LDRS and BALLS

January 7, 2009

I’m hoping to get up to Potter, NY on the Fourth of July weekend to attend Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships (LDRS) 28, one of the biggest annual launches in the world.

I’ll probably fly one or two rockets of my own, but mostly go to see the big projects, such as a 3/4 scale Patriot Missile Dan Michael is flying.

But LDRS isn’t really dangerous, though the rockets are large. But the really crazy stuff is flown at BALLS in the Black Rock desert, a launch that I hope to one day attend. Here’s the press release, and two of my favorite excerpts:

As a demonstration launch of experimental motors and airframes designed using the top technologies in the field, this is a venue for projects that are not flown publicly because of safety and legal restrictions. Here you will find large rockets that utilize complex clustering or staging techniques, metal construction, and home-brewed propulsion systems.

Because of the nature of activities children are discouraged. It is nearly impossible to concentrate on a large potentially dangerous project and watch your child at the same time. No children will be allowed.

Not “bringing children is discouraged”–“children are discouraged.”


Open Mic Comedians…

January 7, 2009

A random rant: Tonight I played a couple songs–just me and my acoustic–at a local open mic night. Specifically, it was at Solly’s here in DC. I had fun, but I think I would have preferred a venue with just acoustic music and no stand-up comedians. There were a few (two, really) comics who were funny and at least mildly intelligent. Call me an elitist, but I just don’t understand why ever standup in the world needs jokes about racism and ‘getting pussy’. Enough already!


Apples and Onions

January 6, 2009

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

Do watch. However, the best part is the MacBook Wheel’s sentence completion function. Megorious provides a list of the sentence you see briefly in the video. I knew this was worth looking up when two of the suggested sentences caught my eye:

The aardvark asked for a dagger.

The abortion went well.

Wow. The complete list–my favorites are in bold:

The aardvark admitted its fault.
The aardvark admitted it was wrong.
The aardvark asked for an aardvark.
The aardvark asked for a dagger.
The aardvark asked for health.
The aardvark asked for a ride.
The absinthe arrived by airmail.
The abortion went well.
The actor asked for an aardvark.
The actor asked for abstinance.
The actor asked for redemption.
The advertisement was effective.
The agile aardvark arrived by airmail.
The agile aardvark bathed with beauties.
The agriculture was cultivated by the coral.
The aggravated driver beeped on his horn.
The aggravated rooster scratched the dirt.
The Althusserian scholar gave his copy of Lacan’s “Ecrits” to the abortion doctor.
The amiable Althusserian scholar asked the aardvark for an absinthe.
The amiable crocodile brushed his teeth with a toothbrush.
The amiable doctor performed the operation admirably.
The annex was covered with asbestos.
The annex was crawling with beetles.
The apple was airmailed by the doctor.
The apple was consumed by the amiable crocodile.
The apple was inquiring about the amiable crocodile’s friend.
The aquamarine lifevest was not used.
The aquamarine lifevest was unpopular.
The armchair was uncomfortable.
The armchair was favoured by the amiable housecat.
The ass asked for a better absinthe.
The ass brayed the moon.
The assumptive doctor did not accept our personal check.
The assumptive agricultural expert eyed out absinthe suspiciously.
The attractive peanut farmer graded the term paper.
The attractive rooster preened its feathers to attract absinthe.
The auxiliary generator has malfunctioned.
The awning covered the agile aardvark during the amiable rainstorm.
The awning was too tall to touch.
The babbling baby asked the aardvark for some absinthe.


Two Approaches to Unity

January 6, 2009

The Christian Chronicle–long the flagship publication of Churches of Christ, the denomination of Christianity in which I grew up–has an interesting review up of a collection of essays on unity and the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Long story short, the Church of Christ grew out of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement, a movement early 19th century American Christianity to “restore the first century church”. One hallmark of the Church of Christ (that in some places has faded as parts of the CoC veer closer to ‘mainstream evangelicals’) has been that believers see their body as the Church. They don’t think there should be division in the church, so calling them a “denomination” is considered an insult. And they often self-identify only as “Christians” and would never start off by saying they’re members of the Church of Christ. Likewise, a publication like the Christian Chronicle is called just that, and not the Church of Christ Chronicle.

This theological identification has frequently been accompanied by a condemnation to hell of anyone outside this fairly narrow (a few million people worldwide) Church of Christ. That (blessedly) is one common tenet of belief that has faded somewhat for many members of the CoC, at least in the US.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of the Christian Chronicle review of One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address’:

The variety of the essays and meditations in the collection will attract some readers and trouble others. The contributors write out of their separate Stone-Campbell contexts, with the authors from each stream speaking in a way that suggests the concerns of their particular tradition. Readers among Churches of Christ — and in a similar way, Christian Churches — may bristle at how widely Session throws open the door to the kingdom.

There are basically two ways to achieve “unity” in an organization where people of differing consciences disagree. The first is to exclude all those with even moderately different views, condemning them as hell-bound outsiders. We could call this the judgmental approach. The other, tolerant approach, is to accept that, faced with imperfect information, people will disagree.


First Bus Ad Spotting

January 6, 2009

Being a carless DC resident and therefore a frequent patron of public transport, I’ve been keeping my eye out for the American Humanist Association bus ads:

Disappointingly, I haven’t seen one yet. But today I saw one of the counter-ads. Evidently there are least two different organizations placing these now. The one I saw said this: “Believe in God. Christ is Christmas for goodness’ sake.” I feel uplifted now.


Death by Scientology?

January 6, 2009

Anon For Great Justice writes “What Scientology will probably do about the tragic death of Jett Travolta“:

We have as yet no firm information on Jett’s medical condition. John Travolta and Kelly Preston have only publicly spoken of their son’s having had Kawasaki Syndrome, an unlikely source of seizures, for which they treated him with Scientology’s vitamin, sauna, and running therapy known as the Purification Rundown. There has also been considerable speculation on whether Jett was autistic or had Asperberger’s Syndrome. While a confirmed diagnosis has not been made public, reports of Jett’s behavior make such a diagnosis more likely than not. At the very least, he suffered some sort of neurological impairment that contributed to his fatal seizure.

The death of a child, for whatever reason, is a pain that for most families lasts a life time. No other human loss is as devastating. What makes this loss even more tragic is that it may well have been preventable. His death is inextricably embedded in the beliefs, practices, and even more, importantly, the organizational practices of the Church of Scientology and it’s use of “deployable celebrity agents” as sociologist Roy Wallis calls them.

So, we don’t have enough information to really know what happened with Jett Travolta yet. But, it’s fair to say that the inanity of Scientology has claimed at least a few other lives. From Andrew Sullivan:

We rightly understand sexual abuse to be horrifying and a legitimate reason to intervene. But withholding vital medication from a child out of religious or ideological reasons strikes me as no less abuse. I’m reminded of this acutely by the case of Christine Maggiore, a woman I met and interacted with as another person with HIV. Christine adamantly denied that HIV was related to AIDS and refused anti-HIV medication on those grounds. She died last week. Of AIDS. That was her choice, it seems to me, however tragic it is.

What was also her choice, however, was to refuse anti-HIV meds when pregnant and then to refuse HIV meds for her daughter when she was born. Eliza Jane lived three years before succumbing to HIV-related pneumonia.


Back to Blogging

January 5, 2009

Throughout my last few years of college, blogging provided an invaluable outlet as I struggled to develop a personal philosophy/worldview in a relatively isolated and non-progressive corner of these United States. Becoming a secular humanist in a small Arkansas town while attending a private, extremely conservative Christian university wasn’t exactly the easiest transition possible. But, the Interwebs were a great blessing, and gave me the chance to engage with a broad range of people both near and far.

Then all of a sudden I graduated (relief!) and moved to Washington, DC (more relief!) where I soon realized that, to most people, religion just isn’t that big of a deal. I think that most secular people are not raised with the intensity of belief and/or clarity of philosophy that comes from being raised in and around a Christian university/community. Really, this applies to most religious people as well. So, since writing about theology, philosophy, and politics and dialoguing with people outside of Arkansas were large reasons for my blogging habit, life in the District alleviated some of those needs. The other factor that led to my blog silence from July to December ’08 was that a good chunk of my work time involved blogging. Since I’ll be starting a new job in a week, and I’ve gotten a little more settled into life in DC, I think it’s time to get back to blogging.

This Spring should be an interesting time. I’m living in a group house with great housemates, enjoying the biweekly meetings for a fellowship program I’m in, training for a the National Half-Marathon, possibly taking evening Chinese classes and working toward a medium-term goal of teaching English and studying Chinese in China, working a new job, and, of course, going to Barack Obama’s Inauguration and following the fascinating political developments ahead! Should be busy, eh?

So, in my spare time, I think my blogging will focus a little on each of the following:

Book Reviews–that is, if I have time to read.
Politics–I’m a blogger in DC. This is obligatory.
Religion–It’s fascinating, no matter where you stand on the details.
Rocketry–I’ll be getting the small mid- and high-power rocketry fleet I brought with me to DC ready for some flights this spring and summer, and watching how the Obama administration shapes its space policy.
Photography–Some from my cross-country road trip in August, some from around DC…
Science–Trying to keep my interest in molecular biology and other fields up to speed (I love ScienceBlogs).
China–Big and getting bigger.

It’s good to be back!


Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?


Witnessing History

June 8, 2008

I left my dorm here in Washington, DC at 6:00 am Saturday morning to go with a group of about ten friends to see Hillary Clinton’s “concession speech.” We had one ardent Hillary fan with us (Jon Cardinal) and one to-remain-unnamed McCain supporter, and the rest of us were Obama fans. We were the first ones in line so a number of media outlets interviewed our group.

Jon in particular got interviewed a lot, and he’s good at making sound bites. Here’s video of him being interviewed by Julie Pace of the Associated Press:

That interview paid off–Jon was quoted in the AP piece about the Clinton speech that got picked up by newspapers around the world:

Clinton backers described themselves as sad and resigned. “This is a somber day,” said Jon Cardinal, one of the first in line. Cardinal said he planned, reluctantly, to support Obama in the general election. “It’s going to be tough after being against Obama for so long,” he said.

I had never been to a political rally before, so what the newspapers described as a relatively calm crowd leading up to the event sure seemed exciting to me. Because we were the first ones in we were positioned excellently to shake hands with Hillary, Bill and Chelsea. My friend Andy Cunningham had a nice chat with O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland as well. One of our friends called the group to tell us she had seen us shaking hands with the politicelebrities on CNN as well.


I thought the speech itself was excellent, if a little late in coming. Hillary really does come across so much better in person than she does on TV. I watched the same speech on YouTube afterward and it didn’t seem as authentic as it had in person, so I have to remember to give Hillary a little more thought when watching future speeches. As an Obama supporter, it was also wonderful that this was the one speech I got to go to. Hillary was also able to speak more candidly on several issues that were normally left out of her stump speech: the role that sexism played in the race for one, and gay rights as well.

We waited in line from 6:30 to 10:00, stood pressed against a barrier by die-hard Hillary fans (most of whom were great, some of whom were not-so-great) from 10:00 to 12:45, and finally got out around 2ish. But the experience was well worth it!