Wednesday, October 19, 2016

European Space Agency busy anticipating Mars colonists' popcorn needs

Schoparelli lander final descent to the surface of Mars (ESA/ATG medialab)
SpaceX leader and all-around science action hero, Elon Musk, has recently announced plans to put humans - lots of them - on the surface of Mars within the next dozen years or so. In addition to all the space-age technological challenges this implies, one big question remains: what are they going to eat when they get there?

This is where the European Space Agency (ESA) is coming to the rescue. As part of their ExoMars mission now underway, they will be deploying the Schoparelli lander, shown here in an artist's conception making its final descent to the surface of the Red Planet.

Original Jiffy Pop in action
Modeled after the iconic Jiffy Pop popcorn maker developed for NASA in the late 1950s, at over 1.65 m (a little less than 5 and a half feet) in diameter and with a carrying capacity of 577 kg (almost 1,300 pounds), "Schop," as it's known, will be able to supply 100 Mars colonists with all their popcorn needs for well over a year.

So, although these brave pioneers will be undoubtedly be spending most of their time sciencing the shit out of stuff, every now and then, when they kick back and settle in for a quiet evening watching a movie - my guess is that Matt Damon's "The Martian" will be a favorite - they'll never have to worry about running out of traditional snacks. Also, Schop is equipped with ample salt and butter-flavored topping dispensers, seen on the top of the spacecraft in the above image.

And there's no need to worry about all those golden kernels going bad waiting for customers. Given Mars's frigid surface temperature averaging around −55 °C (−67 °F) and almost non-existent atmosphere, Schop's popcorn payload will stay fresh for decades. And, thanks to a constant stream of Solar wind radiation bombarding the lander, any microbes that decided to hitch a ride with the corn, will be toast, so to speak, long before Schop starts to popping.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The peace monument in Atlanta's Piedmont Park: four dates and a funeral for racial justice

"Cease Firing - Peace Proclaimed"
monument at the 14th Street entrance
of Atlanta's Piedmont Park
Until recently, I had never paid much attention to this monument at the 14th Street entrance to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. It is a larger-than-life sculpture that portrays an Angel of Peace stilling the hand of a Confederate soldier about to fire his rifle. It bears the title “Cease Firing - Peace Proclaimed.”

I had always assumed that it was not much more than a conventional memorial to the end of the Civil War, that was until I took closer at the plaque on its side. Depending upon your point of view, either God or the Devil lives in the details. In the case of this monument, I think that a convincing argument can be made for the latter.

Four dates are involved in telling the tale of this peace monument.

The earliest date is April 30, 1861, which marks the incorporation of Atlanta’s Gate City Guard into the Confederate Army, little more than two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter lead to the outbreak of the Civil War. According to the plaque, they did this “in the conscientious conviction of their duty to uphold the Cause of the Southern Confederacy.” This so-called “Lost Cause” rationale was the Confederate retelling of history that transformed their shameful fight to uphold the institution of slavery to a noble struggle in defense of states rights.

A second date is that of a ceasefire somewhat disingenuously alluded to in the monument’s title. As far as I can tell, there was no formal declaration of “cease firing” that marked the end of hostilities of the Civil War. While it is true that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, not everyone got the memo. And many of those that did get the memo, ignored it. There was no shortage of Confederate dead-enders, as Donald Rumsfeld would have called them. Fighting continued sporadically for months. And a formal end of the war was only declared by President Andrew Johnson on August 20, 1866.

October 6, 1879 is the third date commemorated on the memorial. That was the date that the very same Gate City Guard “went forth to greet their former adversaries in the Northeastern and Eastern States, inviting them to unite with the people of the South to heal the Nation's wounds in a peaceful and prosperous reunion of the States.” Sick and tired of the bloody opposition to Reconstruction in the South, by 1876 the nation had decided to abandon its commitment to transform the political landscape of the former Confederate States. Although the Gate City Guard’s mission was, on its surface, a mission of reconciliation, it was, in many respects, a celebration of the Confederate triumph when it came to matters of race.

The fourth and final date associated with the memorial is October 10th 1911, the date of its dedication. Almost thirty-five years after the end of Reconstruction, a prosperous and resurgent South had been brought back into the Union. Georgia Governor Hoke Smith attended the dedication. Although Smith was a member of the national Progressive Party formed by Theodore Roosevelt, fulfilling a campaign promise, he led the adoption of a constitutional amendment that effectively disenfranchised black Georgians. This revision marked the final nail in the coffin of any hope for racial justice that had propelled the Union during the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction. All gains that had been made in that regard had been turned back. Jim Crow reigned supreme.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Why an Obama "excellent adventure" as a Supreme Court Justice is a bad idea

There's a lot of buzz going around about the possibility of a future Democratic president nominating current Democratic president Barack Obama to the Supreme Court. I think that this would be a bad idea, and I'd like to tell you why.

Just to fend off some of the disapproval that I know I've already provoked, I want to say that I think Obama has the intellect, legal expertise, and the judicial temperament to make for a great Supreme Court Justice.

Indeed, the matter of temperament is of paramount importance. No one has shown more of a commitment to the dispassionate consideration of the most divisive issues facing this country than Barack Obama has over the last eight years, this in spite of relentless attacks on his efforts to reach sensible political compromise.

So what's not to like?

To put it simply, the presence of an Associate Justice Obama would turn the Supreme Court Building into a third ring of the the Washington political circus that now includes the White House and the U.S. Capitol. And a Justice Obama would suck the air of the room of any oral argument before the court.

The obvious objection to the above claim is that we've been there and done that. William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1909–13), served as the country's tenth Chief Justice (1921–30). The Supreme Court didn't crumble as a result of his tenure there, so there's no reason to believe that a repeat performance by the 44th President of the United States in the capacity of an Associate Justice should raise any cause for alarm.

In response, first of all consider that Taft took on his Supreme Court gig a good eight years after leaving the office of President. I suspect that this cooling off period went a long way toward making Supreme Court deliberations less fraught with the political issues that Taft had to deal with during his time as president.

Second, and more importantly, the power and prestige of the office of the President of the United States have changed immeasurably since 1921. To understand this, it's instructive to look at a story that comes from the ex-presidency of Harry Truman, a little more than sixty years ago.

In June of 1953, not much more than sixth months after leaving office, Harry Truman and his wife Bess packed up their Chrysler New Yorker and headed across country on a road trip. Just the two of them.

It's hard to imagine that the man who had been commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces at the end of World War II - and who had also survived two assassination attempts - was out touring the country in the family roadster without the company of either a press entourage or a Secret Service detail. This presidential escapade is nicely documented in Matthew Algeo's "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip" (Amazon link).

If you imagine that Barack Obama's assuming a seat on the Supreme Court in 2017 would be not much more of a disruption than William Howard Taft becoming Chief Justice in 1921, then I invite you to consider how well an "excellent adventure" by the Obama family on a road trip alone into the American heartland would play out today.

Barack Obama is eminently qualified to a be a Supreme Court Justice in the same way that Cate Blanchett is eminently qualified to appear in a community theater production. But celebrity changes everything, and sometimes even the best qualified person isn't the right fit.