Saturday, August 17, 2019

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sunday Reading

Between the Moon and Woodstock — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on two events in the summer of 1969 that both defined the era.

Anyone old enough to remember the moon landing, fifty years ago today, is also old enough to remember what was said about the moon landing while it was happening. At the time—the very height of the Vietnam War, when the establishment that had sent up the rocket faced a kind of daily full-court-press rebellion, from what had only just been dubbed the “counterculture”—the act of sending three very white guys to the moon seemed, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, like the final, futile triumph of Wasp culture. It was still called that then, to distinguish it from the culture of Italian and Jews and the other “ethnic” whites, who were seen, in Michael Novak’s famous phrase, as “unmeltable ethnics,” not at all as part of the élite caste of white people. (O tempora! O mores!)

Mailer’s book on the topic, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” which was serialized in Life magazine, another long-gone instrument of that culture, was the usual mid-period Mailer mix of eight parts bullshit to two parts very shrewd observation—in some of his earlier books, the shrewd stuff was all the way up to three parts—but its interpretation of the meaning of the moon landing is still potent. The Apollo 11 mission was, he insisted, chilling in its self-evident futility, its enormous orchestrated energy, and its ultimate pointlessness. We went there because we could go there, with the strong implication that this was also, to borrow the title of another Mailer book, why we were in Vietnam; the Wasp establishment had been restless since it got off the Mayflower, and was always seeking new worlds to conquer for no reason.

What is easy to forget now is that it was a summer balanced between two equally potent national events: the Wasp triumph of the moon landing, answered, almost exactly a month later, by the counterculture triumph of Woodstock. (This reporter recalls standing on a street corner that summer, in Philadelphia, selling copies of an underground weekly, Distant Drummer, with the headline “Woodstock Ushers in Aquarian Age” and nary a word about the moon.) Of the two events, there was no question which seemed more central to anyone under thirty.

Nowadays, of course, if Woodstock were to happen as it happened then—the mud, the squalor, the late shows, the bad acoustics—everyone would complain, and the organizers would all be brought up, so to speak, on Fyre Festival charges. And if we could send a man to the moon again—well, it wouldn’t likely be a man, and almost certainly not one called Buzz, and we wouldn’t talk about a small step for a man or a giant leap for all mankind.

The moon landing is, if anything, more urgently felt as cultural material now. Some of that is due to helpfully revisionist history, which makes the event seem slightly less Waspy, slightly more Woodstockian. The moon mission has yet to be queered, as they say in academia, but it has been re-gendered. The role of women in making the moon landing happen, which back then was presented solely in the images of the tasteful, cautious astronaut wives, has been greatly deepened. (Though one of the virtues of Ron Howard’s fine film “Apollo 13” was to allow, in the character of Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, nicely played by Kathleen Quinlan, the grit in those dutiful space wives to shine through.)

There was, of course, the movie “Hidden Figures,” from 2016, which documented the shamefully under-sung role of three African-American women at NASA in making the Mercury program possible. Another, more eccentric retelling, Nicholas de Monchaux’s terrific book “Spacesuit,” from 2011, describes how Italian-American seamstresses, accustomed to making women’s underthings, made the astronauts’ overthings. It was “a story of the triumph over the military-industrial complex by the International Latex Corporation, best known by its consumer brand of ‘Playtex’—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness.” Most recently, we have been re-instructed in the crucial role of the computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led a team at M.I.T. that wrote the software—though it was not yet often referred to as such—that made the flight possible.

In a larger sense, though, the two landmark events might best be seen as one, since both the moon landing and Woodstock were, above all, tech fests. Though the rhetoric of Woodstock was swooningly pastoral—“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” the great Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t there, sang—the truth is that it was the new Marshall stack of amplifiers that made hearing the music possible. When Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner”—shocking one half of America and delighting the other by turning the anthem into a delirious machine-gun, air-raid-siren shriek—it was on a Marshall 1959 system, with two four-by-twelve-foot cabinets (his “couple of great refrigerators”). That was, in its way, as much a triumph of Anglo-American artisanal tech—Jim Marshall was English, but the Fenders, who made Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitar, were Californian—as the onboard computers. Indeed, the two events were more alike than they seemed then, since both took place in remote, inaccessible settings and became public, above all, through long-distance broadcasts: everyone saw Woodstock in the movies and heard it on records, as they saw the moon landing on television. What no one could have foreseen then was that the two veins would meet in the efflorescence of post-Woodstock high-tech culture—the pop culture of the Steve Jobs generation—that has become the central American preoccupation of the period that came next, our own. Pop culture dependent on new tech and new tech pressed to the uses of pop culture—that’s our anthem, our music.

The curious thing is that, in the midst of our own overkill tech culture, the moon shots suddenly look attractively modest, like a decent, craftsmanlike approach to a problem presented. The most moving cultural representations of NASA and the Apollo missions lie in dramatizations not of the tech triumphs themselves but in the human struggles that made them happen—in, for instance, Ed Harris’s wonderful performance in “Apollo 13,” as the flight director Gene Kranz, who was also the flight director of Apollo 11. When everything goes sideways, and panic is imminent, and all seems lost, Kranz says, simply, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

Those words—like the more famous statement attributed to Kranz, “Failure is not an option”—may be apocryphal. But his official, recorded words seem even more apropos. After the catastrophe of Apollo 1, when three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died in a prelaunch rehearsal, Kranz gave a speech to his NASA team. “From this day forward,” he said, “Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough’ and ‘competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do, or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities.” He continued, “Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. . . . Each day, when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

“Tough” and “competent” were, well, echt Wasp words, as Mailer would doubtless have pointed out. (Woodstock words were more often magical-minded: “wild” for charismatic leadership, and “weird,” meaning expert.) But it is worth being reminded of the genuine values those words once held: “tough” for Kranz meant the opposite of showy braggadocio; it meant being accountable and taking responsibility for what we do. “Competent,” in that dialect, meant actually being good at something difficult, and valuing expertise and education above all else. These words could still be the price of admission to a position of leadership, in a broadened and diverse America, as much as they were to the narrowly defined team back then. They might still get us out of the mud, and onto the moon.

John Nichols in The Nation on the 95 who voted for impeachment last week.

”My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” declared Congresswoman Barbara Jordan as she embarked on the work of impeaching a president in 1974.

The Texas Democrat’s use of the word “spectator” was deliberate and vital. Members of the US House of Representatives were afforded the impeachment power not as an option but as a duty. It is an essential instrument of the Constitution, and it should be employed not when it is convenient but when it is necessary.

Ninety-five members of the House decided this week that it was necessary. They voted to consider a resolution from another Texas Democrat, Congressman Al Green, to impeach Donald Trump for using racist language to attack four Democratic congresswomen of color. Many of Green’s fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued for a slower process that would allow congressional inquiries to consider additional evidence of presidential wrongdoing—a process that next week will feature testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller. The opponents of Green’s proposal prevailed.

But the Texan told them they were on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the moment we are now in. Green argued that the issues and the moment were too urgent for any more delays. “The Mueller testimony has nothing to do with his bigotry. Nothing. Zero. Nada,” declared the congressman. “We cannot wait. As we wait, we risk having the blood of somebody on our hands—and it could be a member of Congress.”

Not long after the congressman uttered those words, the president was doubling down on his attacks—naming the names of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Trump announced, “They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.” At the mention of the name of Omar, who came to this country as a refugee from Somalia, wild chants of “send her back” erupted, as a gleeful Trump egged on the crowd.

Trump dismissed Green’s proposal to impeach him as “ridiculous.” In fact, it was a modern variation on a historic article of impeachment against one of the most vile presidents in American history: Andrew Johnson. Faced with objections to his undermining of the post–Civil War work of Reconstruction, his veto of civil rights legislation, and a litany of other concerns regarding his vile statements and obnoxious behavior, Johnson appeared at rallies across the country to rile up his supporters. His language was incendiary. As the University of Virginia’s Miller Center recalls, “Johnson [denounced] the so-called ‘Radical Republicans,’ specifically Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Senator Charles Sumner, and reformer Wendell Phillips, as traitors.”

Johnson accused his congressional rivals of “trying to break up the government.” He appealed to soldiers to “stand by me” in his confrontation with his critics, so that, “God being willing, I will kick them out. I will kick them out just as fast as I can.”

On February 24, 1868, the House voted 126-47 for 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson—including Article 10, which charged him with attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” Johnson would, by a single vote, escape removal from office by the Senate. But the House had done its job. And history reflects far more charitably on the chamber that checked and balanced Johnson, as opposed to the one that allowed the foul pretender to remain in office.

Trump uses different language than Andrew Johnson, But his demonization of his critics, particularly women of color, is straight out of his predecessor’s playbook. And so it was appropriate that Al Green’s response was straight out of the playbook of the Radical Republicans who challenged Johnson on behalf of racial justice and the republic.

The articles of impeachment against the 17th president of the United States took him to task for “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against members of Congress. He deserved to be impeached for that. And he was.

Trump’s go-back-where-you-came-from racism merits an equal response. The full House refused to provide it. But 95 members of Congress, all of them Democrats, answered the call of constitutional responsibility with their votes on July 17, 2019. It is important to record their choice to take up the issue of impeachment, and to do so for this reason. We know that they acted for different reasons: some were ready to impeach immediately, some wanted to have the debate, some wanted to assure that Green’s proposal received proper consideration from the proper committee. What matters is that 95 members refused to go along with the tabling of Green’s resolution.

House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler was one of them, as was Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee chair Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) joined them in voting to explore the prospect of impeaching the president for on the grounds that he has “brought the high office of the President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace, and disrepute, has sown seeds of discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.”

So did Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass (D-CA). Tlaib, a stalwart champion of impeachment, was joined by Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar in voting to have the impeachment debate. They were joined some of the savviest members of the chamber, including Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, the constitutional scholar who has done so much to put the struggle to impeach Johnson in context.

Remember these votes to have the debate on Al Green’s impeachment resolution—these votes to take Donald Trump’s racism as seriously as a previous Congress did Andrew Johnson’s racism.

History will eventually look as favorably on the courageous 95 who moved to hold Trump to account as it does on those who moved against Johnson 151 years ago. As for those who voted to table Al Green’s resolution? Many of them may yet come to embrace their constitutional duty. For now, however, they have chosen not to place a whole faith in the Constitution and, instead, to serve as spectators.

Doonesbury — Place your bets.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

We Have Liftoff

Fifty years ago this morning — Thursday, July 16, 1969 at 9:32 a.m. EDT — Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Canaveral for the moon.  I remember the moment vividly.  I watched it from a little TV in our kitchen as I got ready to go out to my math class at summer school.  I may have been a little late to the 10:00 a.m. class, but I wasn’t going to miss it.

The next day I went up to my grandmother’s place in Michigan where we watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon Sunday night.

What’s amazing is we did it at a time when computing was in its infancy — your average iPhone has more computing power than the Apollo 11 capsule and LEM put together.  And we did it in eight years; from the first suborbital flight of Alan Shepard to Tranquility Base despite setbacks and tragedy.  Yes, there was the pressure to beat the Russians, but it was also the drive to fulfill a goal that seemed so far out of reach that the only thing to do was to do it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday Reading

John Cassidy in The New Yorker argues that the indictment of Julian Assange is a threat to journalism.

Imagine that, in the summer of 2014, the Justice Department had indicted Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, charging that, in 2010, he engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, to “facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”

How do you think the editorial page of the New York Times would have reacted? (In July, 2010, the Times joined with the Guardian and Der Spiegel to publish tens of thousands of the documents that Manning provided to WikiLeaks.) What about the editorial page of the Washington Post, which published extensive stories about the leaked material? This material included video footage from 2007 of a U.S. Army Apache gunship carrying out an attack in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqi civilians who were working for Reuters.

We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the Times would have published an editorial that said, “The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime.” It also seems unlikely that the Post would have published an editorial that said, “Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.” Both of these statements were contained in editorials that the Times and the Post, respectively, published on Thursday, after Assange was arrested, in London, and Donald Trump’s Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment that federal prosecutors filed in Northern Virginia, last year.

Of course, a great deal has happened since 2014, much of it awful. During the 2016 Presidential election, Assange and WikiLeaks repeatedly published information that was damaging to the Democratic Party and to Hillary Clinton, timing the releases for maximum political damage. Assange denied that the Russian government was the source of this information, but, last summer, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, charged twelve Russian intelligence operatives with hacking D.N.C. servers and the e-mail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. Mueller’s indictment said that the Russian spies “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release additional stolen documents through a website maintained by an organization (‘Organization 1’),” which was WikiLeaks.

Whether he knew it or not, Assange was a key participant in an outrageous Russian effort to sow division inside this country and help Donald Trump. It is understandable that the events of 2016 have heavily colored perceptions of Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to the United States. (“Once in the United States, moreover, he could become a useful source on how Russia orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign,” the Times editorial noted.) But it is important to recognize that the legal charges against him have nothing to do with Russia or the 2016 election. They relate exclusively to his dealings with Manning, in 2010. As numerous media watchdogs and civil-rights groups have already pointed out, they amount to a dangerous attack on the freedom of the press and on efforts by whistle-blowers to alert the public of the actions of powerful institutions, including the U.S. government.

In explaining the charges against Assange, the indictment’s “manners and means of the conspiracy” section describes many actions that are clearly legitimate journalistic practices, such as using encrypted messages, cultivating sources, and encouraging those sources to provide more information. It cites a text exchange in which Manning told Assange, “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” and Assange replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” If that’s part of a crime, the authorities might have to start building more jails to hold reporters.

The indictment, and some of the commentary it engendered, also makes much of the fact that Assange offered to try to crack a computer password for Manning. The Department of Justice claims that this action amounted to Assange engaging in a “hacking” conspiracy. Even some independent commentators have suggested that it went beyond the bounds of legitimate journalism—and the protections of the First Amendment.

But did it? On Thursday, my colleague Raffi Khatchadourian, who has written extensively about Assange, pointed out that, as of now, it looks like Assange didn’t do much, if anything, to crack the password once Manning sent the encrypted version. Khatchadourian also pointed out that federal prosecutors have known about this text exchange for many years, and yet the Obama Administration didn’t bring any charges. “As evidence of a conspiracy,” Khatchadourian writes, “the exchange is thin gruel.”

Even if Assange had succeeded in decoding the encryption, it wouldn’t have given Manning access to any classified information she couldn’t have accessed through her own account. “Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log onto the computers using a username that did not belong to her,” the indictment says. “Such a measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of disclosures of classified information.” So the goal was to protect Manning’s identity, and Assange offered to assist. But who could argue that trying to help a source conceal his or her identity isn’t something investigative journalists do on a routine basis?

Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the indictment as “deeply troubling” because of the precedent it sets. “With this prosecution of Julian Assange, the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest,” Mahoney warned.

The editorial in the Times did ultimately acknowledge “that the prosecution of Mr. Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers.” The Post’s editorial didn’t even go that far. Instead, it ended by saying Assange “is long overdue for personal accountability.” Many people would agree with that statement. But it is important not to view absolutely everything through the prism of 2016.

Putting The Picture Together — Marina Koren in The Atlantic on how the pieces came together to get the picture of the black hole.

The picture of a black hole, captured for the first time, shows a ring as radiant as gold against the darkness of space. At its center, the charcoal shadow of a void so powerful, nothing can escape its pull.

The dreamy photograph represents a tremendous technological achievement, assembled using eight radio telescopes in four continents—two each in Hawaii and Chile, and one each in Arizona, Mexico, Spain, and Antarctica—all synced together to scan the skies for several days in a row.

But the picture would not exist without technology much less sophisticated: computer disk drives.

The telescopes’ data had to go to two astronomy institutions to be processed, MIT’s Haystack Observatory in the United States and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. An email attachment wasn’t going to work. The observatories had collected five petabytes of data. The average iPhone has 64 gigabytes of data storage. One million gigabytes are in one petabyte. It would have taken years for the data to cross the internet.

And so the data were carried on hundreds of hard disk drives, shipped to and from the observatories through plain old FedEx. Which is kind of marvelous, when you think about it. In a world where transferring information from one end of the world to another takes only a click, some things still have to be done the old-fashioned way. Humanity owes its first glimpse of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe not to something flashy and high tech, but a technology that has been around since the late 1950s, and transportation methods far older.

And to find out how it’s done, you have to talk with Don Sousa.

Sousa is a computer-support specialist at the Haystack Observatory. He’s also the shipping guy. He handled virtually every shipment for the Event Horizon Telescope, the effort to photograph a black hole.

Sousa grew up a few towns over from Haystack and has the trademark Boston-area accent to prove it. Over decades at the observatory, he has packaged equipment, put in orders, wrangled foreign customs regulations, and filled out reams of paperwork so that all kinds of hardware, from atomic clocks to disk drives, gets where it is needed. Before disk drives became widely available, he shipped reels of magnetic tape. “It’s amazing the differences from the mid-eighties, when I started, to what we do now,” Sousa says.

For the Event Horizon Telescope, Sousa packaged the disk drives in groups of eight. (“These are off-the-shelf hard drives,” he says. “You could buy them for your own personal computer if you wanted.”) The stacks were placed inside custom cases that allowed data to be recorded on all eight drives at once. Each module—eight disks, plus their custom coating—weighed about 23 pounds. Sousa shipped them in boxes labeled fragile and lined with a two-inch layer of foam, with cutouts in the middle to snuggle the modules, like precious jewelry in an antique box.

Sousa says he uses mostly FedEx and UPS. Some routes were trickier than others. Chile and Mexico had stricter rules about what could cross their borders. Sousa had to obtain a special license from the U.S. Department of Commerce to ship a particular piece of equipment to Mexico.

The toughest destination was the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. Without a nation to decide customs law, the continent relies on shipping agencies in Christchurch, New Zealand, which dispatch cargo ships and planes to the ice. Sousa had to coordinate with the National Science Foundation, which operates the research station where the telescope is based. Shipments had to meet very detailed specifications; Haystack had to build a wooden crate to carry the modules, because plastic containers weren’t allowed. “If it gets to Christchurch and something’s wrong, your equipment just sits there,” Sousa says.

The journey to the eight observatories was fine. It was the return trip that was worrisome. There were too much data to go through the burden of making extra copies; the disks that flew out of the stations were the only ones they had. “Going out there, they’re just blank,” says Mike Titus, the researcher who operated the supercomputer that helped synthesize all the data into a single, composite image. “Coming back, they’re precious commodities.”

I asked Titus whether the team considered asking a file-sharing service like Dropbox to build them something capable of transferring all those petabytes. “Don’t tell me that Amazon Cloud and Google Cloud, they wouldn’t love to have our data and store it for us,” Titus said, laughing. But even groundbreaking scientific teams don’t have that kind of budget. “Too much data and too much money—that’s why we don’t do it that way. Nothing beats the bandwidth of a 747 filled with hard disks.”

The return of the disks from the South Pole was particularly welcome. The shipment arrived months after all the rest thanks to the Antarctic winter, which had prevented anyone from flying in. The staff at Haystack was jubilant when FedEx arrived with a truck full of cosmic goodies from the bottom of the Earth. “It’s like they thought we were expecting penguins to jump out of the box or something,” says Nancy Wolfe Kotary, the communications officer at Haystack.

Sousa understood the concern, but he wasn’t too worried himself. “I’ve shipped to every continent,” he says, and in his 32 years on the job, he hasn’t lost one package.

Well, there was one, but it wasn’t his fault, or even the fault of any shipping company. The equipment, bound for a new research station in South Africa, cleared customs in Johannesburg and was loaded onto a truck. On the road, the truck was hijacked, and its contents stolen. “To this day, we figure it’s sitting somewhere on a coffee table as a conversation piece,” Sousa says.

Sousa plans to retire in three years and enter a new phase of his life that doesn’t require checking tracking alerts every day. He doesn’t have a background in science; before joining Haystack, he worked as a police officer for the state of Massachusetts. For him, the photo is the culmination of years’ worth of effort by astronomers and shipping experts alike. But the actual shot, he says, is pretty impressive, too.

Doonesbury — That’s Headley.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

It’s Mueller Time — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Late last year, Vintage Books reissued “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller from 1965 that seemed to rhyme with the strangeness of our era. The novel centers on a Commander-in-Chief named Mark Hollenbach, who is gradually coming unwound. President Hollenbach is in the habit of summoning confidants to his cabin in the Maryland woods, where, at night, he turns off the lights and rants until dawn about the conspirators encircling him. He rails against pernicious legislators, disloyal appointees, and craven reporters. For no coherent reason, he intends to distance the United States from Western European allies and make common cause with a Kremlin leader named Zuchek. He also wants to tap every telephone in the country, declaring, “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we’re after.” Lacking Twitter, he writes deranged letters. One key character is a Supreme Court Justice by the name of Cavanaugh. The marketers at Vintage shrewdly wrapped the reissue in a black-and-white cover emblazoned with a question intended to play upon the country’s collective jitters: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?”

The author, Fletcher Knebel, wrote a popular syndicated column in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, called “Potomac Fever,” before turning full time to fiction. “Night of Camp David” was published the same year that Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which clarified the procedure for removing a President who is no longer able to carry out his duties. Half a century later, Potomac Fever has reached new heights; for the past two years and two months, it has been hard not to think periodically about that crucial addition to the Constitution.

The Trump Presidency has, from the first, represented a threat to truth, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Donald Trump’s contempt for basic norms of governance is accompanied by a lack of decency, empathy, and psychological stability. This was never more evident than this week, when Trump, seemingly rattled by the imminence of the Mueller report, set off a fusillade of unhinged tweets, called the spouse of one of his senior advisers a “whack job,” raged about the late Senator John McCain in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and pronounced the Democratic Party “anti-Jewish,” deepening, at every turn, the impression that he is unfit for government work.

The perils of such instability are incalculable. Sidney Karper, the wizened Defense Secretary in “Night of Camp David,” says of Hollenbach, “It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery.” In the novel, a self-appointed council of party leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the security establishment secretly deliberates on how to deal with the delusional President, and catastrophe is averted. Hollenbach coöperates in his own removal from office, and, in the end, he is deemed to have “the finest heart in America.”

Current realities offer no such reassurance. Trump has the psyche of an emotionally damaged toddler. You hear this not only from his ideological opponents but from countless departing confidants, lawyers, and advisers. He is devoted not to public service but to feeding the demands of his ego and his appetites.

The pressures on Trump will inevitably increase now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, a raft of investigators on various congressional committees and in outposts of the Justice Department are accelerating their searches into matters including hush-money payments, money laundering, irregular security clearances, foreign interference in the 2016 election, illegal use of inaugural funds, and improper use of foundation money. And yet it is impossible to imagine Trump changing his behavior. He retains the support of the Republican leadership; the odds of his completing his term are considerable. Trump’s affinity for the autocratic likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin suggests that he might refuse—as his former satrap and attorney Michael Cohen warned he would—to give up power without trying to undermine the legitimacy of the American political system. What’s more, given Trump’s skills in the dark arts of campaigning and the general public satisfaction with the economy, no matter its inequities or vulnerabilities, it would be foolhardy to discount his chance of winning reëlection.

The emergency that the Trump Presidency represents leaves the Democratic Party’s cast of candidates with a singular responsibility—to win the election—and two colossal reclamation projects. The first involves the environment. Presidential debates in past elections have largely ignored the costs of climate change. But public opinion on the topic is moving, and there is cause for at least some political optimism in the fact that many Democrats have gotten behind the idea of a New Deal-scale effort to address the issue. Candidates who can best give shape to that impulse and find a plausible way to make it a legislative reality deserve the most urgent attention.

The second reclamation concerns Trumpism. Somehow, sometime, Trump will leave the political stage; but the moral and material corruption he has inflicted will be with us for a long while. Who has the vision and the language to confront xenophobia and white-supremacist ideology? Who has the dexterity and the pragmatism to enact reforms on voting rights, health care, immigration, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, and so strengthen a stressed democracy? Who has the political acumen to argue for policies adequate to resolve our crises and, at the same time, to win back the millions of voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and then shifted to Trump?

Trump will be dropping loaded hooks in the water every day, but Democratic candidates ought not take his bait. He’ll use “socialism,” “Jexodus,” or whatever comes to mind as a means of distraction and division. It is perfectly legitimate to test the candidates and their potential weaknesses: Are Biden and Warren and Sanders too old? Is Beto O’Rourke the second coming of Robert Kennedy, or does he just look like him when you squint? And so on. But the kind of serious campaigns and debates that are never found in political novels are precisely what’s now required.

Spring Elsewhere — Marina Koren in The Atlantic finds out what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

Ah, spring.

The season of vibrant flowers lining the sidewalk on the commute home, their gentle fragrance wafting into the air. Of sunshine that calls for a light jacket instead of a bulky coat. Of the passionate urge to clean everything in sight.

Outside The Atlantic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, it’s about 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius)—not warm enough for open-toed shoes, but still more pleasant than, say, a polar vortex. I’ve been longing for this day, and it got me thinking about spring on other planets, and whether it even exists.

We owe the seasons to Earth’s axis, which stays tilted at about 23 degrees as the Earth loops around the sun. But the orientation of the planet’s hemispheres in relation to the sun changes; different parts of the Earth lean toward or away from the sun at different times of the year, and receive varying amounts of sunlight.

But how do other planets work? To find out, and also to procrastinate my spring cleaning, I reached out to some scientists who spend their days thinking about other worlds.

Mercury

“Mercury doesn’t really have anything approaching spring, or any season for that matter,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University. The planet’s axial tilt, a fraction of a degree, is negligible. “The amount of daylight at a given latitude on Mercury is essentially fixed during the entire year.”

The daylight is relentless and scorching. But the orientation produces a rather cool phenomenon. “It lets Mercury have regions of permanent shadow near its poles that are never sunlit, and lets ice be present in those regions—even on the planet closest to the sun,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“It’s one weird little planet,” Byrne adds.

Venus

“There is no springtime on Venus, nor any other season—no seasons in hell!” says Allan Treiman, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

It’s difficult to sugarcoat the environment on Venus. Surface temperatures are a sizzling 870 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead, all year round. Like Mercury’s, Venus’s axis isn’t tilted enough to produce a noticeable difference.

But the real reason the planet doesn’t have any seasons is its atmosphere, which is choked with clouds. “The clouds are so thick that its surface gets nearly no light or heat from the sun. Nearly all the sunlight and heat are absorbed by clouds, which then radiate heat down to the surface—the famous greenhouse effect,” Tremain says. “Venus clouds circulate faster than the surface does, so all the greenhouse heat is spread around the planet, whether it’s day or night.”

That’s not all. “To top everything else off, Venus’ day is longer than her year,” says Vicki Hansen, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. (It takes 243 Earth days for Venus to rotate once on its axis, but 225 Earth days for the planet to loop around the sun.) “So if she had spring, it would be hard to say what day it happened.”

Mars

Mars’s axis is tilted slightly more than Earth’s—about 25 degrees—which means the planet experiences distinct seasons, too. In fact, like the Northern hemisphere here, the Northern hemisphere on Mars is entering spring now.

“The Northern hemisphere is starting to heat up; the Southern hemisphere cooling off—just like on Earth,” says Don Banfield, a scientist at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science.

Well, not just like on Earth. Orbits affect seasons, too; the Martian year is twice as long as a terrestrial year, so the seasons stretch out longer. There are seasonal trends, such as summer dust storms, “but without rain and plants, they aren’t quite as obvious,” says Banfield.

Jupiter

“Jupiter does not have a springtime,” says Cheng Li, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like Mercury, Jupiter’s axial tilt is too small to matter.

Saturn

Saturn does have spring: Its axial tilt is similar to that of Earth and Mars.

“Saturn is warm in the summer and cold in the winter,” says Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester. “The clouds and chemicals respond to these changes in sunlight. Perhaps the best example is the color of Saturn’s atmosphere, which shifts from blue hues in the winter—relatively clear skies with very few hazes—to golden hues in summer—a more smoggy atmosphere with lots of hazes.”

Saturnian spring also provides the most visibility for a massive, hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole that has mesmerized scientists for years. Some parts of Saturn can even experience miniature versions of seasons, thanks to its shimmering rings.

“A fixed point in Saturn’s atmosphere would experience additional periods when the rings shade the sun,” says Mike Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We actually have something like this at my house, because the neighboring building has a billboard on top. From a certain date in November to a certain date in February, our roof is in constant shade because the billboard blocks the sun, so our house gets colder.”

Uranus

With a 98-degree tilt of its axis, Uranus basically spins on its side. This alignment means the planet experiences the most extreme seasonal contrasts in the solar system.

“The poles get a great deal of illumination from an overhead sun that barely seems to move in the sky during local summer and a great deal of darkness in winter,” says Glenn Orton, a scientist at NASA’s JPL. “As spring begins, the sun is virtually always at the horizon for anyone living at the poles and virtually straight overhead for a Uranian in the low-latitude tropics.” (We should clarify: These are fictional Uranian residents. Alien life hasn’t been discovered there.)

During spring, a giant white cap emerges over the north pole, standing out against the planet’s usual blue hues. Scientists suspect the warming temperatures produce atmospheric changes.

This far out in the solar system—where orbits are vastly longer—seasons stretch out for years. A Uranus spring lasts 21.

Neptune

Spring on Neptune is twice as long. The planet experiences distinct seasons, but “I don’t think we’ve been able to observe Neptune long enough with enough detail to say for sure how spring in one hemisphere differs from any other season in terms of atmospheric activity,” says Anne Verbiscer, a planetary scientist at the University of Virginia.

Pluto

“Why yes, it’s springtime on Pluto right now, at least in the northern hemisphere!” says David Grinspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “And it has been since 1990.”

(Please don’t overthink the inclusion of Pluto on this list. Scientists have spent years arguing over the correct categorization of this celestial body. For some of them, the 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet is not the final word. We’ll leave the debating to them.)

Pluto’s orbit around the sun is highly elliptical. “The distance to the sun is quite different for the same season in the south versus the north,” Grinspoon says. “This creates asymmetrical and extreme climate behavior where, over the timescale of the seasons—which are many decades long—the atmosphere goes through the magnitude of changes that on other planets we would call climate changes.”

Spring sounds mild compared with colder seasons. Without enough exposure to sunlight, Pluto can get so cold that its atmosphere freezes and falls on the surface. “You can imagine what life would be like if we had that experience on Earth,” says Bob West, a scientist at JPL. “The air we breathe and which sustains all life on the dry land would form crystals of water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide and fall to the ground as snow, leaving a near vacuum where once there was air.”

Wow. A little spring cleaning doesn’t sound so bad now.

Doonesbury — Origin stories.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Reading

No Gift Keeps On Giving  — Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic on the no-gifting trend.

This year, Heather Hund and her family will gather in West Texas on December 25 and solidify a new Christmas tradition, in which each relative is randomly assigned to give a gift to another family member and to a house pet. “The rules are basically a regift for the human and then $10 for the pet,” Hund told me. “And my 18-month-old son got put in [the latter] category too, so it’s small humans and small animals.”

Hund and her family downscaled their gift-giving six years ago after considering how much work Christmas shopping was. “I just remember coming home and being super stressed and last-minute trying to run out to the mall or looking online and seeing what I could get shipped in like three days,” said Hund, who’s 35 and works in tech in San Francisco.

Now, with the extra time she and her family have, they paint pottery together, cook, go on runs, and play cards. Plus, they get meaningful presents through the regifting agreement, such as the Led Zeppelin record Hund received from her dad, purchased when he was in high school. The new gifting protocol has been a joy. “The first year I thought I would be sad about it,” she said, “and I really wasn’t.”

Hund is one of the many holiday celebrants who have been questioning and revising their long-held gift-giving traditions—or, in some cases, scrapping them altogether. No single cause unites these opt-outers, but a few motivations regularly pop up: They want to resist consumerism, restore the religious focus of the holidays, and/or avoid harming the environment. Above all, they want to spend less money on things and more time with one another.

According to a recent survey from the personal-finance website Bankrate, almost half of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they’d like to on holiday gifts, with parents especially likely to feel put upon. When presented with a slew of options that might lessen their financial stress, respondents were most willing to entertain the idea of giving gifts only to their immediate family or of seeking out coupons and sales—64 percent and 57 percent, respectively, said those courses of action would be acceptable. Those surveyed rated other alternatives—giving homemade gifts, regifting, or buying things secondhand—as much less enticing. At the very bottom of the list was skipping gifts entirely, which received a tepid 13 percent approval rating.

Still, some people are trying it out. Raagini Appadurai, a 26-year-old educator and social-justice advocate living in Toronto, told me that her family—her two sisters, her parents, and herself—made a no-gifts pact this year. “When we remove material purchasing and consumption from the table, we are forced to question what we are bringing to [the holiday] instead—individually and collectively,” she said. “After our family reflection on this, the answer has been clear: Ourselves, we bring more of ourselves.” She told me that her family’s Christmas-morning plan is to gather around the tree as in years past, whether there are presents underneath it or not.

Some people also consider gift-giving a distraction from the religious significance of the holidays. Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz live in Hyattsville, Maryland, with their 20-month-old daughter. They are Catholic, don’t exchange gifts with one another for Christmas, and give only small presents to their parents. “Advent is supposed to be this quiet, somber, reflective period during which you’re preparing to celebrate the incredible thing that was God sending his son to Earth,” Tricia says. “That goes very poorly with a focus on buying things and merrymaking.”

As families have reconsidered their gift-giving practices, some of them have gotten creative about what to do instead. In 2015, the Orzechowskis, a family living in Washington, D.C., started taking an annual trip together, with their relatives funding different aspects of the vacation (such as admission to a museum in the city they’re visiting) instead of buying physical gifts. And Jennifer Knepper, a 39-year-old nurse, started an “alternative-gift fair” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives. The fair, which has been running for more than 10 years, offers fair-trade foodstuffs and the chance to make gift donations to charities, among other things.

Of course, giving fewer or less-expensive gifts is often not a choice, but a necessity—in the Bankrate survey, people earning less than $30,000 a year were more likely than those in any other income bracket to say that they don’t give holiday gifts. Many of the people I talked with for this article mentioned that they were fortunate to have such a choice, and explained that they amended their celebrations in response to personal reservations or discomfort they had about their gift-giving tradition, not on the recommendation of some celebrity or lifestyle guru.

In particular, many said they were rethinking their gifting in response to the pressures of consumerism around the holidays. David Tucker, a 33-year-old engineer at a software company who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, told me that he and his wife stopped giving gifts three years ago. “It was a mixture of a lot of things,” he said, “but we both started to share a disdain for the holidays” and the marketing involved, especially after a couple financially tight years. They found themselves surrounded by stuff, and not needing any more of it.

So they started donating their annual gift budget to charity, which means that their holiday shopping now takes just a few minutes. Tucker said that this mentality has shaped his habits during the rest of the year—he and his wife now volunteer more at their local food bank. “Why should it stop there?,” he remembered thinking about his holiday donations.

A few advocacy groups encourage people to reevaluate their gift-giving in the way that Tucker and his wife have. One is Buy Nothing Christmas, a movement started by Canadian Mennonites that proudly has “no membership, no fees, no plaques, no club cards.” Its goal, as stated on its website, is to “to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged.”

Another organization is New Dream, a nonprofit devoted to rethinking consumption. New Dream has been running a “Simplify the Holidays” campaign for 13 years, and five years ago launched SoKind, an online gift registry that allows people to share with their loved ones their desire for not just things, but nonmaterial gifts such as music lessons, home-cooked meals, and donations to charity. The platform is meant for any occasion (including weddings and graduations) and features almost 13,000 wish lists.

Other people have the environment in mind when thinking about what to give. Keya Chatterjee, a D.C. resident who runs a climate-focused nonprofit, and her husband only give gifts if they have been used, are made from recycled materials, or will reduce the recipient’s environmental footprint. “On the emissions-reduction side, many people have appreciated (and some have appreciated less) that I generally give people soft lighting LED light bulbs and with a note to ‘have a bright year,’” she wrote in an email. Other gifts she likes to give are solar phone chargers, library books (with a holiday note and the due date), and hot-water bottles (for warming just one’s bed instead of heating the whole house). “Needless to say, not everyone wants our gifts,” she said.

Chatterjee added that her family “heavily discourage[s] gifts to us,” though notes that it took about a decade for everyone to follow this request. Others I talked with encountered similar resistance from their relatives when expressing their gifting preferences, but for the most part, people came around and were even grateful.

Another contingent that’s thinking deeply about holiday spending is adherents of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which consists of cutting spending to spartan levels to stop working well before one’s 60s. Comment threads on Reddit and the personal-finance blog Mr. Money Mustache document some savers’ attempts to reconcile their commitment to their financial plan with their desire not to be grinchy.

All of the people I talked with for this article seemed committed to their new traditions, though some parents and parents-to-be of young children were aware that their kids might not be so keen on the concept. Heather Hund said she does “really want to stick to it” as her toddler grows up, and David Tucker acknowledged that if he and his wife have children, it’d be a “huge challenge” to keep up their no-gift policy.

This year, Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz will be giving their daughter some used coloring books passed down from a neighbor and perhaps a small stocking stuffer. At the age of 20 months, she hasn’t been briefed on her parents’ gifting philosophy. Later, “if she complains about other people getting lots of stuff,” Tricia says, “I think we’ll tell her, ‘Tough noodles.’”

My family stopped exchanging gifts between ourselves years ago when we were all spread out across the country and then started adding children, in-laws, grandchildren.  It got both cumbersome and guilt-ridden with the forced merriment and a rebellion against the consumerism.  I still buy gifts for a few friends, but it’s being together that really matters, and I’ll see my family after New Year’s.

One Small Step — Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker goes behind the scenes of Virgin Galatic’s first space mission.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mark Stucky left work early and went to his stepdaughter’s place to hang window blinds. Stucky, the lead test pilot at Virgin Galactic, was expecting to fulfill a lifelong dream—flying a rocket ship into space—the next morning, but he was trying not to make more of it than necessary. And so, after he put up the blinds, he drove home, had an early dinner, soaked in his hot tub, and was asleep by eight.

He was up before his 3 A.M. alarm, not because he was nervous—a bout of butterflies had come and gone earlier in the week—but, as he told me later, “Because I was in the zone.” He ate a cup of yogurt on his way out the door. Sometimes, before test flights, he listened to music. On Thursday, he drove in silence.

Stucky had dreamed of travelling into space since he was three years old, when he and his dad watched on TV as John Glenn orbited Earth. He applied for NASA’s astronaut program several times, and got close, but never made the cut. When, in 2009, he was hired as a test pilot by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company on contract to design, build, and test Virgin Galactic’s spaceship, he thought he might be close. But program delays and a crash, in 2014, which killed his best friend, Mike Alsbury, and left the spaceship in pieces, made Stucky wonder if he would ever get there. Now, at the age of sixty, he was about to attempt to soar two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet, or fifty miles, above the surface of Earth—beyond the boundary of what the U.S. government deems space.

It was a clear, crisp morning in Mojave, California. Nicola Pecile, who was piloting the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, which would carry the rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, up to its release point, spotted a comet in the southwest sky. Venus shone brightly overhead. By 7 A.M., about a thousand people, including officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, had gathered on the flight line. Eleven minutes later, WhiteKnightTwo sped down the runway and took off, with Stucky and his co-pilot, the former NASA astronaut C. J. Sturckow, below, in SpaceShipTwo. George Whitesides, the C.E.O. of Virgin Galactic, said he hadn’t felt as anxious in years: “This is right up there with childbirth in terms of nervousness levels.”

As WhiteKnightTwo climbed, Stucky ran through his final checklists. He had flown five previous powered flights, burning the hybrid rocket motor for just more than thirty seconds, coasting above a hundred thousand feet, but on Thursday he planned to burn the motor for almost a minute—enough, it was hoped, to propel SpaceShipTwo to the fifty-mile boundary.

An hour after takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo, now forty thousand feet above the desert, dropped the spaceship and banked away. Then, on Stucky’s command, Sturckow fired the rocket and they were off. Once they broke the sound barrier, Stucky began trimming the horizontal stabilizers, increasing the vehicle’s pitch, until the nose was pointing nearly straight up. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. Forty seconds. Even though they were pushing into “unknown, uncharted territory,” the longer they burned the rocket motor, the better SpaceShipTwo seemed to perform. “She felt like a thoroughbred,” Stucky said.

After sixty seconds, Sturckow switched off the motor, letting SpaceShipTwo slice through the last remnants of atmosphere. While the sky darkened around them, sunlight filled the cockpit. Absent gravity, Stucky removed his glove and let it float around for a moment.

Back down on the flight line, Enrico Palermo, the president of the Spaceship Company, the subsidiary of Virgin Galactic that built SpaceShipTwo, stood at a lectern onstage, calling out the vehicle’s altitude:

“Two hundred and forty thousand feet.”

“Two hundred and fifty thousand feet.”

“Two-sixty.”

“Two hundred and . . .”—he paused, awaiting confirmation from mission control—“two hundred and sixty-four thousand feet.”

The crowd whooped and cheered. “Still going up,” Palermo said. “Apogee: two hundred and seventy-one thousand feet.”

Todd Ericson, one of the test pilots and Virgin Galactic’s vice-president for safety, reached over and gripped Whitesides’s hand. “We’re in space,” Ericson said.

Fifteen minutes later, Stucky and Sturckow landed, stepping out of SpaceShipTwo to enthusiastic applause. Branson, wearing a distressed-leather bomber jacket, took the stage and said, “Who enjoyed that?” The outline of a single tear streaked the side of his face—it was a moment of tremendous joy, catharsis, and relief for him, the team, and their families. Stucky’s wife, Cheryl Agin, shed tears throughout the entire flight.

Stucky and Sturckow joined Branson onstage. Stucky reached into the calf pocket of his flight suit and presented Branson with a blue-and-green stress ball, modelled on the Earth, that had just been in space. He then fished out a small, black jewelry box, which contained an engagement ring that belonged to a flight-test engineer on Stucky’s team named Brandon Parrish. Parrish called his girlfriend, Veronica McGowan, a fellow-engineer, up onto the stage with him and proposed. When she accepted, Stucky popped the cork on a champagne bottle, shook it up, and sprayed the couple. Afterward, one of Parrish’s colleagues said to him, “Way to set the bar too fucking high, bro.”

When the ceremony ended, Stucky, the pilots, and the mission-control team gathered back at the main hangar. The pilots toasted with paper cups of whiskey, and then went to Denny’s for lunch. Stucky and Agin split a hamburger, and the pilots showed one another the latest cockpit photos and read selected tweets aloud. Vice-President Mike Pence tweeted his congratulations: “the 1st crewed flight to launch from US soil in over 7 years!”

Stucky checked his watch and noted that they were due back at the hangar in fifteen minutes for more post-flight reviews. After all, SpaceShipTwo was being tested for regular and repeated missions, and not merely a one-off flight. There was flight data to plug into the models and run through the simulator, Stucky said. “You know, to see if there’s anything more we can learn.” Virgin Galactic could begin commercial service—flying customers to space—as early as late next year.

[Photo by Virgin Galactic]

Doonesbury — Final note.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Friday, July 20, 2018

One Small Step

Forty-nine years ago today the world was transfixed by two men who carefully made their way out of a spidery-looking shiny and delicate machine and set foot on another place that wasn’t Earth.

Looking back from this distance, it’s still an amazing feat, made even more so by the fact that the technology that got us there was basically one step up from a World War II rocket and computers the size of a garden shed that now dangle from a key ring.  There’s more computing power in your average smart phone today than what ran Apollo 11.  And it was all bought and paid for through government agencies.

I seriously doubt that we’ll ever mount anything so ambitious in such a short time again.  Back then we went from Echo I, a helium balloon in space, to Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility in ten years, and I’ve lived longer than the time it took to get us from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base.   What drove us to complete this amazing mission in 1969 wasn’t, as the then-recently cancelled “Star Trek” intoned, our desire “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  It was to beat the Russians and win the propaganda war of capitalism and American spirit over Commie collectivism and scary grainy pictures of mushroom clouds from which we ducked and covered.  Yes, there was a spirit of adventure and sci-fi to it, but it was basically an ideological pecker contest, and we won.  So there.

We’ve come a long way since that July of 1969 when we set foot on the moon.  Going into space turned from adventure to lab work, and the greatest benefit from space-bound technology is that now you can listen to music bounced off a satellite without commercials.  By the time the Apollo missions ended in 1972, the launch barely warranted headlines.  Only tragedies such as Challenger and Columbia would remind us that going into space was more than just another way to get somewhere else.

Until we prove Einstein wrong and make the jump to hyperspace, we’re stuck on this rock, and chances are no one from anywhere else will come to call, so we’ve got to make the best of it.  That means taking care of ourselves, each other, and this pale blue dot adrift in the incalculably huge universe.

The speck in the brown band: That’s us.

So when Neil Armstrong proclaimed “one giant leap for mankind,” perhaps he was challenging us to realize that while exploring and seeking knowledge is in our basic nature, so is being good to where we came from and to each other.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sunday Reading

Cognitive Decline — Charles P. Pierce.

On Thursday, El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago sat down with Michael Schmidt of The New York Times for what apparently was an open-ended, one-on-one interview. Since then, the electric Twitter machine–and most of the rest of the Intertoobz–has been alive with criticism of Schmidt for having not pushed back sufficiently against some of the more obvious barefaced non-facts presented by the president* in their chat. Some critics have been unkind enough to point out that Schmidt was the conveyor belt for some of the worst attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton emanating from both the New York FBI office and the various congressional committees staffed by people in kangaroo suits. For example, Schmidt’s name was on a shabby story the Times ran on July 23, 2015 in which it was alleged that a criminal investigation into HRC’s famous use of a private email server was being discussed within the Department of Justice. It wasn’t, and the Times’ public editor at the time, the great Margaret Sullivan, later torched the story in a brutal column.

Other people were unkind enough to point out that the interview was brokered by one Christopher Ruddy, a Trump intimate and the CEO of NewsMax, and that Ruddy made his bones as a political “journalist” by peddling the fiction that Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster had been murdered, one of the more distasteful slanders that got a shameful public airing during the Clinton frenzy of the 1990s. Neither of those will concern us here. What Schmidt actually got out of this interview is a far more serious problem for the country. In my view, the interview is a clinical study of a man in severe cognitive decline, if not the early stages of outright dementia.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen my father and all of his siblings slide into the shadows and fog of Alzheimer’s Disease. (The president*’s father developed Alzheimer’s in his 80s.) In 1984, Ronald Reagan debated Walter Mondale in Louisville and plainly had no idea where he was. (If someone on the panel had asked him, he’d have been stumped.) Not long afterwards, I was interviewing a prominent Alzheimer’s researcher for a book I was doing, and he said, “I saw the look on his face that I see every day in my clinic.” In the transcript of this interview, I hear in the president*’s words my late aunt’s story about how we all walked home from church in the snow one Christmas morning, an event I don’t recall, but that she remembered so vividly that she told the story every time I saw her for the last three years of her life.

In this interview, the president* is only intermittently coherent. He talks in semi-sentences and is always groping for something that sounds familiar, even if it makes no sense whatsoever and even if it blatantly contradicts something he said two minutes earlier. To my ears, anyway, this is more than the president*’s well-known allergy to the truth. This is a classic coping mechanism employed when language skills are coming apart. (My father used to give a thumbs up when someone asked him a question. That was one of the strategies he used to make sense of a world that was becoming quite foreign to him.) My guess? That’s part of the reason why it’s always “the failing New York Times,” and his 2016 opponent is “Crooked Hillary.”

In addition, the president* exhibits the kind of stubbornness you see in patients when you try to relieve them of their car keys—or, as one social worker in rural North Carolina told me, their shotguns. For example, a discussion on healthcare goes completely off the rails when the president* suddenly recalls that there is a widely held opinion that he knows very little about the issues confronting the nation. So we get this.

But Michael, I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have talked all these people into doing ultimately only to be rejected.

This is more than simple grandiosity. This is someone fighting something happening to him that he is losing the capacity to understand. So is this.

We’re going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we’re being respected again. But another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, “Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.” O.K.

In Ronald Reagan’s second term, we ducked a bullet. I’ve always suspected he was propped up by a lot of people who a) didn’t trust vice-president George H.W. Bush, b) found it convenient to have a forgetful president when the subpoenas began to fly, and c) found it helpful to have a “detached” president when they started running their own agendas—like, say, selling missiles to mullahs. You’re seeing much the same thing with the congressional Republicans. They’re operating an ongoing smash-and-grab on all the policy wishes they’ve fondly cultivated since 1981. Having a president* who may not be all there and, as such, is susceptible to flattery because it reassures him that he actually is makes the heist that much easier.

So, no, I don’t particularly care whether Michael Schmidt was tough enough, or asked enough follow-up questions. I care about this.

I’m always moving. I’m moving in both directions. We have to get rid of chainlike immigration, we have to get rid of the chain. The chain is the last guy that killed. … [Talking with guests.] … The last guy that killed the eight people. … [Inaudible.] … So badly wounded people. … Twenty-two people came in through chain migration. Chain migration and the lottery system. They have a lottery in these countries. They take the worst people in the country, they put ‘em into the lottery, then they have a handful of bad, worse ones, and they put them out. ‘Oh, these are the people the United States. …” … We’re gonna get rid of the lottery, and by the way, the Democrats agree with me on that. On chain migration, they pretty much agree with me.

We’ve got bigger problems.

He Believed — Dan Barry in The New York Times on his father’s belief in UFO’s.

The year now ending has been so laden with tumultuous news that one astounding report in the exhausted final days of 2017 seemed almost routine: that for years, an intelligence official burrowed within the Pentagon warren was running a secret program to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects.

Beg your pardon?

That scoop, by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean for The New York Times, was underscored by a companion article that detailed how in 2004 an oval object played a game of aeronautic hide-and-seek off Southern California with two Navy fighter jets assigned to the aircraft carrier Nimitz. The object then zipped away at a speed so otherworldly that it left one of the Navy pilots later saying he felt “pretty weirded out” — as you might if you watch the video of the encounter that the Department of Defense has made public.

In considering these reports, my mind turned to all those reasonable people who were dismissed and ridiculed over the years because they believed that something was out there. I thought in particular of believers who had died without savoring these official revelations.

Believers like my late father.

I can hear what he would have said, there at the veterans’ home, his broken vessel of a body in a wheelchair but his mind as quick and bright as a shooting star. “I’ve been saying it for years,” he’d assert, followed by a choice epithet he reserved for government officials, followed by, “I knew it.”

Then, a satisfying drag on a cigarette.

My father, Gene, finished high school at night and served three years in the Army; he did not attend college. But he had a fearsome intellect, read voraciously and developed a command of such subjects as American history, numismatics — and U.F.O. investigations. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he joined many others in monitoring reports of aerial anomalies, tracking down reams of redacted official reports and swapping theories about credible sightings and government cover-ups.

They bandied about the names of well-known U.F.O. researchers — J. Allen Hynek, Donald Keyhoe, Stanton Friedman — and read the latest newsletters from an organization called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or Nicap. They remained resolute, even when many others gave up the cause after an Air Force-funded report in 1969 concluded that further study of U.F.O.s was unlikely to be of much scientific value, leading to the termination of the official Air Force program investigating the subject.

To the likes of Gene Barry, the report was merely part of the cover-up.

He was no astronomer or physicist. Just a working stiff who endured the anonymous drudgery of a daily commute but then, at night, often felt connected to something larger than himself, larger than all of us. While his neighbors focused on the fortunes of the New York Jets, he was contemplating whether the “wheel in the middle of a wheel” mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel referred to a flying object of some kind. If so, just consider the implications!

In our family, the horizontal line separating earth and sky often blurred. My father’s supernaturally patient wife and four impressionable children carried small blue membership cards for a research and investigative organization called the Mutual U.F.O. Network, or Mufon. We applauded my father when he spoke at a U.F.O. symposium at a local university. At his behest, my sister Brenda even brought a blueprint for a spacecraft that he had received in the mail — mysterious packages often arrived in the mail — to Sts. Cyril and Methodius parochial school to ask her science teacher what he made of it.

The teacher handed it back without a word.

In other households of the 1960s, Barney and Betty referred only to the Rubbles of Bedrock, loyal neighbors of Fred and Wilma Flintstone. But in our home, those names might also refer to Betty and Barney Hill, a New Hampshire couple who claimed to have been abducted and examined by aliens in 1961.

Then there were the family outings. Every so often our parents would pack us into the Chevy station wagon for a nighttime drive to that rare Long Island hill with an unimpeded view of the sky, or to Wanaque, N.J., 70 miles away, where strange lights were said to have been hovering over a local reservoir.

Gradually, we children would doze off, our necks stiff from craning. My mother, the tolerant sidekick and chauffeur, would light another cigarette, while my father continued to train his cheap binoculars on the celestial infinity, confident in the certainty of the still uncertain.

Over the years, life on terra firma intruded. Career setbacks, sickness, that daily anonymous grind. My father’s unofficial cell of believers quietly disbanded — exhausted, perhaps, by government silence and the false reports caused by weather balloons, satellites and people just seeing things. Then, when my mother died in 1999, he lost the person who grounded him, the Betty to his Barney.

He died in 2008, still believing without having seen, still questioning the government, still marveling at the arrogance of those who insisted we were the only intelligent life in the universe.

A decade passed, and then came this month’s report of a secret Pentagon program with the delightful name of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Funded by the government between 2007 and 2012, the program investigated aerial threats that included “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or U.A.P.s — which is just a less-polarizing way of saying U.F.O.s.

To hardened veterans of the U.F.O. wars, the news of the government program was less surprising than it was validating. And the video of the encounter between Navy fighter jets and an unidentified object moving at extraordinary velocity provided a helpful visual to the cause of those U.F.O. groups with long acronyms.

“Very interesting, very interesting,” said Fran Ridge, the archivist of the research accumulated by Nicap, now defunct. “But the very first thing that entered my mind was — why now? Is this a distraction? Is this something to get the people’s attention off politics?”

Mr. Ridge’s skeptical words reminded me of my father, who half-joked that he believed in a conspiracy — about everything.

“Finally, the kimono is being opened a little,” said Jan Harden, the director of Mufon. “Personally, I don’t need verification from the government. But for the mass public, it’s important to know that there is advanced technology in our skies.”

The news of the Pentagon’s program received a stunning amount of attention that included the usual dismissive commentary.

“Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien,” the celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said on CNN, a comment that would have driven my father to distraction. Classic redirection, he would have railed, the tip of his cigarette reddening with rage.

But my father would also have nodded in agreement to what the good astrophysicist had to say about that almost playful aerial anomaly captured on government video. “It’s a flying object and we don’t know what it is,” Dr. Tyson said. “I would hope somebody’s checking it out.”

Exactly, the old man would have grunted. Been saying it for years.

74 Things — The Atlantic’s science, technology, and health reporters on amazing things we learned this year.

This past year, reporters on The Atlantic’s science, technology, and health desks worked tirelessly, writing hundreds of stories. Each of those stories is packed with facts that surprised us, delighted us, and in some cases, unsettled us. Instead of picking our favorite stories, we decided to round up a small selection of the most astonishing things we learned in 2017. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did, and we hope you’ll be back for more in 2018:

  1. The record for the longest top spin is over 51 minutes. Your fidget spinner probably won’t make it past 60 seconds.
  2. Flamingos have self-locking legs, which makes them more stable on one leg than on two.
  3. If your home furnace emits some methane pollution on the last day of 2017, it’ll almost certainly leave the atmosphere by 2030—but it could still be raising global sea levels in 2817.
  4. By analyzing enough Facebook likes, an algorithm can predict someone’s personality better than their friends and family can.
  5. There are cliff-hanging nests in northern Greenland that have been used continuously for 2,500 years by families of the largest falcons in the world. Researchers read the layers of bird poop in the nests like tree rings.
  6. Hippos can’t swim.
  7. Six-month-old babies can understand basic words like mouth and nose. They even know that concepts like mouth and nose are more related than nose and bottle.
  8. Most common eastern North American tree species have been mysteriously shifting west since 1980.
  9. In 2016, Waymo’s virtual cars logged 2.5 billion miles in simulated versions of California, Texas, and Arizona.
  10. America’s emergency 9-1-1 calling infrastructure is so old that there are some parts you can’t even replace anymore when they break.
  11. The transmitters on the Voyager spacecraft have as much power as refrigerator light bulbs, but they still ping Earth every day from billions of miles away.
  12. By one estimate, one-third of Americans currently in their early 20s will never get married.
  13. Donald Trump has a long and gif-heavy presence on the early web.
  14. Somewhere around 10,000 U.S. companies—including the majority of the Fortune 500—still assess employees based on the Myers-Briggs test.
  15. Humans have inadvertently created an artificial bubble around Earth, formed when radio communications from the ground interact with high-energy particles in space. This bubble is capable of shielding the planet from potentially dangerous space weather like solar flares.
  16. Climate-change-linked heat waves are already making tens of thousands of Americans sleep worse.
  17. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century.
  18. A lay minister and math Ph.D. was the best checkers player in the world for 40 years, spawning a computer scientist’s obsessive quest to solve the entire game to prove the man could be beaten.
  19. There is a huge waterfall in Antarctica, where the Nansen Ice Shelf meets the sea.
  20. On Facebook, Russian trolls created and promoted dual events on May 21, 2016, bringing Muslim and anti-Muslim Americans into real-world conflict at an Islamic center in Houston.
  21. Boxer crabs wield sea anemones like boxing gloves, and if they lose one of these allies, they can make another by ripping the remaining one in half and cloning it.
  22. Cocktail napkins on airplanes may be essentially useless to travelers, but to airlines they are valuable space for advertising.
  23. Scientists can figure out the storm tracks of 250-year-old winter squalls by reading a map hidden in tree rings across the Pacific Northwest.
  24. On islands, deer are occasionally spotted licking small animals, like cats and foxes—possibly because the ocean breeze makes everything salty.
  25. People complained of an “epidemic of fake news” in 1896.
  26. Languages worldwide have more words for describing warm colors than cool colors.
  27. Turkeys are twice as big as they were in 1960, and most of that change is genetic.
  28. Two Chinese organizations control over half of the global Bitcoin-mining operations—and by now, they might control more. If they collaborate (or collude), the blockchain technology that supposedly secures Bitcoin could be compromised.
  29. U.S. physicians prescribe 3,150 percent of the necessary amount of opioids.
  30. Physicists discovered a new “void” in the Great Pyramid of Giza using cosmic rays.
  31. Daily and seasonal temperature variations can trigger rockfalls, even if the temperature is always above freezing, by expanding and contracting rocks until they crack.
  32. The eight counties with the largest declines in life expectancy since 1980 are all in the state of Kentucky.
  33. The decline of sales in luxury timepieces has less to do with the rise of smartwatches and more to do with the rising cost of gold, the decline of the British pound, and a crackdown on Chinese corruption.
  34. Spider silk is self-strengthening; it can suck up chemicals from the insects it touches to make itself stronger.
  35. Intelligence doesn’t make someone more likely to change their mind. People with higher IQs are better at crafting arguments to support a position—but only if they already agree with it.
  36. Among the strangest and yet least-questioned design choices of internet services is that every service must be a global service.
  37. Steven Gundry, one of the main doctors who has contributed to Goop, believes Mercola.com, a prominent anti-vaccine site, is a site that gives “very useful health advice.”
  38. At many pumpkin- and squash-growing competitions, entries are categorized by color: Any specimen that’s at least 80 percent orange is a pumpkin, and everything else is a squash.
  39. Only 2 percent of all U.S. Google employees are black, and only 4 percent are Hispanic. In tech-oriented positions, the numbers fall to 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
  40. The weight of the huge amount of water Hurricane Harvey dumped on Texas pushed the earth’s crust down 2 centimeters.
  41. Russian scientists plan to re-wild the Arctic with bioengineered woolly mammoths.
  42. The NASA spacecraft orbiting Jupiter can never take the same picture of the gas planet because the clouds of its atmosphere are always moving, swirling into new shapes and patterns.
  43. During sex, male cabbage white butterflies inject females with packets of nutrients. The females chew their way into these with a literal vagina dentata, and genitals that double as a souped-up stomach.
  44. If all people want from apps is to see new stuff scroll onto the screen, it might not matter if that content is real or fake.
  45. Cardiac stents are extremely expensive and popular, and yet they don’t appear to have any definite benefits outside of acute heart attacks.
  46. Animal-tracking technology is just showing off at this point: Researchers can glue tiny barcodes to the backs of carpenter ants in a lab and scan them repeatedly to study the insects’ movements.
  47. One recommendation from a happiness expert is to build a “pride shrine,” which is a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories, or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.
  48. Some ancient rulers, including Alexander the Great, executed a substitute king after an eclipse, as a kind of sacrificial hedge.
  49. A colon-cancer gene found in Utah can be traced back to a single Mormon pioneer couple from the 1840s.
  50. In November and December 2016, 92,635 people called the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line to ask for turkey-cooking advice. That’s an average of over 1,500 calls per day.
  51. In the United States as a whole, less than 1 percent of the land is hardscape. In cities, up to 40 percent is impervious.
  52. ​Half of murdered women are killed by their romantic partners.​
  53. Among the Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines, storytelling is valued more than hunting, fishing, or basically any other skill.
  54. The familiar metal tokens in the board game Monopoly didn’t originally come with the game, to save costs. Popular bracelet charms of the Great Depression were only added to the box later.
  55. Thanks to the internet, American parents are seeking out more unique names for their children, trying to keep them from fading into the noise of Google. The median boy’s name in 2015 (Luca) was given to one out of every 782 babies, whereas the median boy’s name in 1955 (Edward) was given to one out of every 100 babies.
  56. America’s five most valuable companies are all located on the Pacific Coast between Northern California and Seattle.
  57. President Kennedy secretly had Addison’s disease, a hormonal disorder, which he treated with injections of amphetamines and steroids from Max Jacobson, a doctor whose nickname was “Dr. Feelgood.”
  58. Some of the most distant stars in the Milky Way were actually “stolen” from a nearby galaxy as the two passed near each other.
  59. Hummingbirds drink in an unexpected way: Their tongues bloom open like a flower when they hit nectar, and close on the way out to grab some of the sweet liquid.
  60. New York City has genetically distinct uptown and downtown rats.
  61. The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 created one of the most detailed maps of the deep ocean ever.
  62. People who can’t find opioids are taking an over-the-counter diarrhea drug. Some are consuming as many as 400 to 500 pills a day.
  63. It used to take 10,000 pounds of pork pancreas to make one pound of insulin. (Insulin is now made by genetically engineered microbes.)
  64. Astronauts on the International Space Station can’t enjoy the yummy aromas of hot meals like we can on Earth because heat dissipates in all different directions in microgravity.
  65. “Sex addiction” isn’t recognized by the psychiatric community in any official capacity, and it’s actually a deeply problematic concept that risks absolving men of agency in sexual violence.
  66. The peculiar (and previously unidentified) laughter that was recorded for the Golden Record was—well, we won’t spoil it for you until you read the story.
  67. The oldest rocks on Earth, which are 4 billion years old, have signs of life in them, which suggests that the planet was biological from its very infancy.
  68. Fire ants form giant floating rafts during floods. But you can break up the rafts with dish soap.
  69. Until this year, no one knew about a whole elaborate system of lymphatic vessels in our brains.
  70. People are worse storytellers when their listeners don’t vocally indicate they’re paying attention by saying things like “uh-huh” and “mm-hmm.”
  71. China’s new radio telescope is large enough to hold two bowls of rice for every human being on the planet.
  72. Scientists calculated that if everyone in the United States switched from eating beef to eating beans, we could still get around halfway to President Obama’s 2020 climate goals.
  73. The reason that dentistry is a separate discipline from medicine can be traced back to an event in 1840 known as the “historic rebuff”—when two self-trained dentists asked the University of Maryland at Baltimore if they could add dental training to the curriculum at the college of medicine. The physicians said no.
  74. Naked mole rats can survive for 18 minutes without any oxygen at all.

Doonesbury –Quitting time.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017