to get over it. "That was a long time ago. People change." Well, maybe. However, I look at myself, and I realize how much they DON'T change, and I can't say that I'm sanguine about meeting up with people who knew-me-when. My own mother reminded me that, "You know there's a good chance they haven't changed, right?" My mother didn't have a good time in high school, either.

So why didn't I have a good time in H.S.? What was so bad that I graduated a semester early and went to go work at the local Osco Drug to save money for college rather than spend another season in the hallowed halls of GEHS? Well, isn't it obvious, given the content of this page? I was a nerd. Or, more to the point, a wimp. I got along with some folks well enough, even one or two at the higher echelons of the social scale, but on the whole, I probably should've earned an honorary letter in track, given the number of times I ran home out of fear (being chased by bullies) or depression. And, to be fair, I tend to lump my junior high experiences in with high school, since it was essentially the same cast of characters with some new extras for pain and amusement.

And it wasn't just a matter of my peers. I wasn't exactly a treat, either. My junior-year picture is truly something to behold: greasy hair, bad complexion, army shirt, unhappy expression, bad attitude. Today they'd probably peg me as someone who others would watch for "danger signs." However, I never picked up a gun--never even contemplated it, except maybe to turn it on myself--and simply looked upon the whole junior high/high school thing as something to be endured until something better came along. The secret thoughts in my head ended up as shaded science fiction--enemies were punished, the intelligent made supreme, problems were solved--or as a running monologue in my head: One day I'm going to get out of here and get to a place where I won't need to put up with irrational human beings! It turns out I was half right. I did get out and got a better job or two (more on that later). However, the errors, misapprehensions, and social errors I encountered with humanity I learned there first, so the memories are the most outstanding and the most painful. And some of those lessons didn't sink in deeply enough, because I'm still learning them.

There was the mistake I made back in fourth or fifth grade baseball, crying at a baseball game (gimme a break, I was 10 and I got hit by a fastball smack on the left elbow). Why was that a mistake? Because the kids at the game, most of whom did not go to my school, had long memories, and were eager to seek me out as a "target" when I got to the bigger schools. And the hard lesson here was, if you screw up, people have long memories.

There was the time I blew off a shy, quiet girl to go to a dance with an older and more interesting coworker. That was bad enough. Being an idjit, I then lied to her about not going and got caught in the lie because the hard lesson was, people have friends and will tell them what you're doing.

There was the time a kid who had beat me up the previous week told me he was going to leave me alone because another, tougher kid whom I happened to know told him to back off. And the good lesson here was, it's good to have powerful friends. However, there always comes a day when said powerful friend is not around; and then, of course, the lesson is, you can't always rely on your powerful friends to get you out of things. At any rate, I owe my previous powerful friends a drink, at least.

So given all this past anger, angst, aggravation (pick your "A" word), why am I going? Because it really wasn't all bad. Okay, it wasn't that great, but I did have my moments. I was a theater person--box office and backstage techie, mostly. I didn't quite have the flair for acting or the voice for singing. I worked with some good people, and even managed to have a good working relationship with the Theater Director, which wasn't surprising, given my interest in adult intellectual pursuits. I still use one of his favorite lines. When someone says, "I hate X!" and it could be a person, the weather, televangelists, what have you--Mr. H's response would be, "But they've said nothing but nice things about you." Funny guy.

There was also Ms. S, the biology/environmental science teacher, who I was pleased to see is still there, wearing her Hawaiian shirts, and no doubt showing up with a silly hat and a bad accent to be a "guest speaker" for her own classes.

There were athletes and cheerleaders who were surprisingly compassionate (on occasion). "Brains" who could respect me as a fellow intellect, even if I was lazy as a scholar. I had a great time fraternizing with my fellow nerds, writing Star Wars stories or contemplating how to run the best airline or build the best airliner ever. No, those are probably not the normal activities of a high school student, but they beat taking weapons training and plotting how to blow up the school, didn't they? I wrote some passionate fiction in those years, some of which even passes my quality filter today and which I can enjoy as simple stories. I picked up my musical tastes in those days, and it still shows up in my CD collection: Star Wars and Star Trek soundtracks, classic rock, '80s Top 40 pop.

Okay, so there's all that. I've had some positive memories of GEHS, but not enough to go back for a reunion until now. Why now? Because after 20 years, I've finally become who I wanted to be all those years ago. I've done most of the things I wanted to do: moved to Florida, worked for Disney, worked for the military (albeit as a contractor), worked as a writer supporting the space program, even finished an unpublishable Star Wars novel. If there is still trepidation, there is at least pride and not as much shame. Is there some braggin' to be done? Perhaps, but another of those "hard lessons" I learned was not to be an @$$hole about bragging. Or get in people's face about their defects. Or talk down to them. With luck, I can just show up happy. No need to be a jerk about it, just a simple, "See? I made it." And then I can close the book on that part of my life.

Of course there's always a chance that some of those people I irritated, angered, hurt, or insulted are in the mood for payback, just as much as I might feel toward other people, but I'm looking on this as a lesson in humility and human relations. And maybe it's a checkpoint in my personal development. Put me back into a room with a bunch of my former peers, where I learned most of my bad habits, and how will I act? With luck, I'll do fine; but there's always the possibility that, like everyone else, parts of me will never have grown up past high school.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Future of Space Could Be LOST

Why should space advocates and entrepreneurs care about a UN treaty establishing rules for the world's oceans? Because that convention—the Law of the Sea Treaty—places road blocks in the way of future resource development, both on the open seas and eventually out in space.

The U.S. already complies with most of the provisions the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). However, President Reagan rejected LOST in 1982 because of its rules for developing the resources of the unclaimed ocean and the seabeds beneath it. Instead of treating those areas as no-man's-land or open seas, the UN declares them to be “the common heritage of mankind.” In practice, this lofty-sounding phrase means that the unclaimed parts of the ocean are community property, owned by nobody but subject to a new UN bureaucracy called the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The ISA has the authority to decide who explores for and mines the resources of the deep seabed. Any individual company wishing to develop the seabed must pay the UN a $250,000 application fee; explore two sites, giving one to the UN; and pay a portion of earnings from the seabed to ISA for its own expenses and to compensate other nations that are hurt by price shocks from developing these new resources. ISA’s governing board consists primarily of developing nations historically hostile to U.S. interests. The U.S. can form a coalition of nations to block an ISA action, but has no formal veto. And lastly, ISA expects the companies developing the deep seabed to sell the UN or developing nations the proprietary technologies used for the work. This effectively makes the UN or developing nations competitors on territory the company explored. (The treaty no longer “requires” this technology transfer, but the end result is still the same.)

This international regime creates many disincentives to developing the seabed, and offers few good choices for American businesses. They either subject their future profits and proprietary technologies to the UN or forego the opportunity altogether. Now fast-forward 10 or 20 years, and imagine these same regulations applied to the resources of space--ice on the Moon or metals in asteroids; would American businesses willingly submit to this regime when the cost of space efforts is already prohibitively expensive? That won’t happen. And yet, by endorsing LOST, President Bush and the U.S. Senate are opening the space economy to just such a plan.

In 1979, the Senate rejected the Moon Treaty because a similar UN-controlled bureaucracy would have had control over all resources developed in space. Indeed, the discredited Moon Treaty uses the very same language that is used by the Law of the Sea Treaty, as the Moon Treaty declares that space is “the common heritage of mankind.” Even the Soviet Union—the preeminent anti-American power of the day—did not sign the Moon Treaty, which is a descendant of LOST. If we accept LOST, we will face even greater pressure to accept its space-based offspring.

Private enterprise is crucial for the development of a permanent civilization on dangerous frontiers. Government might pave the way, but if people are to stay and make these undeveloped areas a long-term concern, they must have commerce, including the right to develop and profit from local resources. If the private sector does not develop the deep seabeds or the resources of the solar system, it is unlikely that governments will do so. The U.S. already follows and benefits from the bulk of LOST; we need not tie our hands on future development by signing it and accepting its seabed provisions. If the U.S. signs this convention, the future of the space economy will truly be LOST.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Evolution of Political Thought

I just finished reading The Evolution of Political Thought by C. Northcote Parkinson. It's a 1959 publication, so it reflects some of the concerns and prejudices of the time, but on the whole, it was very educational. Parkinson describes the four primary types of human government--monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship--and shows how one type can flow into the next through its own natural defects.

Following the Greek logic, Parkinson explains that a state arises under one leader, a monarch, who was usually able to combine the dual roles of priest and military leader. This monarch (or his/her successors) can have many collateral relatives over the course of time, leading to the growth of semi-royal relatives with no official claim to the throne, but some desire to share power, thereby leading to aristocracy. An aristocracy, if fluid and based on merit, can result in more and more people being given the rights of "nobles," leading inevitably to democracy. Democracies begin to perish when political equality can no longer be squared with financial inequality, leading thence to socialism or some other collectivist structure that seeks to level the playing field for all. This slide toward socialism usually leads to instability and unrest, to the point where people prefer one leader over an expanding and intrusive bureaucracy, thus giving rise to dictatorship. Dictators dare not step down and dare not allow anyone to share power--that was not a condition of the dictator's rise to power--and so the able are suppressed or killed and little room is made or left for a successor. The power vacuum left by a dictatorship can often lead to a desire for monarchy, which is similar to dictatorship but more stable and amenable to succession.

And so it goes. There were some surprises in this book: one of which was Parkinson's declaration that the Soviet Union was a theocracy. And yet it's hard to argue with his logic: they had a holy text (Capital), a God (Marx), and a living incarnation of the deity (Lenin, Stalin); they were concerned primarily with "orthodoxy"; and they viciously suppressed any who disagreed with the Laws. One need only look to Ahmadenijad's Iran for similar practices, though in more blatantly religious form.

On a similar line of thought, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind described the United States as an aristocracy (of merit), which only gradually shifted to becoming a democracy. The Civil War can be seen as the last battle between aristocratic and democratic forces in this nation. Fascinating.

Another point that made Parkinson's book unique was that he finishes up in his Epilogue by stating no preference of one governmental form over another. His primary point, he states, is more to show how the weaknesses of one form can (usually but not inevitably) lead to the next. To overcome this "wheel of history," Parkinson recommends that political science do what the physical sciences did around the time of the Renaissance: throw out all of the "known, revealed truths" and start examining the world as it is. He argues for scientific studies of political forms, specific measurements of behavior and activity, and most importantly, performance.

This reminded me of a line from Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. A teacher is asked why their particular form of government--rule by veterans and those who give at least three years of their lives to federal service--continues. He responds, simply, "because it works." Parkinson believes that until we better understand how people function in groups, how different solutions work in different contexts (large areas vs. small island nations), and what is meant by "working," we will continue to live with the wheel of monarchy-aristocracy-democracy-dictatorship. He does state, however, that he doubts if any "solution" can last more than 20 years. He describes any long-term solution to stable human government as utopian. For examples, one need only reference all of the different nations, kingdoms, and empires in his narrative that have all fallen into the dustbin of history.

One reason space settlement is so important is that distant colonies offer new opportunities for experiments in government, such as Parkinson describes. Of course as an American I would ardently hope for the establishment of free societies in space, but I reckon that we will see many different experiments, especially if China and India are serious about their desires to explore the solar system. The most detailed experiment in political utopianism in space is Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. I absolutely disagree with its anti-capitalist and socialist premises, but at least KSR took the topic of political organization on other worlds seriously.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Trying to Find a New Hobby

The wonders of Zoom--this dude looks bigger than he is.

Flowing water.

Not the Great Wall, just the back side of a set of mail boxes.

The front side of the mail boxes.

Multiple "lakes" in my neighborhood...

Cleared for takeoff...

...where skies are so blue

More to come.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Targeted Marketing vs. One Message to Rule Them All

When I first got into this space advocacy business, I was looking at things from a national perspective: How do we get the whole country to support a spacefaring civilization? This sort of thinking requires a Herculean effort--attempting to win hearts and minds--change people, in fact. A few things have happened since my first ISDC in 1997. September 11, for one. I've gotten a master's degree, returned to the church, and done a lot more reading about human history. The more I read, the more I realize that John F. Kennedy's 1961 Man-Moon-Decade push was a fluke, a lucky conjunction of statesmanship, politics, faith in government, and wartime fear of communism. We've been sorely lacking in statesmanship (minus Bush right after 9/11) and faith in government for awhile now. Politics has become too polarized for a national consensus. All that leaves is fear.

We could, of course, push for the old nationalist line: fear of the Chi-coms, a resurgent Russia, a technologically advancing India. We could use fear of terrorism as a reason to push ourselves toward something greater--to prove to the world that our way of life is truly better, more advanced, etc. (However, our enemy is anti-technological, and in fact appeals to its followers by promising to bring down the technological powers.) We could use fear of environmental degradation to push our industries into orbit or onto the airless Moon and the asteroids (and thereby run the risk of being castigated by environmentalists for "polluting" places with no biospheres). We could use fear of energy shortages, gas lines, and more oil wars to get people behind space solar power. Or finally, we could use the fear of giant rocks from the sky to get the nation to support advanced technologies that would deflect or destroy incoming asteroids.

Fear, however, only goes so far.

One could press for more positive ideas, like expansion of the economy (my preference): hotels in orbit, machine shops on the asteroids, restaurants on the Moon. As the advocates kept reminding me at that first ISDC, "Anything we do on Earth we'll have to do in space." The problem with my idea of a service economy in space is that it still takes a lot of heavy industry and science just to get UP there. And businesses won't invest in new technologies to make the trip to orbit cheaper until they can be assured of a return on investment. The chicken-and-the-egg problem has long plagued the space economy. The good news is, it's not just government making the attempt now.

One could also appeal to altruism, spirituality, "cosmic consciousness," and the need for human beings to broaden their horizons. The Overview Effect talks about how human beings who have seen Earth from space have had a fundamental change of attitude toward their lives. Well, okay, maybe. But eventually they've come back to Earth and reassimilated among their fellow human beings, who are still as short-sighted and cantankerous as ever. One thing I've picked up from my reading has been a fundamental understanding that human nature doesn't change much.

So when I wrote my thesis in 2002, I decided to take human beings as they are, and assumed that they would not be overawed by a mystical, world-changing philosophy, nor would they submit to some technocratic rule from above saying, "You must do this for your own good." I assumed, instead, that they would think mostly in terrestrial terms, and that I would have to work with that mindset first.

I looked at the skills I had and the persuasive techniques that work in the "real world." I decided that what space advocates needed to do was incorporate a mix of technical communication (convey techical information), politics (change public attitudes and legislation), and marketing (developing goods, services, and messages that meet customer needs). Advocates have been working on politics and technical communication for years, with only minimal success. However, having spent 12 years or so at Walt Disney World, I knew the power of marketing--its ability to generate hype, increase excitement, and build name/brand recognition. I also knew that space advocates seemed to have little of it. A little Marketing 101 also taught me that mass marketing--devising one message for a broad audience--was passé. So I began looking at targeted marketing.

The messages that the National Space Society, et al., use have appealed to and attracted mostly WASP males. Picking target markets was easy: women, minorities, young people...anyone who was not in abundance at ISDC or other conferences. Call it audience analysis, call it market research, call it polling, it all adds up to the same thing: we need to know our audience. This means asking questions, taking risks, reading publications outside the WASP-male norm for insights. It also means putting off the space advocates' normal desire to talk about the rockets first. We need to understand what our Earth-minded brethren and sistren are thinking about, interested in, and doing; engage them on that basis first; and then relate their interests to space.

This is not easy, even though I consider myself somewhat sociable. It means risk taking, it also means risking occasional boredom, as I learn "what normal people" care about. I write that unself-consciously because I'm well aware that most people are not interested in space, much less advocates. But this must be done. It would be nice to think that some day we'll get a president at just the right moment who will say just the right thing at just the right time and--WHAMMO!--Instant return to glory. History and human nature suggest otherwise. We must take people as they are, one by one, or in smaller groups, and engage them on that level. When there are enough smaller groups interested in space, it will be easier to get a larger consensus for setting space-related national priorities.

Several years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars, suggested that all reasons (for going to Mars) were not created equal, and that we had to be very careful about what ends we finally decide to pursue in exploring space. I find this line of thinking very short-sighted and more than a little elitist. If one believes that Mars or the Moon is only to be a haven for scientists interested in forming a scientific commune, then by all means, let us continue on the slow path toward a government-run space business. However, such an agenda will have a very difficult time obtaining, much less sustaining, political support over the decades. The best way to get human beings to Mars is to get more people to want to go to Mars. And, again, that means engaging individuals one on one, even if it takes a long time and even if some of those individuals use their freedom badly.

Targeted marketing amounts to a ground-up, grassroots approach to space advocacy. Top-down messages have less and less effect these days, and perhaps that's to the better. But that does mean a lot more work ahead for advocates like me, for many years to come.