November 29, 2006

Apocalypse Soon: The Trouble With Space

The feat of knocking a golf ball into orbit got me reminiscing about a joke I tried out a few months ago. Nobody thought it was funny, and because I couldn't figure out why, I decided to provide a detailed explanation to go along with it. Here's what I came up with-

JOKE: now with ion-propulsion!

The first European lunar mission, SMART-1, ended today in a dazzling success when it crashed into the moon’s surface after a three-year journey.

Leading European space scientists hope to crash men into the moon in a future mission. 


Forty years ago the US landed Surveyor 1 on the moon and it didn't crash. It made a soft landing and sent back data, and that, justifiably, was considered to be a success. Could it be that the European Space Agency set their sites a bit low?  Was a crash landing the only successful outcome they could guarantee? Has some cabalistic recalibration brought about a situation where zero is the new +1? Maybe they are so SMART they will crash spacemen into the moon next. Keep in mind this is supposed to be a joke.


The billion-dollar "International Space Station", which seems primarily to have served as a research platform for determining the best ways to ferry garbage back to Mother Earth, has now become the ultimate 18th hole. Slice it to Venus or hook it to Mars. If you've got the twenty million, you've got your tee time. A new crop of space-golf tourists is certain to pump up the flagging space exploration coffers.

Think of the payoff to Mankind. Maybe we'll find a cheaper way to  produce Polonium-210. Who knows when the possibilities are endless?

Perhaps the notion of "technology transfer", which had previously found its most perfect expression in the form of Tang, the powdered orange breakfast drink, could now be applied to the thorny problem of, say, trash removal in New York City, which has vexed mayors from Thomas Willett to Michael Bloomberg.

 This latest development comes on the heels of a giant copper spheroid hurled at a comet, the meanest beebee ever, the high aspiration of the pocket-protector set: the World-Crushing BeeBee. I know there is a compelling need to study the ensuing dust plumes, but the resemblance to conceptual art is hard to efface.

The Fading Rubric of Mankind's Curiosity

Meanwhile back on Earth, ideologies grate on one another, producing conflict with no apparent end.  Among the greater community of faith, the transcendent belief that God has divinely authorized the destruction of non-believers has served to perpetuate war, even as the means for nuclear devastation proliferate.

Here all paths cross. The scientific method perfects ever-deadlier weapons of war faster than blind Nature can raise a pond full of amoebas. From brilliant pebbles to smart bombs, proof of innovative prowess is proudly stenciled on ordinance to be lobbed amongst the seamy nests of the enemy.

Neo-apoclayptists are lapping it up. Milleniallists transform themselves effortlessly into peri-milleniallsts and wait fretting for the next significant date. Could it be 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar? What about the Doomsday Clock, which stands at 17 minutes before midnight and keeps on ticking, hastening forward and falling back ever more infrequently?

Does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believe he can hasten the coming of God's dominion on Earth by obliterating Israel with a freshly-minted Islamic bomb? Does President Bush study the Book of Revelations? We shall see.

Recall that science too has its myth of an end time, expressed in the avatar of the Doomsday Asteroid, aloof now and roaming the Kuiper belt with impunity, but always on the look-out for that one perfect trajectory which leads imperturbably to Earth and the subsequent annihilation of all of its living inhabitants. Anyone doubting this proposition need only examine the fossil record.

November 12, 2006

So I Lied?

"What's the big deal?
There was a campaign going on."

That's how I read the president's testy answer during questioning at his post-election press conference. When asked "why did you tell us just last week that Rumsfeld would stay on?," his rambling reply included this: "the only way to answer that question and to get you on to another question was to give you that answer."

The subtext, and in large part, the theme of the press conference, was basically "hey, everyone knows that campaign messages are a pack of lies, but now the campaign is finished, so just get over it."

This is not new, of course. Aside from the practice of doing one thing and calling it another, which has been a hallmark of the Bush administration, there is also a marked tendency to lie outright, even when the lie will surely be discovered.

Twice the President has slipped surreptitiously out of the country for visits to Iraq. The second, his secret departure to meet with Prime Minister al-Maliki came complete with a false press release. As quoted in the Washington Post, White House communications director Nicolle Wallace said: "Nothing was done with the goal of duping anyone. The purpose of the secrecy was security." Plausible, but still, we were duped.

Lies by omission are one thing, and certainly there are circumstances that may require the president not to 'show all of his cards,' but to issue a statement that is exactly the opposite of the true situation seems a notch or two worse to me. As a matter of fact, I am greatly understating my abhorrence, so as not to undermine my credibity by seeming to be radically liberal. At any rate, you get the drift.

So is this the pragmatism required of realpolitik, or is it rather a pathological reliance on the lie as but one more tool in the political toolkit, fully equal to the practice of telling the truth?

November 3, 2006

Nuclear Weapons For Dummies

Classified information suddenly has nowhere to hide. It's out on the web, unchaperoned by any net nanny. Now the nation-state has become just one more player in the marketplace of ideas.

The unimpeded flow of information, and its evil twin disinformation, comes with unforeseeable consequences. Imperfect security, indigestible lumps of data in the form of large electronic documents, compounded with the inherent perfect nature of the digital copy mean that there will be a continuing trickle of sensitive and accurate information bleeding out of all but the most well-bandaged regimes. Will those seeking perfect protection only serve to insure their own mummification?

Here is an example of a waveform representation of an audio file that has been sanitized by the US government:

In this case the excision of information was well done. I put it to test and there is no intelligible sound to be recovered from the official silence. But what about the image below? Does this tell us nothing about that old stand-by of the US nuclear arsenal, the B-61?

Don't ask me. I don't want one.

The examples of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs show that there remain prominent barriers to the creation of nuclear weapons. Metallurgy, precision machining, and acquisition of fissile materials all involve complex processes that take time and lots of money to master, even when the textbooks are at hand, even if you have blueprints from A.Q. Khan.

Nuclear weapons for dummies? Buy a suitcase nuke and don't waste your time on a nuclear program. After all, even if you are an army of one, you can still capitalize on all of the hard work done by big-budget governments.

Whether you're looking to hasten end-times, or simply to annihilate an enemy, this little baby will make the perfect traveling companion.