Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Moneyball" - The Rise of the Planet of the Quants

Imagine a situation characterized by fierce competition over valuable, but limited, resources. The rich few, with the deepest pockets, indifferent to questions of cost, have no problem paying for and monopolizing the best that is available. Meanwhile those in the middle, not to mention those at the very bottom of the economic ladder, are locked out from participation, and must content themselves with the scraps that the wealthy leave behind.

Along comes a man, armed with reason and with numbers, daring to apply dispassionate analysis to this vexing problem in a last-ditch effort to level the playing field for everyone involved. His deliberate, calculated approach, though, is decried as soulless and is called a desecration of tradition, an attack on the established way of doing things that, according to those well-off, is "working just fine, thank you."

Ironically, the abundant criticism leveled at him includes that from the ranks of the disadvantaged, who, it would seem, would be his natural allies. So besotted are they with the mythology that surrounds the status quo, that they fail to appreciate that the system, as it is constructed, is pushing them to the margins more and more each day.

Theodore Roosevelt
Undeterred, our hero presses on, like Theodore Roosevelt's man in the arena, "who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

The above, which could have been a description of Barack Obama championing his health care reform plan in the more promising days of the spring of 2009, works well as a set-up for the events that unfold in the baseball bio-pic Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller.

The man in the arena here is Oakland A's general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), and the arena is the world of baseball at the end of the 2001 season, a world in which rich teams like the New York Yankees raid lesser ones, like Billy's, luring away superstar talent with offers of astronomical salaries that owners of teams like the A's could never dream of matching.

As Moneyball opens, we find a desperate Billy seeking guidance from his "wise men" council of baseball scouts - a gaggle of aging men who look like a misplaced assembly of Mafia consiglieri and sound like a post-modern Greek chorus fated to intone endless baseball cliches in response to Billy's pleas for useful advice. Frustrated by their disregard to the peril that confronts them - and the game of baseball itself - Billy heads off to Cleveland, home of baseball's Indians, in a hail-Mary attempt to wheel and deal his way to a team that will keep him in contention.

Jonah Hill as Peter Brand
in Moneyball
There he encounters an unlikely muse in the person of 24-year-old Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, in a breakout role worthy of a supporting-actor Oscar nod). Peter is a recently minted Yale economics graduate and a savant of baseball statistics and finance, a major-league quant, if there ever was one. He has been spinning his wheels working in the Cleveland front office where his insights about the game have been largely ignored. Unlike his Cleveland counterpart, though, who is sitting flush, Billy's mind is keenly focused by the impending execution of his 2002 playoff hopes, and so he is open to ideas from any quarter. A passing remark by Peter in a crowded meeting draws him to Billy's attention, and the rest, as they say, is history - baseball history.

What Peter has figured out, to put it simply, is that you don't need stars to put together a winning team. Indeed, a roster players each of whom gets on base a significant fraction of the time will generate, in aggregate, the number of runs necessary to win games. Their skills on the field, it turns out, are not of much consequence. What is more, such often overlooked or cast-aside players - hobbled by injury or long past their prime, but eager to stay in the "show" - are available at bargain-basement prices.

Billy, who is one smart cookie himself - we learn that he turned down a scholarship at Stanford to pursue his ill-fated major-league dream - groks Peter and his new thinking and is able to see beyond the received baseball wisdom which blinds his own scouts and coaches to the statistical truth. And thus is born a professional partnership between the two men, as well as a burgeoning friendship. Their Mutt and Jeff relationship adds a nice buddy-movie wrinkle to Moneyball, and the story, in a small way, becomes a rite of passage for Peter, providing the young man with the opportunity to be taken seriously for the first time in his life, but also forcing him to confront the burdens that come with leadership.

What I liked most about Moneyball, though, is that it is a refreshing and welcome inversion of what I call the American heart-head parable. These are tales in which embattled heroes triumph by choosing to rely on feelings instead of brains when facing challenges and vanquishing foes.

Luke Skywalker on his final approach
in "Star Wars"
Perhaps nowhere is this elevation of heart over head better captured in a film, than the in the climatic battle scene in the first Star Wars movie in which Luke Skywalker, at the urging of his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, turns off the targeting computer in his X-wing fighter and "uses the Force" in order to direct the shot that will destroy the planetocidal Death Star.

"Liberty Valence" movie poster
Yet the heart-head trope has a distinguished pedigree in American cinema, supported by both an enduring distrust of (dithering) intellectuals and a admiration for (determined) men of action in the culture at large. A notable example is the classic 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, in which Jimmy Stewart plays an educated and earnest, yet ultimately ineffectual, attorney, committed to the rule of law, and John Wayne, a rancher and his school-of-hard-knocks doppelganger, who understands that there are times when, the law be damned, a man's got to do what a man's got to do.

For the generation coming of age during the Cold War this film served as a cautionary tale of the inadequacy of law and, by extension deliberative analysis, in confronting genuine evil in the world. Its lesson was one well heeded by those, like Dick Cheney, who advocated for such scurrilous tactics as unwarranted surveillance, water-boarding and extraordinary rendition in response to the 9/11 attacks on this country.

Sadly, the American love affair with political figures who are suspicious of book-learnin' and rely on God and guts as lodestones for their decision-making catapulted the intellectually incurious George W. Bush to the highest office in the land. Hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths and the undermining of the international legal order testify to the destruction left in the wake of this two-term cowboy President. Lest we think that Bush's abject failures at home and abroad have led Americans to reassess the relative value they assign to heart and head when selecting their leaders, Sarah Palin's exhortation to the Tea Party Convention in February, 2010, that "we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern," demonstrates the currency that the world view of Liberty Valence has in American politics.

Doctor and Boy Looking at Thermometer
(Norman Rockwell, 1954)
Erstwhile presidential hopeful Palin herself figures prominently in our ongoing Moneyball moment, that is the debate over healthcare reform, which calls us as a nation to come to grips with the increasingly inequitable distribution of an increasingly costly shared resource, namely medical services. Educated and caring men and women, seeing the failure and imminent collapse of the current system, have entered this arena armed with numbers and with reason. Their approach has been decried as cold and unfeeling, and their plans to allocate resources based on a compassionate weighing of costs and benefits - replacing the arbitrary and unregulated rationing in effect - have been shamelessly misrepresented by Palin and her supporters as "death panels." Furthermore, these champions of rational health care policy have been called out as iconoclasts, intent on undermining the cherished close personal relationship between doctor and patient, a tradition which persists in the paintings of Norman Rockwell's idealized version of mid-twentieth-century America life, complete with house calls, but nowhere else today.

So Moneyball proudly steps up to the plate and, for a change, celebrates a man, Billy Beane, who, when faced with a seemingly intractable problem, is not afraid to turn to numbers and analysis when traditional approaches have failed. Billy represents of a new kind of American hero, one who feels passionately about thinking things through, an intellectual, who, like Roosevelt's man in the arena, is not afraid to "dare greatly." In a time when it is crucial for America and its leaders to abandon gut feelings and received wisdom as ways to address the dire problems that we face and, instead, to bring to bear innovative thinking based on a scientific understanding of the world, Moneyball offers us a sorely needed updating of our long-discredited heart-head mythology.

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"Moneyball" - The Rise of the Planet of the Quants by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Contagion"- An Ode to Public Health and Medical Science

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is one of that rare breed of films that succeeds as both a compelling drama and as a rich and informative movie about science.

At the heart of the drama here are the stories of the three women who are Contagion's scientists heroes: a World Health Organization disease detective played by Marion Cotillard, who works coolly and systematically to piece together the puzzle of the origin of a rapidly spreading viral illness; an Epidemic Intelligence Service boots-on-the-ground, brave first-responder (a studiously understated Kate Winslet) who puts into place the critical early public health care measures to deal with the emerging pandemic; and the luminous Jennifer Ehle, as a smart CDC virologist who labors tirelessly behind the scenes to understand the nature of their deadly opponent and to devise a vaccine to defeat it.

What makes these stories so engaging is not only that they weave important and realistic medical science roles into the multifaceted plot of the ensemble film, but also that the woman executing them do so with compassion and unassuming self-sacrifice, keeping their heads while those about them are losing theirs, creating a calm, efficient working center at the eye of the swirling global disease storm. It is also interesting to note, reversing conventional gender roles, that it is the CDC head honcho, played convincingly by Laurence Fishburne, who fumbles the ball by letting his personal attachments get in the way of his doing his job.

Off hand, I can think of only one other popular film that delivers so much unvarnished science, and that is Contact, which also happens to feature a brilliant, fearless female scientist (Jodie Foster, of course). The fact is that we learn a lot from Contagion, and the science it communicates rings true, even allowing for the concessions made to narrative compression. (For example, vaccines, in real life, do not confer immediate immunity.) This level of detail and concern for accuracy I attribute largely to director Soderbergh, whose goal was clearly to offer us an ode to medical science and to public health workers. The movie pauses for a quiet exposition on epidemiology - Winslet takes to a whiteboard to explain the mathematics of disease transmission, complete with variables and subscripts, no less - and for a meditation by Ehle at her father's bedside - a short discourse on a Nobel prize won for determining the true cause of ulcers. Can you imagine?

These digressions into the nuts and bolts of science - and there are many of them - would not have made it into a lesser script, much less the final cut of most films.That they survive and are showcased here are a testimony to Soderbergh's independence as a film maker and to his ability to realize Contagion as the remarkable personal vision that it appears to be.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Some Reflections on Holly Tucker's "Blood Work"

What follows are some reflections on Holly Tucker's fascinating recent book Blood Work, which explores a 5-year period in seventeenth century England and France during which bold and dangerous experiments involving blood transfusion were first attempted.

The Heart is a Pump
The heart is a pump. This seems such an obvious statement of fact that it is startling for me to contemplate that its truth was contested as recently as the seventeenth century. I say this with full awareness that hindsight in science, as with other human affairs, is 20-20, or perhaps here one should say 120 over 80.

It does not confound me that Europeans at the time of Copernicus believed the Earth to be the center of the universe. I do not scratch my head wondering how the role oxygen in animal respiration went unnoticed prior to Antoine Lavoisier's demonstrations in the eighteenth century. That a comprehensive theory of biological evolution by natural selection awaited elucidation by a genius such as Charles Darwin comes as no great surprise to me.

But I am astounded when I am reminded that the beating of the heart was not recognized by the ancients as the means by which blood is impelled in a circuit around the body and that, as Tucker emphasizes in early chapters of her book, the description of the circulatory system by William Harvey was still a matter of heated dispute some 30 years after its publication.

I would have thought that the battlefields and abattoirs of the world would have yielded, over countless centuries, abundant and detailed evidence of the ins and outs of the flow of blood, in spite of the near invisibility of capillaries that connect arteries to veins. Why did it take so long to for a coherent understanding of this central feature of our own physiology to emerge?

Tucker answers this question - and, in the process, allays my puzzlement - by explaining how the theories of Claudius Galen, a Roman medical authority of the early common era, continued to dominate thinking about the nature of the workings of the human body more than 1500 years after his death.

For Galen the heart was first and foremost a furnace, not a pump, involved in regulating the heat and moisture balance of the four bodily humors, black bile, yellow bole, phlegm and blood. To say otherwise during most of the common era was to be considered a fool.

We like to think that science is a bold adventure propelled by new discoveries. As Blood Work illustrates it is often a cautious undertaking whose tentative advances require first shaking off the blinders of received wisdom.

Wren's plans for rebuilding the City of
London after the "Great Conflagration"
Christopher Wren
It was intriguing to see Christopher Wren make an appearance early in Blood Work, featured, not as the architect of London's Saint Paul's Cathedral, which is how I know him, but as a pioneering "blood worker" in his own right.

Motivated by Harvey's De motu cordi, Wren conducted experiments that involved injecting alcohol, emetics and opiates into the veins of animal subjects. These trials anticipated using the circulatory system as means of delivering drugs throughout the body some two hundred years before the invention of the modern hypodermic needle.

But, perhaps more significantly, Wren, the visionary city planner, was soon to apply Harvey's model of blood circulation in his formulation of plans proposing how London could be rebuilt in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. It is remarkable to ponder that, with Wren, the metaphor of thoroughfares as free-flowing "arteries" was entirely new to the world.

A Continuation of War by Other Means
The nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clauswitz, is famously quoted as saying, "war is the continuation of politics by other means." Tucker illustrates that, with the cross-Channel superpower duel between England and France, science, perhaps for the first time in history, becomes a continuation of war by other means.

John Kennedy addressing Congress in 1961,
announcing the goal of sending a man to the
Moon before the end of the decade
For those like myself who came of age during the focal decade of the Soviet-American space race to reach the Moon, that nation states might use competition in the scientific arena as a surrogate for more costly and more deadly armed conflict is not an unfamiliar idea. It is, though, surprising to learn that such international competition appeared soon after the emergence of science in a recognizably modern form.

Indeed, Blood Work documents not only the rivalries between early English and French transfusionists, but also how this "blood race" became, for a brief period of time, a matter of national prestige, enough so that heretofore private, independent "philosophical clubs", such as the Montmor Academy, became institutions securely under the supervision of the state, as was the case of the founding of the French Academy of Sciences in late 1666. The predecessor of the Royal Society of London had undergone a similar transition a half dozen years before.

It may well be that the institutionalization of these philosophical clubs - as well as the appearance of the regular publications which they issued and with that, no doubt, the seeds of peer review - was as an essential step in science becoming the enormously successful intellectual enterprise it is today. (I touched on this theme in a blog post, Is "Flat" Science "Real" Science?a couple of years ago.)

The Ethics of Experimentation on Humans
More than two years passed between Richard Lower's first transfusion experiments on dogs and Jean-Baptiste Denis' animal-to-human trials performed in June of 1667. The English, it appears, were deterred by "some considerations of a Moral Nature" from proceeding more quickly, but they did not seem to daunt the reckless, self-aggrandizing Denis, whose initial test subjects included not only an ailing 15-year-old boy, but also a healthy middle-aged man.

It was not that shocking for me to learn that blood transfusion was offered as a therapy of last resort for those suffering from severe and otherwise untreatable illness, since even today exceptions are made for the use of untested procedures in circumstances where patients are deemed to be terminally ill and conventional treatments have failed. It was, though, disconcerting to realize that the early transfusionists based their hopes for the improvement of their patients on the flimsiest of notions, most of which were grounded in the very humoralist conception of human physiology which had recently been partially discredited by Harvey's investigations of the circulatory system.

As much as I had naively hoped that Blood Work would be the story of heroes of an early phase of the scientific revolution, I was left with the unsettled feeling that the medical tinkering of Lower and Denis and their colleagues was in many ways little more than an variation on blood manipulations then in common use. Of course, my presentist biases are showing here. If I had my druthers, the entire lot would have set themselves the goal of conducting large-scale controlled clinical trials to determine whether bloodletting treatments had any beneficial effects whatsoever. Dream on.

Doctor drawing blood from one of the
Tuskegee test subjects
But when it comes to rules for human experimentation, it is sad to observe that the limited "moral considerations" of the seventeenth century remained very much in force well into the twentieth. That is to say that human subjects were, and continued to be, selected from the ranks of the destitute, the disenfranchised and the demented. The shameful Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which poor black men in rural Alabama went untreated for that disease in spite of readily available antibiotics, only came to an end in 1972. It is hard to fault the transfusionists for their ethical lapses, when the requirement of, say, informed consent is such a recent innovation.

A Not So Distant Mirror
In the tradition of Barbara Tuchman's classic history of fourteenth-century Europe, A Distant Mirror, in which the author draws parallels between the death and suffering of that age and of her own, Tucker in Blood Work offers an account of the controversy that surrounded the first blood transfusion experiments as an opportunity for us to reflect on similar disputes over biomedical research that rage today, specifically the acrimonious debates over scientific studies that make use of human stem cells and other human genetic material.

We have become so accustomed to an updated version of Christopher Wren's "urban planning" model of the circulatory system, one in which arteries serve as thoroughfares for the delivery of oxygen and nutrients - as well as the occasional hormone - to the various parts of the body and veins provide avenues through which the byproducts of metabolic activity are ferried to suitable exits, that we have to be reminded that blood was once regarded as something other than physiological rolling stock.

Quite to the contrary, blood had long been thought to be a determining component of character in a very real sense - vestiges of this stance survive in our language, if not in our biology textbooks - so the transfer of blood between an animal and a human being raised the frightening prospect that bodies, personalities, even souls, could be polluted in some macabre and irreversible way. Indeed, it was in part the apprehension that blood transfusion might result in the "transmutation" of recipients into chimeras, bizarre creatures possessing a mixture of human and animal characteristics, that led the French parliament in December of 1669 to put the kibosh on transfusion in that country, a ban which had a chilling effect on experiments in England, as well.

A chimeric mouse with its pups,
which carry the agouti coat color gene
Similar concerns circulate today, and it has to be acknowledged that the creation of chimeras through the application of genetic engineering has, in fact, been achieved. We are not, though, much troubled that bacteria equipped with recombined human DNA are employed routinely in the production of human insulin. Yet some do find it a bit disconcerting to learn that mice outfitted with the the human variation of FOXP2, a gene which plays a critical role in the our capacity for speech, vocalize differently. Needless to say, the prospect of creating hybrids that combine large-scale features of human and non-human species, raises alarm from almost all quarters.

Fear that scientists would arrogate the powers of God for themselves in bold, but disastrously misguided, ways were established well enough less than 150 years after the first transfusion experiments that Mary Shelly's Frankenstein achieved immediate popular success when it was published. (See related thoughts in my blog post Splice the Movie - Paradise Fail.) The never-ending debate over the teaching of the theory of evolution by natural selection in American public schools is a prominent contemporary example of this conflict between science and "the sacred". Lest we conclude that these disagreements have only to do with the sanctity of human life (and putative human souls), it should be noted, as an example, that much of the opposition to the genetic modification of plants for agricultural purposes originates in a philosophy that holds Nature, itself, to be sacred and views scientifically engineered attempts to alter it as abominations.

In many respects the seventeenth-century flirtation with blood transfusion detailed in Blood Work, can be seen as a first intrusion by "modern" science into the realm of the sacred. There is much for us to learn from this early skirmish in a war that continues to this day.

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Some Reflections on Holly Tucker's "Blood Work" by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Alternate Universe of "Larry Crowne"

"Larry Crowne" movie poster
Larry Crowne, the Tom Hanks feel-good vehicle that doubles as a feature film is so unrelentingly positive in its outlook that it may define a new genre in its own right, the lobotomy flick. Indeed, when the quite surreal closing credits rolled, I paused in my seat before standing up, wanting to make sure that I didn't walk off with the Valium drip planted firmly - too firmly - in my arm.

The title character. Larry Crowne (Hanks), leads a life into which a little - very little - rain must fall, and even then it serves the purpose of watering the seed of his glorious personal reawakening. Larry's unwelcome summer shower arrives at the beginning of the film in the form of an unexpected layoff from a Walmart-like big box store where he has worked for several years. That Larry has thrived, even frolicked, there is made all too evident in an opening video paean to workplace camaraderie that would have been excessive in a Stalin-era Soviet film touting the joys of collectivized agriculture.
"Forrest Gump" movie poster

Hanks has decided to reprise his role as Forrest Gump here, playing an indefatigable, not-a-mean-bone-in-his-body optomist, a character more suited to the story of mildly-retarded man buffeted about Zelig-like from one momentous event of the 20th century to another, than that of a middle-aged, retired Navy cook down on his luck. One would think that such naiveté would make Larry an easy target in any neighborhood this side of Mister Rogers', but Larry conveniently lives in an alternate universe tailored especially for him.

It is an off-kilter male fantasy universe where beautiful young women (such as the fethcing Gugu Mbatha-Raw) take older lost boys like Larry under their wings, style their hair, redo their wardrobes, redecorate their homes and initiate them into "mild bunch" gangs of scooter-riding twenty-somethings, whose rituals include low-speed drive-bys up and down the endless retail roads of Southern California in search of - of all things - yardsales.

It is a formulaic sitcom universe of pristine post-racial suburban streets populated by eccentric next-door neighbors, such as Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), whose perpetual yardsale provides Larry with a golden opportunity to prove his worth to his new-found yardsale-seeking scooter posse.

It is a forgiving universe of soft knocks, where Larry quickly recovers his financial footing, finding part-time work as a cook at a diner run by his long-time friend Frank, and finding a kind of personal liberation in handing over the keys to his home to the bank as part of a voluntary foreclosure that will wipe his fiscal slate clean.

Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Harvey"
But most importantly it is a Jimmy Stewart, nice-guys-finish-first universe in which an unassuming, guileless 55-year-old man walks into his very first college class to find that his professor is a woman, looking an awful lot like Julia Roberts, whose marriage is on the porno-fueled skids and whose sarcastic and cynical heart is ripe to be warmed, if only her everyman prince would come.

Julia Roberts! Sign me up. Just give me a second or two to roll up the other sleeve.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Page One" - Profits and Prophets and the Survival of the New York Times

Page One: Inside the New York Times, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the New York Times, asks the question: in a world of declining advertising revenue and declining readership, thanks to the inexorable rise of new media, such as blogs and Twitter and social networks, why should we be concerned  about the survival of a relic of the age of paper newspapers? What does the so-called mainstream media have to offer that makes it so much more valuable than the gaggle of gawkers out on the street doing the people's business?

The film answers these questions, poignantly, in just two words: David Carr.

Carr is a New York Times reporter and columnist whose personal story of emergence from a life ravaged by years of drug and alcohol abuse to become among the premier journalists of our day is well known. Page One uses Carr as a thread to weave together the disparate - and remarkable personalities - who labor day in and day out at the "Gray Lady" to make the Times the newspaper of record not only for our country, but for the world.

A less wizened David Carr, from his
bio page at the New York Times
The toll that Carr's damaging early years has taken on him is evident in the creases of his wizened face, his stooped posture and his cracking and raspy voice. But his bright eyes reveal the fire that burns within, and when his voice rises, as it does with words eloquently both profane and poetic, Carr takes on the mien of an Old Testament prophet, speaking profound and unwelcome truths to a world turning away from the old-time religion of quality journalism - a tradition steeped in thoughtful, carefully researched writing - and rushing headlong toward that brave new one of tweets and likes, all the digital ephemera that pass for news these days.

Yet Page One presents us with more than a picture of Carr the man, but also of Carr the reporter, restlessly dogging a story, piecing together scraps of information, on the telephone, speaking with often reluctant sources, but always endeavoring to be scrupulously fair. In this regard he and his colleagues at the Times distinguish themselves not only by the stories they produce, but also by the process that they engage in. In a media cultural of ever-breaking news, it's heartening to realize that some news "outlets" pause to reflect on what they are about to report, wrestling with professional and ethical concerns which might result in a promising and crowd pleasing story being moved off of the much sought-after "page one" and even abandoned entirely.

So the question of old- versus new-media comes down to that age-old one, often cast in terms of out-of-touch elitism versus rampant egalitarianism. The new media advocates are given their due in Page One - in particular with the blogosphere phenom turned New York Times reporter, Brian Stelter - but at the end of the day we are asked to choose: Do we want to rely on people just like us to do this important job. Is the Joe the Plumber mentality that led to the election of everyman George W. Bush in 2000 and may very well place the reins of the most powerful office in the world in the hands of the likes of Sarah Palin in 2012 a good model for the future of journalism?

By my lights, it is not. I don't want to be getting my news from otherwise preoccupied, unseasoned people like me, running around with high-definition video cameras and tablet computers. I want to be getting my news from David Carr and people like him, people who see their work not only as a craft refined through years of diligent effort but also as a grave responsibility and a dignified form of public service.

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"Page One" - Profits and Prophets and the Survival of the New York Times by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Thursday, April 14, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Ethics Fail

This is the final of my series of criticisms of a proposed one-way mission to Mars. They began with this introduction. The other essays detail the various ways I believe this proposal fails: as a lifeboat for humanity, as a base for scientific exploration and as a potential politically unifying force for Earth-bound humanity.

Tenuous atmosphere of Mars
visible from low orbit
My first encounter with the idea that exploration of Mars could be expedited by using a one-way mission to get people there was in an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Lawrence Krauss which ran in late August 2009. In it Krauss presents an argument for a novel approach to exploring the Red Planet: since we can't prevent the radiation injury that would be inflicted on astronaut passengers during a two-way trip, within the constraints of existing technologies and current budgets, a one-way mission offers us a practical way to accomplish many of the same mission objectives.

Although Krauss makes a reasonable technical case for this unconventional scheme, his ethical analysis it is scant, relying, more or less, on this anecdote,
"One of my peers in Arizona recently accompanied a group of scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a geological field trip. During the day, he asked how many would be willing to go on a one-way mission into space. Every member of the group raised his hand. The lure of space travel remains intoxicating for a generation brought up on Star Trek and Star Wars."
"Jackass: The Movie"
movie poster
I have to admit that I found the implication of this startling, that the ethical considerations for undertaking an interplanetary mission fraught not only with grave physical risk but also with extraordinary - and entirely undetermined - psychological peril could be reduced to the observation that there would be no shortage of eager volunteers. It was as though the moral issues involved were no more complicated than those in casting an episode of the MTV stunt and prank series Jackass; apparently a raised hand and, presumably, a signed waiver would constitute due diligence on the part of mission planners.

Don't get me wrong, I was one of the generation that Krauss mentions; intoxicated by Star Trek - although less so by Star Wars - and, for the better part of my life I, too, would have eagerly raised my hand to volunteer to become a Mars pioneer, naively confident that my exuberance at the outset of such an adventure would immunize me against any hardship I encountered, no matter its duration or its severity. But I have lived long enough to realize that even the most passionately declared vows fall victim to the realities of time and circumstance, and that we turn out to be very poor prognosticators of our own capacity to persevere, especially in the face of chronic psychological insult. I imagine that Lawrence Krauss has lived long enough to have come to this realization as well.

Taken aback by Krauss's opinion piece, I submitted the following (unpublished) letter to the Times in response.
To the Editor: 
Lawrence Krauss may have come up with a correct engineering solution for getting human beings to Mars by dispatching volunteers on a one-way trip, but he falls short as far as the analysis of the ethical implications are concerned. 
No doubt there are many who would volunteer for such a seemingly marvelous expedition. But will they in any realistic way be able to anticipate the emotional hardship that they will have to endure? And how will we feel, having exploited their naive enthusiasm, forced to watch from a distance of more than 35 million miles, as they descend into likely depression and inevitable old age, unable to offer the consoling touch of a human hand? 
Marc Merlin
First and foremost I take issue with Krauss's presumption that voluntary participation in a research study - and the one-way trip is proposed in order to conduct scientific research - relieves investigators of their ethical responsibility to protect the health and welfare, emotional and physical, of the subjects that they have recruited. I also wonder what could possibly constitute "informed consent" in deciding to expose people to, not only unprecedented circumstances of emotional hardship, but ones of unprecedented duration.

Tulips in bloom at the Atlanta
Botanical Garden
(credit: Marc Merlin)
It would be one thing to tell enthusiastic volunteers, "you are going on a one-way trip to Mars for the advancement of science" and quite another to say, "you are going on a one-trip to Mars for the advancement of science, and you will be undergoing the kind of isolation and confinement, away from sources of solace and companionship, that may very well will leave you depressed, perhaps insane or suicidal, within a matter of months; that you and at most a handful of colleagues will be confined to close quarters for years, even decades, without the possibility of  the briefest separation; that you will never again enjoy a stroll through a garden in springtime or a dinner out with friends at a favorite restaurant. "

Our experiences with other long-duration missions, such  as research tours at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station or expeditions to the International Space Station (ISS), offer a flimsy basis for estimating the psychological demands that would be placed on one-way Mars astronauts. The ISS missions, for example, are not more than a few hundred days long, and, even then, the members of the space station crew are aware of a scheduled return to a normal life on the Earth's surface and are also in frequent communication - with only a marginal time delay - with colleagues, friends and family there. (Distance and the finite speed of light makes such Mars-Earth "conversations" forever impossible.) Shamefully, perhaps the best data available with regard to the ability of highly motivated people to survive periods of severe isolation - cut off from family and friends for years - with little hope for eventual return to a normal life may come from that gathered from observations of the psychological deterioration of U.S. "War on Terror" detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. It does not paint a promising picture for our rushed one-way Martian pioneers.

Magellan's ship Victoria,
detail from a map of Ortelius (1590)
The proponents of a one-way mission to Mars see themselves as latter-day Magellans, taking up the mantle of the Age of Discovery, and they cast those that oppose their efforts as representatives of a "culture of caution" that is so preoccupied with the minimization of risk that no bold plan for exploring space ever gets off the ground. They prefer to replace it, apparently, with their own culture of caution to the winds.

Before we endorse the Mars mission they propose, we should convince ourselves that we aren't consigning noble volunteers to (short) lives suffused with sadness and torment. Their initial excitement about serving the grand interests of science cannot immunize them from these possible outcomes, no matter what they say or hope.

It may come as a surprise to readers of this series that I do not oppose the manned exploration and eventual colonization of Mars. I imagine that, barring a collapse of our global civilization, it will begin sometime in the latter half of this century or early in the next one. This will mark a wonderful turning point in human history!

What I do oppose is the manufactured urgency that surrounds the proposed one-way mission to Mars; that it is a necessary component in our scientific investigations of that planet; that it is a critical step to insure our survival as a species; that it will in any way offer a common purpose which will help to remedy political disunion and conflict here on Earth.

Empty bottle with mail
(credit: Larry Yuma)
Indeed, for the immediate future, we can better explore Mars by expanding our program of robot missions whose capabilities to work intelligently and autonomously under even the harshest conditions are growing at an exponential rate; we can better protect people here from possible devastation by asteroid strike by investing relatively small sums of money in refining our nascent surveillance programs and developing reliable deflection technologies; and we can better unify the nations of this planet by working diligently to eradicate endemic diseases and taking affordable steps to make sure that children are properly nourished and everyone has access to clean drinking water.

As a message in a digital bottle of sorts to those first unharried one-way pioneers who will become the first long-term inhabitants of the Red Planet, I want to say from decades past how much I admire you for your courage, since I know that even the most carefully planned space missions will never eliminate risks to life and limb. And I want to thank you for your willingness to endure hardship, especially the first among you to arrive, since the going will be particularly rough for you. But I take consolation in imagining that your isolation will be short lived and that you will be buoyed in your work knowing that you are preparing the ground for a larger number of compatriots who will be arriving soon after you do, allowing you to once again assume your role in the ranks of a human community large enough and vibrant enough to ensure your emotional and psychological well-being as your bold colony grows and thrives.

May you live long and prosper!

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Safe Under the Covers of Superstition

I started posting videos on my YouTube channel a few weeks ago and where I think it's appropriate I'll cross-post them here. Here are my thoughts about the recent spate of "blaming the victim" that has all too predictably stalked the Japanese people in the wake of their ongoing national disaster.

A common belief, even among my non-religious friends, is that "everything happens for a purpose". It's hard to get people, even some very intelligent people, to shake this attitude about the world.

The alternative is to accept the fact that there is a randomness in and unpredictability to everyday life that results not only in harm to others, but also to ourselves. So these people imagine that there are rules to follow that will somehow exempt them from such tragedies, and they seize on the occurrence of a disaster, such as the one that has befallen Japan, as an opportunity to figure out what these rules are and why these poor souls were singled out for punishment and they, themselves, were not.

Sometimes this effort is tinged with malice or driven by an interest in settling old scores; dispensing Karmic comeuppance for past crimes. But more often than not this casting about for explanations is a way for these confused and benighted folks, behaving as frightened children would, to reassure themselves that they will be safe under the covers of superstition, and that they can return to sleeping soundly in the enveloping darkness.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Kumbaya Fail

In this fourth part of my critique of a recently proposed one-way mission to Mars I address whether a kick-start colonization of Mars can be justified on political grounds. My third post disputes whether such a colony is either a safe or a cost-effective way to pursue important scientific goals. You can find the introduction to the series here.

In their November 2010 paper in the Journal of Cosmology, along with other reasons for pursuing an expedited one-way mission to Mars, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies assert that
establishing a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence on another world would have a major beneficial political and social implications for Earth, and serve as a strong unifying and uplifting theme for all humanity.
It is hard to see how they derive confidence in such a claim.

Independence Day
movie poster
Space and space missions are a standard of science fiction when it comes to creating story lines that unite humanity in spite of centuries-old divisions. This unification is often accomplished most efficiently when planet Earth is in imminent danger of being destroyed by an asteroid impact or being conquered by an alien armada.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than at the climax of the 1996 movie Independence Day, where the American president, played by Bill Pullman, delivers a speech that rallies his troops for a last-ditch airborne counterattack on an invading force, with identical calls to arms being enacted simultaneously around the globe by people of all races and all creeds and all colors, apparently.

Earthrise, December 1968
I came of age during the the Apollo program and, as a 14-year old, watched enraptured as Neil Armstrong placed his booted foot on lunar soil. Old enough to appreciate what this meant as a national achievement and as an engineering tour de force, I was also old enough to be aware of the promise that it offered to be a unifying force for "all mankind", one beautifully anticipated in the earthrise Christmas Eve image taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 less than a year before.

Although that day in July 1969 was celebrated the world over, the moon landings themselves failed to have any long-term impact as far as bringing people closer together. The Cold War and its proxy conflicts raged on, indifferent to these wondrous technological achievements.

International Space Station from
the Space Shuttle Atlantis
Another example of an unmet promise of political uplift offered by a costly space mission, this one closer to home, is that embodied by the International Space Station (ISS). Touted as a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence in low-earth orbit, it, too, was to provide Earth-bound humans with a transcendent unifying theme.

Yet, resplendent, orbiting above the planet at an altitude of 350 km (220 miles), it goes largely unnoticed by the world below. This is not to say that the Space Station has not called into being a remarkable intergovernmental collaboration on an unprecedented scale, but to note that, although an engineering triumph, it has resulted in few if any discernible "major beneficial political and social implications" of the type advertised by the one-way Mars mission proposal. If the tepid public reaction to the ISS is any indication, then it's not clear that such expectations should weigh in favorably in our evaluation of Schulze-Makuch and Davies's scheme to establish a human settlement on Mars post haste.

As with other motivations for the proposed expedited colonization of Mars - that it serve as a science outpost and as a lifeboat for humanity - rational analysis demands that we consider how alternative approaches compare as far as promoting a more positive political and social climate here on Earth. In other words, given that a one-way mission would cost hundreds of billions of dollars or more, how might similar - or even significantly smaller sums - be spent to foster feelings of union and brotherhood.

Jimmy Carter tries to comfort a 6-year-old
at Savelugu (Ghana) Hospital as a
Carter Center technical assistant dresses
her painful Guinea worm wound.
Although little can be done directly to bridge the divides of malignant ideologies, religious fanaticism and misguided nationalism that separate us, it has been long understood the alleviation of much of human suffering is within our grasp and that the result of doing so would yield unquestionable major political and social benefits. An example of an immediately attainable objective would be the eradication of endemic diseases such as guinea worm. A more ambitious challenge would be to commit to insure that every person on the planet is provided with adequate daily nutrition as well as access to a reliable source of drinking water.

U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
with a $110 million per unit cost
Without a doubt, goals such as these are politically daunting, but they are technically and economically feasible, particularly if countries like the United States expand their vision of international security - and with it the application of their annual one trillion dollars of "defense" spending - to encompass important non-military threats to world order and human well-being. Indeed, mobilizing the nations of the planet to mitigate the damage anticipated as a result of disruptive climate change this century, provides a ready-made unifying goal for humanity, one which we are morally obligated to address and, to the extent that we prevail in our efforts, one which could both unite and ennoble us.

Suffice it to say, we don't need to go shopping around for extraterrestrial projects, such as an ill-considered one-way mission to Mars, in order to concoct challenges to inspire and unify us, when working in broad international coalitions against terrestrial scourges, such as disease, hunger, global warming, not only would generate a much greater sense of unity and common purpose, but also would offer desperately needed material advances to billions of people here on Earth.

Part 5: One-Way Mission to Mars - Ethics Fail

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Friday, February 4, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Science Fail

In this third post of a series which criticizes a recently proposed one-way mission to Mars, I address whether a kick-start colonization of Mars can be justified on scientific grounds.  My second post disputes whether such a colony is a cost-effective way to insure the survival of our species.  You can find the introduction to the series here.

Martian avalanche and debris falls captured
by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
in 2008
A manned base for scientific research?
Without a doubt the the possibility of life on Mars existing today or in its distant past, is a scientific question of the highest order, worthy in my opinion of the significant expenditure of our treasure, although not, carelessly, of our blood.

Accordingly, I find myself in agreement with Schulze-Makuch and Davies when they claim in their Journal of Cosmology paper in November,
a scientific facility on Mars might therefore be a unique opportunity to study an alien life form and a second evolutionary record, and to develop novel biotechnology therefrom.
I strongly disagree, though, with whether such a facility need be - or even should be - manned by human scientists, at least anytime soon.  Indeed, a case can be made that far more science could be gleaned at far less expense by factoring human participants out of the equation for any early Mars mission planning.

Robots everywhere, 24.65/7 instead?
In the past dozen years or so we have begun to enjoy the scientific fruits of extended human-robot collaborations, conducted using reconnaissance satellites orbiting Mars as well as stationary and roving laboratories on the surface of the planet. Employing these exquisitely engineered systems, we have made monumental discoveries concerning the geology and climate of Mars, at a fraction of the cost of our current human spaceflight budget. Given the expected advances in computational power (compounded by the fact that our best Martian efforts so far are representative only of the cutting edge technology of the late 1990s) one thing is certain and that is the future probes that we dispatch to explore Mars will be dramatically more capable than the ones we have sent there so far.

Artist's rendering of a Mars
Exploration Rover
One does not have to subscribe to Ray Kurzweil's predictions of an impending technological singularity to accept the likelihood that within the next several decades - a time frame consistent with the preliminary phase of any one-way mission plan - highly-mobile, environmentally-rugged, fully-autonomous, cognitively-advanced, robots will be available to walk on, roll across, fly over and tunnel into the surface of the Red Planet.  Indeed, a critical feature of the Schulze-Makuch and Davies one-way mission proposal is that robots, sharing at least some of these capabilities, would be put to work preparing a Mars base to welcome the first human arrivals.

With this in mind, it's hard to imagine how a human-centered research effort on Mars could begin to compete with that of an exclusively robot-based one. The latter places dozens, perhaps hundreds, of robot research assistants scouring the planet as technically adept geologists and meteorologists, laboring sol in and sol out, indifferent to its tenuous atmosphere and largely unaffected by its frigid temperatures, regularly conferring with human supervisors on Earth to evaluate recent finds and to identify the most promising new targets for investigation.

Wearing the NDX-1 (North Dakota) space suit,
a student uses a sample-gathering tool.
A human-oriented approach to Martian science would rely on a limited number of relatively vulnerable human beings, venturing outside their subsurface habitats, but never far from safe haven, challenged by hazardous terrain, encumbered by protective clothing and life-support equipment, and able to work outside their habitats or vehicles only for short periods of time and only under favorable conditions.

A MQ-9 Reaper flies above Creech AFB
during a local training mission
To the extent that these Martian colonists chose to employ robots to make forays into the Martian environment in their place, they become little more than very expensive substitutes for Earth-based counterparts that could supervise these very same robot assistants from a greater distance. One need look no further than the shift in the U.S. Air Force to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and attack missions to appreciate the cost / effectiveness benefits of a division of labor between humans and robots in which (selected) humans are kept safely out of harm's way.

Bee Gees - "Stayin' Alive" video
Stayin' Alive
The fact of the matter is that humans, whether orbiting the Earth or living beneath the surface of Mars, although promoted as workers for the cause of science, must be preoccupied with one task, and that is, to put it simply, staying alive.  We are fragile - and precious - space and planetary cargo, and an extraordinary price must be paid to keep us fed, comfortable, safe and happy in dangerous environments.  Every kilogram of payload that is diverted for these purposes could better be put to use dedicated to the immediate scientific objectives of a mission or else eliminated from the flight manifest, thus permitting more efficient use of fuel and other valuable mission resources.

The well-intentioned, although strained, representation of astronauts as pioneering space scientists, used to garner support for the early space program, becomes an out-and-out fraud when human missions are now proposed that dramatically diminish the scientific return on our investment, especially in a day and age when so much more can be accomplished so much more cost-effectively and so much more safely by locating men and women away from the front lines of space exploration and, instead, leveraging our remarkable advances in robotic technology.

Part 4: One-Way Mission to Mars - Kumbaya Fail

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Lifeboat for Humanity Fail

This is the second in a series of posts presenting my analysis and criticism of a proposed one-way mission to Mars. You can find the introduction here.

Illustration of an impact event
(courtesy of NASA)
There goes the neighborhood
Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies open their case for using a one-way mission to Mars to kick-start a human colony there by observing,
[W]e are a vulnerable species living in a part of the galaxy where cosmic events such as major asteroid and comet impacts and supernova explosions pose a significant threat to life on Earth, especially to human life.
and suggesting that it would offer humanity a "lifeboat" in the event of such mega-catastrophes.

Since recognition in the 1980s that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65.5 million years ago that led to the demise of the dinosaurs was likely due to an asteroid impact, humanity - and Hollywood - have been put on notice that such "planet-killing" collisions are statistical possibilities, whose likelihood approaches a near certainty over time, that is without effective intervention.

Asteroid deflection, survival on the cheap?
Admittedly, having humans living on Mars would mean that some of our species would be safely out of harm's way in the event of such a catastrophe.  Their long-term survival, though, would be far from certain.  As a matter of prospective cost and potential benefit, the question is not whether a Mars colony, if successful, would guarantee that a few humans would survive for some period of time, since it does, but whether an expedited colonization program compares favorably with alternative approaches for accomplishing a similar or even vastly more desirable result.

Near-Earth asteroid discoveries as
a function of time
For example, expanded investment in surveillance efforts - such as NASA's Near Earth Object Program -  intended to identify potential collisions, coupled with the development of technologies to deflect space rocks heading our way by finessing their orbits years, if not decades, in advance of a too-close encounter would appear to be a immensely more cost-effective solution, one in which the survival not of 150 isolated souls on a cold, barren planet, but of billions of human beings on a globe teaming with life could be more predictably assured.

Artist's conception of a Mars
settlement with a cut-away view
(courtesy of NASA)
Subsurface habitats here instead?
With regard to an explosion of a nearby supernova, it should first be noted that humans on the surface of Mars may well suffer much the same fate as their counterparts on Earth. To the extent that specially designed subsurface human habitats on Mars would offer a significant amount of protection, then the same could be constructed on Earth and made available to a vastly larger number of people at a mere fraction of the cost of those used for a Mars colony.

Indeed the only reliable way to develop, verify and refine the kind of habitats to be used by one-way Martian colonists would be to design, build and inhabit comparable structures here.  So, far from representing an additional cost, fully-functioning terrestrial habitats would appear to be a useful, if not a necessary, step in successfully engineering counterparts on Mars.

In addition, a permanent underground terrestrial communities manned by a multinational force, composed of volunteers serving staggered, limited-term tours of duty, not only would provide significantly more assurance of our survival as a species in the event of a catastrophe of astrophysical origin, but also would serve to promote exactly the kind of international cooperation that the authors state is one of the desirable side-effects of the effort to colonize the Red Planet.

Former NASA astronaut
Lisa Nowak, charged
with attempted murder
Mars, a disease and discord free zone?
Other threats that motivate Schulze-Makuch and Davies include "global pandemics, nuclear or biological warfare, runaway global warming [and] sudden ecological collapse."  Mars colonists would be placed at a safe remove from the first two types of these catastrophes, but would nonetheless be subject to the dangers posed by disease as well as to the kinds of political, not to mention interpersonal, discord that could lead to the annihilation of their "civilization" in a matter of minutes.  On Mars a jilted lover with a hammer and access to critical life-support systems becomes that planet's Kim Jong Il.

As far as large-scale environmental degradation wrought by the likes of devastating climate change goes, it should be noted that even the most dreadful envisioned outcomes here would leave Earth-bound humans with an ecosystem infinitely more hospitable than any that they will ever find on Mars.

A lifeboat to nowhere
A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's
1944 film Lifeboat
More generally, the problem with the portrayal of a Martian colony as a putative lifeboat for humanity is that, as a metaphor, it is all too apt.  Lifeboats by their nature are transitional places of refuge; they are meant to convey passengers from a situation of rapidly deteriorating safety to one of predictable security; they are not sanctuaries in and of themselves.  Far from it, lifeboats are risky environments, recommended only by the fact that the certainty of going down with the ship is a far less attractive option.

Such would be the case with human presence on Mars, founded imprudently as a falsely desperate one-way mission, a lifeboat continuously in peril and without the glimmer of a hope of ever reaching another shore.

Part 3: One-Way Mission to Mars - Science Fail

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