Archive for July, 2015

The Final Frontier

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 5:42 pm, Friday, July 31st, 2015

As is often the case, when it’s the end of the month and I don’t have anything in particular to write about, I write about spaceships.

  • The cause of the SpaceX rocket explosion has been announced as a strut that snapped due to a manufacturing defect. It doesn’t sound like there is 100% confidence that’s actually what happened, but if it was the cause then it’s a relatively easy fix and one that will lead to a more reliable vehicle. Future launches aren’t expected to be postponed more than a few months while the issue is addressed.
  • NASA’s giant new rocket, creatively named the “Space Launch System (SLS)”, has had several successful engine tests and is scheduled for first flight in 2018. It would be the most powerful rocket ever launched, but is unfortunately a machine without a clear purpose – there are no imminent plans to send people to Mars or the moon, and with a price tag of at least $500 million per launch (and up to $5 billion by some critical estimates) it is far more expensive than any other option for satellite launches or space station resupply missions.
  • The New Horizons spacecraft just zoomed by Pluto, providing some surprising information about a dwarf planet that is about 40 times further away from the sun than the Earth is. This plucky little spacecraft was initially cancelled in 2000, but a large backlash revived its funding, and it spent nearly a decade after its 2006 launch reaching the edge of the solar system. Its useful life is expected to be 15 years, meaning there should be plenty of science to come as it travels through the Kuiper Belt.

Last of all, for anyone not quite clear on how far away Pluto really is, here’s a model of the solar system that has been scaled so that the moon is the size of a single pixel. Spoiler alert: Pluto is FAR away.

False color image of Pluto

False color image of Pluto, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. We live in a time when robots are sending us photos of other planetary bodies from 4.7 billion miles away, and that is AWESOME. Photo from NASA.

Not Political

Posted from 35,000 feet over Texas at 10:48 pm, Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Despite the higher-than-normal number of recent journal entries on political topics, there’s still a bunch of political stuff that I’d like to think through further via a journal entry – the ongoing drama surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversy over the hunting death of Cecil the Lion, the Iran nuclear deal, etc. But too much politics gets old fast, so here’s an entry about groceries and Tanzania instead.

Exactly one year ago today on July 28, 2014 I was travelling from Istanbul to Tanzania on a plane that turned out to be too broken to fly. This flight occurred after two amazing weeks exploring Turkey and with two-and-a-half months remaining in what may be the most epic trip I ever take in my life. I woke up the following morning with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, spent the next four weeks on safari, then roamed South Africa for two weeks before Audrey and I embarked on a four-week odyssey in Madagascar. In what seems to be some sort of time displacement that gets more pronounced as I get older, that trip feels like it took place an incredibly long time ago, but simultaneously it somehow doesn’t seem like a lot of time has passed since it ended.

Today I’m writing this journal entry from a plane on a comparatively much less exciting trip to San Antonio for work. HEB made the prudent choice of selecting Commerce Architects to take care of their web site in the coming months, so I’ll be visiting Texas on a regular basis and working with a small team to turn their site into a streamlined grocery-dispensing beast. While photographing lemurs would be more exciting, selling groceries online is a surprisingly interesting application given all the constraints around what can be shipped, what needs to be picked up from the store, differing inventories across hundreds of stores and warehouses, etc, so it should be a fun technical challenge. I’m not one of those people who would gush about loving his job – I’d rather be on an extended road trip – but especially when things are going smoothly I enjoy the constant problem-solving, and it’s extremely rewarding when the solution to those problems ends up being particularly elegant or clever. The flip side of that “rewarding” aspect is that Audrey often discovers me spending an inordinate amount of time pacing around the living room when the elegant solutions prove to be elusive, often resulting in long periods of frustration followed by concentrated bursts of inspiration, but if that wasn’t the case they probably wouldn’t call it “work”.

Life continues to move along in positive directions, and I continue to be grateful for the abundance of good fortune I’ve experienced thus far.

Cappadocia sunrise

Cappadocia sunrise from last July. Life lesson: when you are taking time to enjoy the sunrise on a regular basis, things are usually going pretty good.

Flags

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:51 pm, Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Against better judgement, here’s one more political post about a current event that’s been on my mind. Journal entry topics should return to postings about the heat in San Antonio and pictures of birds very soon.

The Confederate flag has been in the news, and companies have been scrambling to disassociate themselves from it, even to the point where TV Land pulled re-runs of Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule. I’ve got three thoughts.

First, I think many of those opposed to the Confederate flag have failed to recognize its legitimate use as a symbol of Southern identity. Just as Black culture or Irish culture or Japanese culture is a thing, so is White southern culture – hunting, fishing, country music, saying “ma’am”, driving a pickup truck, drinking sweet tea, etc. Insofar as people identify with that culture, having a shared symbol of that identification is a way of celebrating a lifestyle, and many of those flying the Confederate flag view efforts to remove it as an attack on their identity as a group. Despite that obvious fact, I’ve not heard anyone who opposes the flag tempering their opposition with a recognition that people should have every right to celebrate their identity. The General Lee didn’t have the Confederate flag on it because Bo & Luke were racists, it was there because they were Southern and proud of being country boys.

Second, it’s inarguable that to many people the Confederate flag represents racism. The KKK doesn’t carry the flag at marches to show that they like fishing, and if you’re a Black person you most definitely don’t see the flag and think of country music. Insofar as the Confederate flag was the symbol of a society that embraced slavery and oppression of minorities, it has no place in public squares or on government buildings. Furthermore, those that display it as a way of celebrating Southern identity should recognize that what to them is a celebration of culture is something that represents the worst of humanity to many others. Southerners have every right to celebrate their identity, but it’s long overdue for there to be a serious discussion about finding another symbol of Southern identity that isn’t simultaneously a symbol of racial hatred.

Finally, the focus on the flag came about after a horrific series of murders by a white supremacist. While this horrible act had the positive effect of focusing attention on issues of race, it seems to me that those who captured the moment focused almost all of the attention on a symbol of racial injustice at the expense of addressing the actual issues. One thing about the political correctness movement that irks many people (myself included) is that it seems to generate unending outrage, but little in the way of meaningful results. Raising awareness about why the Confederate flag is seen as a horrific symbol is good, but it’s a minor issue when compared with the actual problems related to race in America. Wouldn’t we be better off if the same amount of effort and attention that was put into repudiating the Confederate flag was instead put into encouraging people to attend events that promote positive interactions between different ethnic and social groups, or to attend a service at an inner city church, or to begin a serious national effort to address the continuing under-representation of minorities at colleges and businesses? Gay marriage was legalized because the majority realized that gay people were their friends and neighbors, not because we censored the word “faggot” from everyday language; similarly, racism will only disappear when we stop seeing people as different, and not because a flag is lowered. In this case, I can’t help but feel that media attention, protests, and speeches by politicians was a lot of effort devoted to winning a “victory” that will have little or no permanent effect on the real problems that truly matter.

As with most things, both sides in this debate paint it as black-and-white, when the truth is that the issue is hugely complex. Those opposed to the Confederate flag have a responsibility to recognize that Southern culture is real and worth celebrating, while those flying the flag have a responsibility to recognize that the symbol they have chosen to represent their culture comes with a massive amount of racist baggage. That said, the fact that the country chose to focus the debate on a flag, going so far as to celebrate a “victory” when a single copy of that flag was lowered at a state Capitol, while doing almost nothing that might actually address the very real racial divide that still exists in America, is a dismaying commentary on both the desire and ability of the USA to address this issue meaningfully.