2018 Mission to Mars – Crazy or not?

MarsA fellow by the name of Dennis Tito is making news in my little corner of the space-geek world with a plan to send a manned mission to Mars. One of my favorite bloggers, Alan Boyle of Cosmic Blog, wrote up an interesting summation of events so far.

I’ve long been a proponent of robotic missions over manned missions for a variety of reasons that I don’t want to get into today. What I do want to discuss is the nature of this particular plan and whether it is sheer madness, a great idea, or something in-between.

The broad plan itself is simply to send two astronauts to Mars on a trip that would circle the red planet and return to earth in a total of 501 days. As Earth and Mars rotate around the sun there are only certain times when the round-trip can be accomplished so quickly. The next such alignment occurs in January of 2018. This means the technology has to be ready to launch at that time. Five years is a remarkably short period to make this happen.

The detailed plan is extremely sketchy but the basic technology is understood and certainly not impossible. They would have to use a rocket that is currently incomplete but scheduled to be finished by that time. A major stumbling block is the speed at which the returning vessel would enter Earth’s atmosphere. There are other pressing problems that currently have no solution but the entire concept is possible.

The funding for the operation is to come largely from donations and Tito’s own personal wealth.

Is the plan a worthwhile endeavor?

As I stated earlier, I’m of the fairly strong opinion that robotic exploration is the most useful method for finding out information from Mars, the moon, and other places within the solar system. Humans are just too frail and concerns about radiation exposure, food and water, waste disposal and other barriers make human space exploration a waste of time and money. We’ve already sent plenty of robots into orbit of Mars. Landed them on Mars. In this case we’d be spending billions of dollars to send two people on a round trip to Mars for no good scientific purpose.

So, at this point you probably think you’ve got my final conclusion all figured out. You’d be wrong.

If Tito wants to raise the money and make this a reality, I say go for it. It’s his money and his donor’s money. The astounding publicity of the event will certainly make millions of people as big a proponent of space exploration as am I. In the end it might create more money and science dedicated to robotic exploration.

Personally, I’d prefer that he use his considerable charisma and effort to help NASA fund missions that have been cancelled because of lack of funds. To that Tito might tell me to do what I want when I’ve made a few billion of my own, and he’d be right!

I applaud Tito’s spirit and wish him well. Although I would offer one major criticism. Don’t say The Right Stuff times ten ever again. Such a thing is impossible. Thank you for your courage and sacrifice Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.

Now, if only I could get a few million people to purchase my books maybe I could fund one of those cancelled missions!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Bullied out of Tennis?

Rebecca MarinoThere’s an interesting story hitting the news today about a woman tennis player who is quitting at least partially because of the trolling attacks on her social media site. I find a number of things discouraging about this story and, of course, I’ll tell you all about it. First, let’s recap the facts.

Rebecca Marino is a largely unsuccessful 22-year old Canadian tennis player who made it to one final in her eight year professional career. Her top ranking was 38th in the world and she has since fallen out of the top 100. She suffered an injury late last year and lost in the first round of the Australian Open this year before withdrawing from future tournaments. It’s fairly safe to say that she was never going to be a top-ranked player in the Women’s Tennis Association. I’m not trying to be cruel here, I’m just giving background information. To be in the top 100 players in the world means she is an astonishingly good tennis player, just not good enough to be among the elite.

Her stated reason for retiring from the game is that she has been prone to depression for most of her life and that the constant barrage of negativity on her social networking pages contributed significantly enough to that depression that she felt quitting was a better choice for her mental health. It’s also possible that she realized her career was going nowhere and used this an excuse.

Looking at the comments to the story I think the initial reaction to this announcement is that people will tell her to just ignore the negative things and move on with life. I think ignoring the comments and moving on with life is great advice but when you are prone to depression it’s not as easy to follow as many might imagine. To begin with I’m not sure that everyone is fully acquainted with the lengths, depths, and disgusting depravity to which trollers stoop. I don’t want this blog to be about the problems associated with internet bullying and trolling but they are significant and I don’t want people to underestimate their power.

While I respect Rebecca’s decision I think it is a mistake. She should work hard on ignoring such attacks because giving in is the worst decision. Easier said than done but worth the effort. It’s not an easy road but I think she will be best served if she gets some help to learn how to deal with such vicious attacks. There is still plenty of time for her to change her mind and I hope that she does so.

There are many trollers out there who do it more for amusement than to cause pain. A troller who posts on a political story to get a reaction is not really making a horrific personal attack but it can get out-of-hand quickly. Civil discourse is a good thing for you and for this nation.

I’m of the opinion that when a troller makes vile posts they are really hurting their own sense of self-worth in the long run. It’s not worth it. Making a positive contribution is the best feeling you will ever have. Give it a try.

In summation I guess I’d say there is no final answer. There will always be those who hide behind anonymity to say awful things and words do hurt. I hope Rebecca decides to return to tennis and I hope that some trollers out there decide they’d rather do something positive with their free time. That is their decision. In the end we are only responsible for ourselves.

Tom Liberman

Drugs in the Water Supply

Clean WaterThere was an interesting study performed by a group of Swedish scientists involving fish living in waters contaminated by pharmaceutical drugs. While the study itself is fascinating it’s the implications of the study that are most worth examining.

It turns out that much of the water we drink here in the United States and in Europe is contaminated by tiny amounts of pharmaceutical residue. By tiny we are talking about parts per billion. This is truly a small amount but it also means that every sip of water, every bite of food soaked in water, or every drink that uses water as it’s base most likely has tiny amounts of pharmaceutical drugs like oxazepam in it. Oxazepam is an ingredient in most benzodiazepines drugs like Valium and Librium. These are commonly prescribed medications and people get rid of them in various ways including flushing expired pills and defecating and urinating unprocessed drugs.

One of the problems is that water processing plants do not even attempt to filter out these impurities; they go directly into the system. A group of studies is now underway to determine the contamination level and if it is detrimental to our health.

I do not want to be an alarmist. The amount of drugs we are talking about is extremely small and there isn’t any evidence yet as to its affect on humans. However, it is affecting the behavior of fish. These drugs are designed to interact with the human body in certain ways and apparently everyone is on a prescription, whether they knew it or not.

We have been pouring pollutants of one kind or another into the air and water in vast quantities. These include greenhouse gases along with toxic substances. All of this cannot be good or right. On the other hand, the results of all these chemicals is the modern world. The very basics of what we consider a comfortable life are largely thanks to plastics, metallurgy, electronics, chemistry. The question becomes at what point are we creating such a toxic environment that we are actually killing ourselves?

This is a question that has been in the public eye since the beginning of the industrial revolution and one that largely remains unanswered.

We continue to pump chemicals into our air and water but we enjoy a lifestyle of tremendous wealth because of these scientific advances. Is there a solution? Can we simply turn off the spigot when billions of dollars in profits are at stake, jobs, livelihoods, comfort, luxury, transportation, energy?

We are moving towards greater awareness of these problems and trying to green our processes. I think almost everyone who reads this will agree that both of these are noble goals. Will we look back at this time and rue our shocking disregard for our own health, the health of our species? Or will we solve all these problems and remember it as a necessary albeit dark part of what will be a golden future?

I’m encouraged that such studies are taking place. I’m encouraged by the apparent majority that want clean energy, clean food, and good water. I’m optimistic but I can’t help but see the naysayers, the angry voices against science, the ever-present lethargy defined by fear of change.

What’s the future? I can’t say. I imagine a utopia where we have defeated disease, death, and toxicity on this beautiful planet. Where every person lives eternally with their life dedicated to achievement. Where the view from space is a beautiful blue marble, perfect and clean. That’s my dream. What’s yours?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Goodbye Wrestling

Olympic WrestlingThere was an interesting decision by the International Olympic Committee this past week although I doubt many of my readers will be as fascinated with it as am I.

The IOC decides what sports will be in the Olympics each year and decided for the 2020 Olympics that wrestling will not be included. As I suggested, it’s probably not that big an injustice from most people’s perspective but I think it further evidence of the utter dismantling of the very spirit of the Olympics. I wrote a blog post on the subject here but let me recap quickly both this decision and my problems with the IOC.

The modern Olympics were originally created as a place to showcase sportsmanship and bring nations together. This is a different although somewhat related agenda to the ancient Olympics held in Greece. If you want a full explanation of my thoughts on this please see linked post.

Wrestling has been part of the modern Olympics since their institution in 1896 and was also part of the ancient Greek Olympics. It is, in my opinion, one of the most pure sports of all. Simply one person in the ring battling against another judged by a set of stringent rules. The best wrestler that day wins. If you get a chance to watch NCAA wrestling, which they show on ESPN3, I would encourage you to watch. It is true sport in its most pure form.

The criteria the Olympic committee considers when choosing what sport to include in the Olympics are as follows: The IOC program commission report analyzed more than three dozen criteria, including television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity.

My read between the lines analysis is that they thought another sport would generate more revenue than wrestling. That’s certainly their decision to make but it further confirms my opinion that the Olympics are no longer about sport but about making money. That’s exactly the idea they were founded to combat. The idea was that there would be a place for sportsmanship, where the attempt to win was far more important than the winning itself. That spirit is gone, dead. I think we are all the worse for it. I think an athlete that strives to be the best but loses is just as much a winner as the athlete or team that wins.

Is the U.S. Postal team and Lance Armstrong the real winner or the real loser? Is Barry Bonds a winner or a loser? This win at all costs mentality is destroying the United States of America. The ends do not justify the means. When we elevate winning above trying our honest best we create a culture of criminality where people will do anything to win. The people who will do anything to win generally defeat the honorable. This attitude carries over into politics, into business, into the very fabric of our society, we the people.

I realize I’m drifting rather far afield from the loss of wrestling as an Olympic sport but, by golly, this one makes me sad. Wrestling not an Olympic sport? Next you’ll tell me that warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream isn’t a dessert.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Foamy Beer is the Key to Happiness

Foamy BeerYou probably won’t believe me when I tell you that a good head on your beer is the key to happiness in life, even if you don’t drink beer. I had a conversation with a co-worker the other day about taking pleasure in life and how to best achieve that. The more I think about that conversation the more I realize that the consumer driven model in the United States is contributing to our misery. Beer is merely an example of my theory but I think a pertinent one.

We would all like to happy. No one is ever going to be happy all the time so the idea is to have as many moments of happiness as possible. How do we achieve this?

Foamy beer!

Traditional beer steins have a fill line an inch or so below the rim of the cup because beer tastes better when consumed through a foamy head. However, people want more so they insist on the glass being filled to the brim. They gave up joy and pleasure for more. I think that’s a prevalent theme in our culture.

Do you put a little hot water in your coffee mug in the morning to heat it up before putting in the coffee? The coffee or tea is better that way but it takes longer.

Do you warm a cold soup spoon for a few second before plunging into your bowl of piping hot soup? Do you use a hot towel on your face before you shave? People used to do these things. Why? Because it gave them pleasure. Do we eat fresh grown vegetables? Do we use spices grown in our windowsill garden? Do we eat freshly baked bread and smell the odor wafting through our houses? No, no, no. Why not? Because it takes time and effort. I’m not suggesting that I’m immune to this syndrome or that I’ve got all the answers. I don’t bake bread or grow vegetables. I’m just saying that if I were to do so it would provide me with moments of happiness.

The big happiness that we strive for is also good. Vacations, a comfortable house, a car. I don’t think consumerism is all bad, I just think we’ve gone too far. We work too much to buy things and skip out on simple pleasures.

A bowl of soup and a few freshly made rolls to dunk? Count me in. A bowl of soup down at BreadCo (Panera Bread to everyone who doesn’t live in St. Louis) and rolls made that morning is pretty good. I’ll take it. But, if I choose to spend a little time I could have more. It’s my fault I don’t. Consumerism has some blame in all of this but in the end I need to make sure I get pleasure and happiness out of life.

I’m not even suggestion you grow a vegetable garden or cut back on your hours of work, I’m merely proposing that you have the bartender pour that beer with a head even it means you lose a small amount of the total beer. Take pleasure when you can, there will be time when there is no more.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Now Available! The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Air Force Software Development – $1 billion wasted

OverbudgetThere was an interesting and still developing story in the news recently about money paid by the government for a piece of software that, to date, doesn’t work.

The reason it caught my attention was not really the dollar amount assigned to the waste but the fact that it was a software development project. That’s something my company does and I’ve been taking an increasing part in that process myself. I helped formulate my first bid recently and am beginning to get a more personal understanding of the concepts involved.

In this case the Air Force contracted for a complex piece of software that would do the job of many other pieces of software in a sort of unified system. There aren’t many details in the story and the contractor in question claims the software largely works. The Air Force spokesman says it does not.

What I want to talk about today is not necessarily the failure of this software but the entire idea of making the bidding process work.

My company is currently working on a piece of software that we seriously underbid. It’s an undertaking that has been going on for years. The thing that’s important to understand is that everyone loses. The company doesn’t have its software and we continue to throw man-hours at the problem without any extra pay. The problem largely arises from poor bidding practices. If the contract had been bid appropriately maybe the company would have said, no way, too expensive. They would have saved money and so would my company for we have spent for more in man-hours than we received in payment.

I see the bidding process with government agencies to be a mixed bag. Some agencies seem to be able to accept appropriate bids while others, particularly the defense department, seem willing to accept artificially low bids only to see projects fail to complete on time and arrive hugely over-budget.

This doesn’t work for anyone. The company that makes the low-bid ends up with the contract certainly but the amount of work they do is not commiserate with the pay and can turn into a losing situation for everyone, see the F35 debacle. The government does not get the equipment or at least only receives some substandard version of the equipment.

In this case what bothers me most is that the company that made the bad bid originally is still being contracted for a number of other government software programs. At the very end of the video they mention another $8 billion in software bids that apparently returned little or nothing.

As with my own company, this kind of thing can happen. People can underestimate bids, things can prove more complex than originally imagined. However, a company that fails this miserably should not get any more money. I don’t think that is the case with some government contracts. They are largely so rife with corruption that a fair and reasonable bid has no chance of getting the contract. I do think this is department dependent. Some departments manage their bids better than others.

The question becomes, how do we manage the bidding process to get the best product at a fair price? With billions and even trillions of dollars at stake the idea that we can remove corruption entirely from the process is naive. With that much money at stake unsavory sorts are going to be drawn in.

Capitalism means that the company making the bid should make money. The contract should then be fulfilled within a reasonable percentage of the original bid and a quality product delivered.

Sadly, I’m of the opinion that the money is so immense and the corruption so entrenched that there are no easy answers. An independent agency with the sole job of evaluating bids seems like a good idea but that adds complexity and cost because you have to pay those people. Possibly some sort of metric based system in which the quality of the final product and the proximity to the original bid are assigned numeric values. These values are accumulated over time to favor bidders with good track records. I’m generally in favor of such metric based systems although corruption in assigning values is still possible.

It’s a huge problem, not so much from the wasted billions, but the idea that if a company regularly fails to properly fulfill bids, said business should not continue to prosper. The very heart of capitalism, of Randian Objectivism, is rewarding success.

I’ve spoken about this many times. If we reward failure the system rots from the inside. This is not capitalism, however, it certainly is what we seem to have today.

Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Bad TV wins – why?

Don't trust the B in Apt 23I don’t watch a tremendous amount of television but there are a few shows on Hulu that I watch with regularity and something recently happened that, once again, caused me to question the rationality of television executives. Over the years we’ve all seen great shows get cancelled while shows not as good continue on. Sometimes it’s purely a ratings decision but I’m going to examine the situation a little more closely today.

Why is a good show cancelled and what is it that we call good?

The incident that brought about this examination was the cancellation of the show Don’t Trust the B* in Apt 23 while a somewhat similar sitcom called New Girl continues on. Apt 23 was regularly hilarious, generally funny, and occasionally stupid as cutting edge comedies often are. New Girl is almost always stupid punctuated by moments of funny. Apt 23 is well written and well acted. New Girl is poorly written with nonsensical situations highlighted by overacting and tired jokes. Yet, Apt 23 is gone and New Girl is highly touted by the network. Why?

The network spokespeople will suggest it is all about ratings but I’m not so sure that’s the case. See Firefly or American Gothic and even now Community for examples of a network mishandling a show with time slot changes, episodes shown out-of-order, lack of promotional activity, and other seemingly destructive policies.

As I try to be a rational thinker I want to examine some possibilities on the cancellation that don’t have to do with ratings. Perhaps a rational television executive crunched the numbers, the show production cost, distribution, long-term salaries, and weighed that against revenue, media sales of episodes already finished, and other factors. Is it possible that Apt 23 will make more money in DVD sales than it would have made if it continued in production for four more seasons? I don’t know the answer but it’s possible I suppose. Did the executive try to pick up Krysten Ritter in a bar and was shot down in humiliating fashion? It’s possible. Does the executive’s son hate James Van der beek? I don’t know, maybe?

Next we have to examine the idea of good. Is good a completely relative term? Just because I think Apt 23 hilarious and New Girl painfully bad; is this objectively true? Certainly there are those who think New Girl is hilarious and those who probably didn’t like Apt 23. I like to think there is an objective good. One joke is funny and another is not. Any comedian will tell you that certain jokes get laughs and others don’t.

What are the factors that make a television show good or entertaining? Funny jokes, a plot that is logically accurate to itself even if far-fetched and fantastic, see Big Trouble in Little China. Actors who effectively convince you that they are the character they are portraying. Sometimes called good acting. Good camera work. A thematic structure to each episode and the show in general. Dialog that is crisp. Characters that are consistent. I think all these things objectively define good even if people don’t always come to that conclusion. I think we can define Apt 23 as good and New Girl as bad.

That being my opinion I’m deeply saddened by the cancellation of Apt 23. I think about all the episodes of Firefly that were never made. I’m the loser because of this, I’m less entertained. I would argue that our society is the loser when bad wins out over good. Maybe it’s not a big a deal when it comes to entertainment but maybe it is. Maybe every time bad wins out over good we are all diminished.

Of course, there’s the possibility that New Girl is a great show and I’m just deluding myself.

Wouldn’t it be great if better always won out over worse? What would your world be like if everything that was better succeeded? That’s the ultimate goal of the Randian objectivist. I’m sure it’s not possible but I won’t stop striving. I hope you don’t either. And I hope a young network employee reads this and goes on to become an important executive.

What do you think?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Super Bowl – Breaking Rules to Win

Holding on SafetyThere was an interesting incident at the Super Bowl this year when the Baltimore Ravens intentionally broke a rule to help them win the game.

In this case the Ravens were winning by five points with eleven seconds left in the game. They decided to run a play in which the punter just moved around in the end zone running as much clock as possible and then taking a safety which is worth two points. The idea here was that if they punted there was a chance of a punt return or a punt block but that’s not where the rule breaking comes in. On the play the Ravens players blatantly held the 49er players which is normally a ten yard penalty and a repeat of the down. Well, a repeat of the down would have meant that Baltimore could have done the exact same thing but this time run the clock to zero. So, by blatantly holding the players for the other team they were allowed to dither more time from the clock, essentially, they gained a competitive advantage by breaking the rules.

My plan isn’t to talk about this particular rule or how it was broken to gain an advantage but the incident just got me thinking about the point of rules and the point of laws in general. It goes to an Ayn Rand’s quotes of which I’m quite fond; The  only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well,  when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things  to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking  laws.

Let me give an example of what I’m trying to suggest here by using the Socratic Method.

What is the purpose of laws against driving your car too fast?

The obvious answer is that the law is to protect innocents from out of control drivers crashing into them. At first glance this seems readily apparent and true. But, let me offer another option, the law is designed to generate money for the police force. Which one do you think is true? In my opinion both are true but only one should be true. We have so many laws that are designed not for the safety of the general public but to enforce ethical codes, to generate revenue, to punish those we dislike, and on and on. A law or a rule should be designed so that it serves the purpose of society or the game.

In the case of the Super Bowl the rule is fundamentally flawed because it was broken to gain an advantage. I’m not saying it’s an intentionally bad rule, I’m just staying that it’s flawed and doesn’t serve the purpose for which it was designed. This happens not infrequently. When a law doesn’t serve society or a rule doesn’t serve the game then it should be altered or eliminated.

Does regulating individual’s use of marijuana serve society? Does regulating sexual behavior serve society? Does restricting gun ownership serve society? I’m for an open and critical examination of all the laws that we have, this ever-growing prison population, this revenue driven police force, this moral self-righteousness. I think we need to purge the system of many, many laws but I’m willing to listen to those who think otherwise.

The NFL will address their rule. Can we as a society apply the same logic to our laws? Can we discuss them rationally with one another and listen to arguments on both sides? I’d like to think so.

What do you think?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt