Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Chris Christie and the Nurse

Last week while he was campaigning for a local candidate in New Jersey, Christie quoted a disillusioned voter who complained, "We used to control events, and now it seems we are controlled by events."

This was a few days before he held a press conference with Governor Cuomo to announce a 21 day mandatory quarantine for any health workers returning from West Africa. This policy makes sense only on an emotional level. It makes us feel we are in fact controlling events. But medical professionals and scientists, as well as the White House, say this is overkill and counterproductive. Overkill because Ebola is only infectious from a person who is exhibiting symptoms, such as fever. Counterproductive because the most effective way to keep Ebola from spreading to the United States is to stem the plague in West Africa, which will require hundreds of volunteer health workers to travel to and from those countries.

Now maybe the governors of NY and NJ were won over by the above arguments within three days of their first quarantined health worker. Or maybe they just were unlucky enough to have their first test case to be Kaci Hickox.

For the record, Hickox did not have any symptoms. A scanner in the airport thought she was flush. No human ever took her temperature until she arrived at University Hospital in Newark, where she was diagnosed with not having a fever. We've got another 2 1/2 weeks before we know for sure that Hickox was not infected when she was in Africa. Even if she turns out to have Ebola, the logic of closely monitoring people until symptoms appear, short of mandatory 21 quarantine, is still intact.

But Christie is following a different kind of logic. One hopes that his quote about the necessity of controlling events is merely election season bluster, and will give way to more a reasoned, limited-- dare I say conservative--governing style--both in his remaining years as our Governor and, potentially, as our president.  

But I doubt it. Ever since Sandy and the 2012 election, Christie has repeatedly put forth one criteria for his political viability: his leadership skills. The problem--as this Obama NJ voter has noticed--is that he often defines his leadership skills against Obama's using situations that Obama, and not Christie, has faced. It is extremely easy to claim that people will simply bend to his will after they hear him say "Because I say so"  when he never actually has to say "Because I say so." It is extremely easy to say that Putin, or ISIS, or Ebola would listen if it were only someone of Christie's leadership caliber shaking his fist at them all.

The most likely result of this style of leadership, as actually practiced by an executive after an election, is someone who spends a great deal of time paying attention and fretting about the 24 hour news cycle, someone who makes bold, rash pronouncements to prove that he is shaping that news cycle come what may, and someone who refuses to admit mistakes when it becomes obvious to all that he acted rashly.

This is on display this week, and continues to be as Christie is still arguing that Hickox was symptomatically ill last Friday when the facts show she was not. Christie's schtick may be wearing thin even for an election season.           

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Primer on Space Politics: The Vision Thing

Last month, when announcing the contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry Americans to the space station, instead of having to rely on Russia as we do now, Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator proclaimed:

“Today we’re one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia.”

Maybe it’s the use of the hallowed phrase “one step” in the mouth of the NASA administrator that seemed to gear us up for an inspiring announcement. But what he said after that phrase is utterly depressing, and baffling. How could we have let this happen that 50 years after sending people to the Moon we now can’t even get them into Low Earth Orbit?

The reason it has happened is simple: for decades there has not been any political vision for human space flight coming from our leaders. The quandary is that this lack of leadership coexists with a clear vision for how we will use space to enhance technology on the ground, and the less discussed but very real vision for how we will use space militarily, as I have written in the posts below. The big question is whether the former two space strategies will be met with an equivalent strategy for human space presence. 

Every modern U.S. President gives the big space speech where he lays out his Administration’s space policy objectives. These policies usually are just updated and tweaked versions of the previous administration’s policy, and they usually evoke the glory days of the Moonshot era. During his re-election in 2004, George W. Bush announced, “Human beings are headed into the cosmos.” This being an election, it was said by pundits at the time that George W. Bush was trying to show the electorate that he had what his father called “the vision thing.” It was not until 2006 when he finally completed his official space policy. This document called for a replacement vehicle for the shuttle, to return us to the Moon by 2020, and to send a robotic mission to Mars that would somehow study the feasibility of a human mission to the Red Planet. The Constellation program consisted of the Orion space craft (formerly Crew Exploration Vehicle) and launch vehicle Ares I (formerly the Crew Launch Vehicle) and would potentially carry humans to the Moon and Mars.

In any case, the Obama Administration scrapped and refashioned most of that plan. They kept the Orion capsule plan but canceled the Ares rocket. An Orion-type crew vehicle will sit atop Boeing’s old and Russian-made Atlas V, or the SpaceX Falcon9, in future launches. By 2025, we are supposed to begin crewed missions beyond the Moon, including to an asteroid. In the 2030s we are to send humans round trip to Mars and back. The Obama plan also calls for finding exoplanets and signs of life in the universe.

Another way that the space policy of subsequent administrations is generally consistent is the distance presidents keep putting between their time in office and the real tough goals. To truly match and surpass the glory of Kennedy’s Moonshot, humans will have to travel beyond lunar orbit. Like the old joke goes, Presidents agree that this can only happen 20 years from now, and it always will.

As anyone who has read Lee Billings 5 Billion Years of Solitude knows, millions or even billions of dollars are spent on designs for space ships and telescopes (and diverted from other promising designs) only to be canceled after a few years, when people realize how much it will cost to actually finish the project. The cycle is repeated over and over in every NASA department. The money wasted in the canceled projects would probably have been enough to fund to completion a set of project designs had they been nested within a single space policy vision from the beginning.

Will this cycle be broken? Granted, there are major recent achievements in space exploration, mainly on the robotic and telescope fronts. But what of human space flight? Have presidents figured out how to spin the politics of their space policy: make sure the GPS is working, send some robots to Mars and kick some money to the exoplanet finders, but always keep the Moonshot business 20 years in the future, an inspiring goal we’re never actually supposed to reach? Is it all just rhetoric to justify the aerospace industry’s existence? Or is it an actual achievable goal that in fact does justify the aerospace industry?

Maybe we will find out the answer only when the people get interested in space again. Until the public finds its passion for space exploration we can’t expect politicians to be passionate about it. Maybe we need to be inspired by non-terrestrial sources. Perhaps shrimp on Europa, or a habitable planet a few light years away would do the trick. If a president truly wanted to motivate an era of space exploration, they might call for finding evidence of life outside the Earth within 10 years, and fund that mission. If it worked, we would have to head into the cosmos so we could go say hello to whatever is out there.      

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Space Money: Brand spaceX

One month ago, Boeing was awarded a $4.2 billion contract, and SpaceX $2.6 billion to begin ferrying astronauts into orbit by 2017. Once each company’s space capsules are certified, the companies will both perform 6 missions through 2023. Completion of those launches is the only way they get all their money.

SpaceX’s involvement—and the fact that a smaller company Sierra Nevada was apparently also a close enough contender that they contested NASA’s decision not to also award them a contract—is highly significant and a new development in how we launch people and satellites into space.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin have heretofore exclusively received government contracts for space work through their joint venture called United Launch Alliance (ULA). It’s widely written that this is a monopoly on U.S. space industry, and that the lack of competition drives up what they charge for their launches. Elson Musk of SpaceX claims he can launch into orbit for under $100 million, while ULA charge $380 million on average.

Another interesting wrinkle is that while SpaceX’s rocket is American made, ULA rely on Atlas Vs, which require a Russian made RD-180 engine.    

Also, politicians with a Boeing or Lockheed plant in their district will have a bias when talking about SpaceX. But there are others who are not on the SpaceX bandwagon, for better reasons than politics.

I suspect that SpaceX and companies like it will continue to play a larger role in the American space presence. When hearing about these companies and their big dreams in the news, we need to keep in mind the fundamentals they are operating under: money, and the realities of the aerospace industry. These companies are not just about space tourism and building hotels on the moon. They are about the government’s space policy (and presumably military space policy). The next Neil Armstorng—if we are to ever have the like—will be a private contractor.   

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Primer on Space Militarization

Let’s state calmly and sanely that space militarization is happening. It is a little questioned and less touted reality of the military and aerospace industry. It enables our modern way of life. Let us also state that this is not the result of a sinister plan. Space militarization is plodding along with small, incremental steps, lacking fanfare and, crucially, a sweeping vision (which would require a political debate and legal framework). As of yet, there are no villains akin to Dr. Strangelove in the story of space militarization. Though when the Commander of the United States Air Force Space Command says

Space superiority is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future. Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny.

as he did in March 2005, and with a name like a Star Wars villain (General Lance Lord), we may have a contender for villainy.

No, I’m sure General Lord is an all right guy just doing his job. Like all the other military planners, engineers and strategists writing memos from their cubicles about how to take the advantage in space.

Below is a primer on space militarization since the Chinese shot a KEW (kinetic energy weapon) into an aging weather satellite in 2007. My information is primarily based on studied from RAND and the Hudson Institute. A rash of these papers come out every few years, as they have for decades. They help us put this mysterious and scary subject in perspective with the professionals tasked with carrying it out.

Put simply, space militarization will continue because “space systems enable our modern way of war” on the ground (William J. Lynn III, A Military Strategy for the New Space Environment, 2011). The U.S. has five independent satellite constellations for its “defense connectivity needs.”

And even if that were not the case, space militarization would be a factor because space systems also enable our modern way of life. Circling 20,000 km above us every 12 hours are 24 GPS satellites—5 to 12 of them are above you right now, connecting with your phone. An Iridium constellation of 66 satellites all in Low Earth Orbit ensure all global communications. If Russia or China or Iran can take out these satellites and basically stop us from the dozen or more everyday tasks (some trivial, others crucial) that average Americans have come to depend on, well, what are we to do about that?

According to the National Security Space Strategy (2011), the Defense Department’s “Space Policy Mandate of Operations” has 4 quadrants, all of which support military readiness:

Spy satellites
Missile warning
Maritime domain warning
Environmental status
Internet and communication satellites
Militarily relevant data streams
Positioning, navigation, timing services (PNT)
Precision strikes
Early warning
Situational awareness
Synchronization of operations
Search & rescue

Note that there is nothing in this “Mandate of Operations” that George Lucas or J.J. Abrams would be remotely interested in putting in a movie. Space Militarization, for now, has nothing to do with dog fights in lunar orbit. All space infrastructure is directed toward terrestrial targets for the simple reason that the primary targets of war are terrestrial—except for the satellites that now guide all aspects of land, air and sea missions. 

This is how Lynn describes our space infrastructure: “What are in space are the sensory organs, which find and fix [terrestrial] targets… and the nervous system, which connects the combatant elements and permits them to operate cohesively.”

He adds that the U.S. is “inordinately dependent on its complex but exposed network of command, control, communications” space networks. The reason they are exposed is because a satellite’s position is impossible to hide. A high schooler could do the math on the trajectory that would bring a missile and a satellite into collision. 

This is the reason China, Russia, and every other would-be world power is so interested in developing their space capabilities. Sure India wants its own rover to beam back pictures from Mars, and China would love its own Neil Armstrong moment. But twined with that—like it was for our own Neil Armstrong moment—is this military necessity: taking out U.S. satellite systems would level the playing field on the terrestrial shooting war, which China et. al. would never win otherwise. This is the reason that space militarization will continue—a quieter, gentler arms race.

In one of Mary FitzGerald’s last dispatches—China’s Military Strategy for Space, 2007—she wrote about the types of weapons the Chinese are developing. Here is a sample list:
KEWs: ultra high speed warheads that collide with targets
Direct Energy Weapons (DEW): lasers, microwaves and particle beams
Hypersonic Aerospace Aircraft
Orbital Ballistic Missile: can function as an ICMB, anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) or orbital bomber
Ground Based Laser
Orbital Transfer Vehicle
Space-Based Radio Frequency Energy Weapon
Space Operations Vehicle: on-demand space lift from ground to orbit

(Naturally, we are working on the same type of weapons. It is an arms race after all.)

Now that potential future enemies are playing target practice with weather satellites, the U.S. is falling back on a deterrence posture.

According to Lynn, American space deterrence has four objectives right now:
1)   Space situational awareness: identify and assess all orbital objects so that we can identify the origin of any attack. (The potential for an attack to happen in space without our ability to know the source is very real, so is the potential for a 3rd party to launch an attack that will implicate another world power who had nothing to do with it. As John M. Collins wrote in his 1989 congressional report: “Space may prove to be a particularly fruitful environment for deception.”)   
2)   Enhance the survivability of space satellites
3)   Launch reserve satellites to replace those damaged or destroyed in an attack – “rapid response space launch capabilities.”
4)   Mindset shift toward “Small and flexible distributed capabilities” in space and on the ground so that if one satellite constellation is damaged the entire network will no collapse.

That is a very hopeful-sounding list. Of course, the obvious down side to space war, like all wars (but more so, I’d argue) is that things can spiral out of control very fast. The cascade failure depicted in Gravity is a realistic possibility. But there are other possibilities for catastrophe that may not be deterred or even predicted.

In his Rice University speech on space policy, September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said this:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.

Nearly 55 years later, it feels like that opportunity has come and gone.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gone Girl is this the updated Fatal Attraction--which is a bad thing

When I was in the english department at the University of Iowa, I took a great class called something like "Sex and Single Women in Literature." We read the classics of the genre like Scarlet Letter and Imitation of Life, but we also watched some pop culture representations like Sex in the City and Fatal Attraction.

This class did what a liberal liberal arts education is supposed to do: teach us to be on the look out for some of the themes that are too often unquestioningly expressed in our society, and to teach us how to question those themes.

The insight I was exposed to in that class was the following: single women in western cultural narratives meet one of three fates by the end of the story: married off; killed off; or punished for being single in a way that contains them.

The Woman as Monster storyline is an offshoot of this. Like in Fatal Attraction, she is single and therefore has the freedom to lure married men into her trap, where she will stop at nothing to keep them. Because even though she is single, the woman monster is obsessed with having a man in her life, or so she does in the patriarchal fever dream that spawns her.

Gone Girl is only a slight variation. Here the Woman Monster, Amy, is not single, but married. Don't let that fool you. The film's pretensions are that married life (and even the economy) made Amy a monster. But depicting that story is not where screenwriter and director put their energy. This movie is as much about Great Recession family struggles as Star Trek Into Darkness was about the morality of drone warfare. Gone Girl is all about the Woman Monster (and the affable but stupid men who enable them by not being more controlling, Ben Affleck here in the Michael Douglas version of the stereotype).

So it is surprising to read this Scott Mendelson post on how feminist the movie is. Here is his thesis:

"By virtue of its plethora of varied and quality female characters, Gone Girl is one of the most feminist films of the year."

Really? I get that Mendelson is so tired of movies that only have one female lead who must stand in for all of womankind. But the fact that Amy, with so many different and dynamic female co-characters, "is not burdened with representing womanhood as a gender" does not begin to counterbalance the deep-seeded stereotype she represents.   

Quoting and critiquing Sasha Stone's review of the film, Mendelson writes that "if we really want 'strong female character' to mean more than 'Kristen Stewart as Snow White wearing armor and wielding a sword,' we have to embrace a plurality of female characters that represent all character types." 

So, for the sake of diversity we have to be fine with Hollywood regurgitating one of the oldest minsogynst stereotypes in the book? This movie is not trying to be feminist. It is trying to be thrilling by trafficking in our near-ancient cultural fears of evil women and weak men. 

This is not just about movies. Right now there is a debate among conservatives about California's new affirmative consent law regarding sexual assault--the law where consensual is now defined by having the partners say Yes. It is interesting that in this particular sliver of the debate, here between Ponnuru and Conn Carroll, the woman's voice is left aside. There is great concern about the innocent men who will be improperly labeled rapists due to this new law. Now, why would men in general be so worried of being caught up in an inescapable web of accusations and legalese lies regarding their relations with a woman? Where might men have learned that fear? It is because, in part, of movies like Gone Girl. The stereotype of the Woman Monster has taught many men, especially young men, to believe that girls think and act like Bond villains. And that they better not get caught slipping. Women are their adversaries, and they are their conquests. The fact that no man would want to be Ben Affleck in this movie only proves the point.    

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why most summer (and sci-fi) movies suck

As we prepare for Interstellar, I think it would be smart to talk about why Nolan is the exception to the rule. So in this post I’d like us to discuss the “reality on the ground” in Hollywood, as described by Scott Mendelson of Forbes. His blog is called the Ticket Booth. His article on this subject:

This will be important reading as Interstellar comes out, and for those of us who will spend the next few years discussing and debating the 3rd Bad Robot Star Trek Movie. I want to get into the specifics of what Payne and McKay (mostly McKay) said in their TrekCore interview about Trek 3, but first we need agree on some fundamentals that will guide our discussions, debate, and especially our counsel to the Bad Robot Team.  

Mendelson’s premise is simple: Blockbuster movie writers and directors have a more pressing goal than pleasing the fan base: “It’s about convincing the general audiences to check out your comic book adaptation or fantasy property that makes it a hit…. It’s not that Hollywood doesn’t care about or doesn’t appreciate the geek fandom. It’s just that said geek fandom doesn’t make up very much total box office for a given film.”

Mendelson has a great analogy: “The passionate comic book fan is the equivalent of the hardcore left in the Democratic Party. They know you’re not going to stay home, so why bother placating you in the first place?” The party candidate doesn’t want to alienate the base, in fact they have to court you heavily in the primary. But the candidate who wins is the one who all along, no matter what he says on MSNBC or FOX News, is the one who was always building a product that is designed to sell big on Election Day to the whole country.

We Trek fans are in the primary phase now. I’m not saying that the Bad Robot team is blowing smoke, but we can’t delude ourselves that they are not primarily focused on making a movie that will open big on their opening (election) day. What does that entail?   

As the sfdebris’s Chuck pointed out in his Transformers review, summer sci-fi movies cost so much to make and market, they have to be written and produced in a way that will ensure media hype, and that general audience masses show up, especially on opening weekend. Thus we have what I like to call the Algorithm. You know, the reason why most summer blockbusters are basically the same movie with differently named and costumed characters.  

This Algorithm, more than the many different film makers, is the reason that the past 15 years of Star Trek movies have basically been the same movie with differently named and costumed characters. We can quibble over this and that creative decision. But the fact remains that a summer blockbuster filmmaker is allowed only so many colors in his paint box. We all know what those colors are by now: 

1) super villain 
2) super weapon
3) Earth in danger 
4) nonstop 30-minute third act destruction... 
5) wherein a city is usually destroyed
6) female "love (read sex) interest" for the lead actor        

The fear of many fans—including this one—is that the next Trek movie will repeat this trend. (It is a hopeful note that the one thing we have basically been promised is that the setting will be away from Earth, in deep space. This goes against the Algorithm, which says that the Asian market will not turn out for a sci-fi space film that does not involve Earth).  

To close, I’m going to implore that we not make this discussion personal by myself making it personal. Imagine you are Orci, MaKay or Payne. You have just been given a job, asked to perform at a level that you never have before—the highest of your career. As a Star Trek fan, you have a choice: do you channel your inner Roddenberry and write a movie that the fans will adore, maybe a cross between The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home (or even City on the edge and Balance of Terror)? Or do you follow the Algorithm, all but guaranteeing that you have the best chance of being re-hired for next summer, fulfilling your life long ambition of being a film maker, and so you go write The Wrath of Kahn Part 6? Or, do you somehow thread the needle?    

What would you choose? Think about it.

Oh by the way, it doesn’t help that Scott Mendelson is predicting Summer 2016 will be the most crowded blockbuster season in the history of cinema. God (or “Q”) help us all.

We need to push them to thread the needle, but we shouldn’t talk like it’s gonna easy. Even though Nolan makes it look easy. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Essay 5: The lost DS9 Time Travel Epic…nah we got “Prodigal Daughter”

I learned a lot from this meaningless episode:
1) We almost got a kick-ass present-Sisko vs. future-Sisko time travel show
2) Most Trek since 1965 has been written and filmed on a “first idea, best idea” time scale
3) DS9 writers, in the end, could not write a bad episode

The DS9 Companion quotes one of the writers of “Prodigal Daughter” Bradley Thomas: “Sisko battling Sisko, with the Sisko from the future coming back to the Sisko of the present, ‘You can’t do this, because things are going to happen.’”

I can’t help but think that the ‘things [that] are going to happen’ would have set up a continuity link from this unwritten episode to the finale arc. Specifically, it would have given the writers a bit more focus—pre-planning time, as we will see—on the Sisko-destiny storyline—more than they actually would get, since this time-travel story never panned out. Unfortunately, the writing team could not figure out what the story would be after the “great teaser” concept of gray-beard Sisko battling goatee-Sisko. I’m sure we can do better from our armchairs.

Ron Moore explained that “Prodigal Daughter” replaced the time travel idea because it was “a case of ‘First thought, best thought.’” There was precious little time before the writers had to hand the director a script to shoot. We fanboys-and-girls often fail to acknowledge the pressures Trek writers always operate under. We wonder why they just didn’t think of our brilliant solution, which we dream up from our perspective years after the fact, and not having any salary on the line. In truth, most Trek has been written by someone who had to get a script finished by dawn the next day—something we haven’t had to do since college. It’s a miracle we have gotten the quality that we have.

The grand plan for the finale was to have Sisko die with Dukat in the Fire Caves, and presumably go walk with the Prophets in the first Trek-canonical depiction of an afterlife. When Brooks asked them not to kill Sisko, they jettisoned the idea. But there was not time to come up with an alternative except to say that he wasn’t dead. If there had been a mid-season time travel show with an older version of Sisko, that might have given the writers time and creative foundation to plan Sisko’s fate. It was not to be.    

[By the way, Prodigal Daughter was not Ezri’s fault—nor Nicole deBoer’s. The writers even apologized to deBoer for writing such a lackluster script. The writers proved two episodes later that they could do a great Ezri episode with “Field of Fire.” That episode was of the best Trill episodes ever, in which they introduced a new element: the former host emerging in the mind’s eye of the current host, but cinematically depicted as a separate character played by a new actor that only the current host could see. It is perhaps the first time DS9 successfully dramatized Dax’s experience as a joined Trill—too bad they weren’t doing this from the beginning.]    

Unfortunately, “Prodigal Daughter” didn’t explore the Trill at all. It is a pointless exploration of characters we will never meet again (Ezri’s mother and two brothers, one of which now play’s Peggy’s scorned lover on Mad Men). The ‘first thought’ the writers came up with was to explore Ezri’s back story, which meant roping in her family (like TNG did when they ran out of Season 7 ideas and did Geordie, Worf and Data family episodes).

But this was not a bad episode. By ‘not bad’ I mean that the writers of this snoozefest, understanding that they were dealt a bad hand, still performed admirably. They did not denigrate beloved characters by having them act out of character. They did not denigrate new characters by having them act stupidly. There was a sensible plot and a moral, even though it failed to live up to the gravity of the rest of the final season. There was no technobable solution to a problem contrived to set up a space battle. There was even a bonus continuity link to a Season 6 episode, which honored Obrien’s character arc. Behr said that the episode concept was “a valid idea. DS9 is a character-based show, and this had all the makings of a classic drama. But the script never came together.”

Those are the words of a man who knows what it takes to make a script come together, and is secure enough to admit that he can’t make it happen every time.

My big take-away from these facts is that the DS9 writing room never phones it in. They never took us, the fans, for granted, even—especially—when they couldn’t deliver for us.   

But what could they have delivered? What would your Sisko time-travel epic have been? And how might it have shaped what happened in “What you Leave Behind”?