Saturday, April 16, 2011

Photos of foreclosure "ghost towns"

Saw this today on the Huffington Post.  I am working on my old Dell right now, and it is running too slow to really go through and review the pictures, but I want to later.

A couple weeks ago I was wandering around the half completed housing developments out in Happy Valley, an area hit hard by the housing crisis.  I didn't see anything out there really shocking, just lots of wide suburban streets through vacant lots.  Supposedly, HuffPo readers sent in some much more dramatic scenes.

I'll probably update later with my favorite pictures from this collection.

America's Foreclosure Ghost Towns -- Photos From HuffPost Readers

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oregon State Legislature rick rolls itself...

Honestly, I haven't been following local politics enough to really have any snarky comments on this.  Harmless fun?  Sure.  A little sad?  Probably.  Reason for sadness? Many possibilities.

Been meaning to post this for awhile.

NASA's failure to launch: Being right in so many wrong ways...

Reading a couple posts by Phil Plait today, I wanted to check back in on some of what I wrote on Tuesday about the passing era of U.S. manned space flight.  He agrees with me on many points, but also disagrees on a couple of details.  One big difference is on the merits of the now canceled Constellation launch system.

He offers the following quote, referring to the Augustine commission, which was largely responsible for Obama cancelling the program:

NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration…

Plait agrees that the delay in any future crewed space exploration (Moon, Mars) is regrettable, but he also does not think that Constellation would have been the right approach.  Reading his arguments, I am inclined to agree.  My earlier post reveals the danger of forming opinions based on headlines and my own gut instead of actually looking deeper into the stories and facts involved.

The main thing I got wrong was the idea that the current plans essentially scrapped NASA's role in crewed exploration.  They do not, but they call for actually developing new technologies instead of essentially going backwards to re-develop the old Apollo schematics.

On this, Plait writes:

I don’t want a repeat of the Apollo program: a flag-and-footprints mission where we go there, look around, and then come home for another 40 years. I want to go there and stay there. Apollo was done as a race, and the goal of a race is to win. It wasn’t sustainable. We need to be able to figure out how to get there and be there, and that takes more than just big rockets. We need a good plan, and I’m not really sure what we had up until this point is that plan.

Building a heavy-lift rocket that can take us to the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids is not really easy. It’s not like we can dust off the old Saturn V plans and start up the factories again. All that tech is gone, superseded, and we might as well start from scratch with an eye toward newer tech. This budget is calling for that, as well as relying heavily on private companies.

Looking at the role emerging for private companies, Plait also makes some valid points that I had not considered, basically that low-earth operations are probably better handled by the private sector, freeing up NASA to look further, focusing on science, exploration and large scale plans like the Moon and Mars.

Still, he agrees that the space program has been less than inspiring for close to 40 years, since the premature cancellation of Apollo in 1972.  Like me, he remembers:

...breathlessly awaiting the [first] Shuttle launch, and I remember thinking it would be the next phase in our exploration of space. I was still pretty young, and hadn’t thought it through, but I’m sure had you asked me I’d have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we’d have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.

Like me, this was really the only truly historic event involving successful manned space flight in my memory.  I, of course, am not counting the two shuttle losses.  Those two events were memorable, but they bring the failures of NASA over the last 40 years into sharp relief, illustrating what is wrong with the U.S. space program these days, and they offer no encouragement that the future potential of NASA will ever be achieved.  These losses are probably the clearest examples of the complacency that has been plaguing the U.S. space program for so long...

As for the legacy of the Shuttle program and the last 40 years of malaise at NASA, Plait sums it up well:

Don’t get me wrong; the Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it’s also a symbol of a political disaster for NASA. It was claimed that it would be cheap way to get payloads to space, and could launch every couple of weeks. Instead, it became frightfully expensive and couldn’t launch more than a few times a year.

This was a political problem. Once it became clear that NASA was building the Shuttle Transport System, it became a feeding trough. It never had a chance to be the lean space machine it should’ve been, and instead became bloated, weighted down with administrative bureaucracy and red tape.

More than that, though, to me it symbolizes a radical shift in the vision of NASA. We had gone to the Moon six times — seven, if you include Apollo 13 — and even before the launch of Apollo 17 that grand adventure had been canceled by Congress, with NASA being forced to look to the Shuttle. Ever since then, since December 1972, we’ve gone around in circles.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for low Earth orbit. It is a fantastic resource for science, and I strongly think we should be exploiting it even more. But it’s not the goal. It’s like walking halfway up a staircase, standing on your tiptoes, and admiring the view of the top landing.

We need to keep walking up those stairs. In 1961, the effects of space travel were largely unknown, but Yuri Gagarin took that chance. He was followed by many others in rapid succession. Extrapolating from his travels, by now there should be a business making money selling tours of the mountain chains around Oceanus Procellarum by now.

Instead of everyday men and women going into space to tour the moon, the NASA will soon not even be able to put a man or woman into space at all.  Compared to that, low Earth orbit is at least something, but as I wrote on Tuesday, it is really hard to get fired up for low Earth orbit.  The Moon and Mars, on the other hand?  Those are goals people can rally around, if there are clear, realistic plans and we can see real steps being made to actually make them come to fruition.  

I believe that much of the loss of interest in the manned space program comes from the fact that all that has been offered for so long has just been vague, always falling through, plans for the Moon and/or Mars with no tangible evidence that we are actually committed to going there.  When I was a kid, it looked like Mars was 20 to 30 years off.  30 years later, those estimates remain the same.

Still, where on Tuesday I found only discouragement in the current plans, Plait does find hope, if NASA can find a clear vision, set some salable goals, and develop some political acumen:

It was a political decision to cancel Apollo. It was a political decision to turn the Shuttle from a space plane to the top-heavy system it is. It was a political decision to cancel the Shuttle with no replacement planned at all (that was done before Obama took office, I’ll note). It was a political decision that turned the space station from a scientific lab capable of teaching us how to live and explore space into the hugely expensive and bloated construction it is now.

NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds. I’m hoping that Obama’s plan will streamline NASA, giving away the expensive and "routine" duties it needs not do so that private industry can pick them up. The added money to go to science, again in my hopes, will spur more innovation in engineering.

And NASA needs a goal. It needs to put its foot down and say "This is our next giant step." And this has to be done hand in hand with the politics. I understand that is almost impossible given today’s political climate, where statesmanship and compromise has turned into small-minded meanness and childish name-calling on the Congress floor. Not to mention plans for drastic and in many cases crippling budget cuts across the board by Congress.

But I’m old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible.

Unfortunately, Plait and I are probably among the youngest who do remember NASA doing the impossible.  And many more have forgotten.  So long as NASA remains committed only to the repeating the possible, losing the public's interest in the endless been there, done that circles, there is little hope for the future of America's manned space program, and I stand by the concerns I wrote about on Tuesday.  However, after reading Plait's posts, I may have been right for some of the wrong reasons, and some of the problems I cited may actually have been steps in the right direction.  But we are a long way from getting back to the top of the stairs.  Or the stars.

Incompetency or a lie? Jon Kyl confuses 90% with 3%

Really, I doubt this is really a flat out lie, instead I suspect that he was just making a common mistake in stating that "most" of what Planned Parenthood does is provide abortions, when the reality is very different than the perception.  Unfortunately, when things are put in to the record on the House floor, they tend to carry the weight of fact, so when mis-statements like this are made, the myth is strengthened as well as perpetuated.  So, while I doubt that Kyl's statement was a flat out, intentional lie, I'd still think that a competent person would check their facts before giving a speech on the floor.  But who said that competency was a requirement for election?

I also think this illustrates how misinformed most men are about women's health issues.  I would include myself in this category to some degree.

The Daily Show does an excellent job calling Kyl on this.  I really couldn't add anything more.

Colbert vs. Kyl and spread of 'misinformation' (By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor April 15, 2011 1:40 p.m. EDT)

...the facts are inconvenient, and so they are ignored. Instead, talking points taken from talk radio are repeated until they take on a life of their own and eventually get the validation of a U.S. senator.

The news wasn't that Kyl made a mistake; it was his staff essentially acknowledging that in the current hyper-partisan environment, facts are a secondary concern, even on the floor of the U.S. Senate, even when they are paraded as statistics. The important thing is to scare the hell out of people so that they remember your political point and pass it on.

Using the Twitter hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement, Colbert unleashed a steady stream of Jon Kyl mistruths with the requisite denial. Among my favorites:

• Jon Kyl developed his own line of hair care products just so he could test them on bunnies.

• Jon Kyl can unhinge his jaw like a python to swallow small rodents whole.

• Every Halloween Jon Kyl dresses up as a sexy Mitch Daniels.

• Jon Kyl sponsored S.410, which would ban happiness.

• Jon Kyl let a game-winning ground ball roll through his legs in Game 6 of the '86 World Series.

• Jon Kyl once ate a badger he hit with his car.


Exhibit B this week: Donald Trump's re-enflaming of the thoroughly discredited birther conspiracy theory. When he repeats this falsehood in interviews, he is too often treated as a man with an unorthodox opinion, not someone repeating a lie on national television.

"Misinformation" is a fancy word for lying with an ideological agenda in mind. It has become more acceptable and more influential with the rise of partisan media. It preys on the gullible and the stupid and the ditto-head alike.

But the misinformation percolating around the fringes of hyper-partisan media is creeping into state capitals and the U.S. Congress. Ignorance and incitement begin to blur, compounded by the civic laziness of speakers who don't care to fact-check.

"Not intended to be a factual statement" is an instant dark classic, a triumph of cynicism, capturing the essence of Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe in Washington: when a politician accidentally tells the truth.


And don't be fooled. There are real costs to this careless courtship of the lowest common denominator. Without fact-based debates, politics can quickly give way to paranoia and hate. Our democracy gets degraded.

Americans deserve better, and we should demand better, especially from our elected representatives. Empowering ignorance for political gain is unacceptable.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

50 years after the first manned spaceflight... Is human space exploration to become a footnote in history?

Today is a big day in space news.  It is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight.  NASA is announcing which museums the shuttles will be collecting dust in today.  Southey's is selling an historic Soviet space capsule today, a few hours after NASA makes its announcement (consolation prize for some museum with cash already earmarked for a shuttle).

The sad thing, to me, is that all of these stories almost make it sound like the era of manned space exploration is over, that it is consigned to history.  And it may be.  After this year there will be still be only two nations capable of manned space flight, as it has been for most of the last 50 years, but the United States will not be one of them.  Russia and China continue on.

But the Russians are using technology that has not changed much since Gargain's flight 50 years ago.  Sure, it is reliable, much more so than the shuttle proved to be, but it is not capable of doing anything new.  And while the Chinese may have big plans, their program is still in its infancy.

Even sadder is that, a couple years ago, I was actually encouraged by the direction that NASA was moving in with manned space flight. The shuttle, I agree, needs to be retired. The miracle of the shuttle will probably be that we only lost two in nearly 30 years of use. But the original plans to replace it, quite frankly, rocked. Split the heavy payload capacity and the manned flight capacity into two different vehicles so we could send payloads on their own, people on their own, or both together through tandem launches. Return to a safer model for manned flight using more reliable technology than the relatively fragile shuttles. And the new capsule would be capable of use beyond low-earth orbit. Plans were made to return to the moon, to stay on the moon with a permanent base, and finally it looked like we were going to quit talking about Mars and actually start really working towards getting there.

Now, almost all of these plans are scrapped except for the heavy cargo launch system, and the new manned capsule is being re-purposed, last I heard, to be an escape system for the space station.  The new idea is that private enterprise should take over manned flights.  And the Air Force, for military flights, has a few quiet things going on as well.

I think this is a loss for our nation.  I really cannot see any corporation being willing to invest the resources in space exploration.  Sure, I can see corporations stepping in to fill the void when it comes to work in low-earth orbit, and of course there seems to be a market emerging for space tourism, but this is far from replacing the role that NASA had for many years.  Sure, it has been decades since the nation was held enthralled before their televisions by anything a human has done in space.  Really, with the possible exception of the first shuttle flights, this has not even happened in my lifetime.  And that is sad.  But at least I do remember the days before the glow wore off, the pride in the Apollo missions.

When I was a kid, it meant something that it was Americans leading the way in space.  It meant something that it was an American that was the first man on the moon.  That it was an American space shuttle.  And that we were building, at the time, an American space station.  Sure, the Soviets had Mir, but ours was going to kick Mir's ass.

Of course, with the end of the Cold War, the US and former Soviet manned space programs essentially merged, for all real purposes, and manned space flight became an essentially international effort.  But they were largely relying on US spacecraft to get there and back.  Still, the pride was gone.

I look at it this way, when I was a kid, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, and so did most of my friends.  My children, not so much.  When I was a kid, space was exciting.  To my kids, it is boring.

And while we might not have got that excitement back with the original plans to replace the shuttle, I can almost guarantee that it will not return with the current plans.   This is a shame.  The space program used to be a huge source of national pride.  Maybe even more than the huge technological boon created by the Apollo program, the national pride it inspired was priceless.  The space program used to fire the imagination, it used to encourage kids (and the government) to take up interest in science and education, it provided role models, it fueled dreams.

Even better, for all of the benefits, it was cheap.  People bemoan the cost of NASA, but they usually do not look at the tiny slice of the federal budget pie that it actually took up.  Right now they could triple the NASA budget and take on the most ambitions of the many plans sketched up over the last 30 years and it would be but a mere drop in the federal budget bucket.  An investment in technological research and development that would return its investment many times over and an investment in hope and dreams that would pay off immeasurably.

Rich men and women flying into space for eight minutes on a commercial "space" tourism flight just isn't the same.  My heart just isn't stirred by NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program, which goes by the acronym C3PO.  Yes, the U.S. manned space program is currently being led by a program that shares its name with a fictional robot that spent way too much time hiding in closets.

The BBC looks at how things might have been different if the Soviets had landed on the moon first.  I actually think most of their postulations about how the Space Race would have held even if they landed there after the U.S first touched down.

What if the Soviet Union had beaten the US to the Moon? (By Pallab Ghosh Science correspondent, BBC News - 11 April 2011 Last updated at 19:09 ET)

From the article:

In the summer of 1969, when the Apollo 11 crew were on their way to the Moon, US vice-president, Spiro Agnew declared that America would be on Mars by 1980. At the time, this was seen as a relatively feasible goal given how fast things had progressed in the 1960s.

So how close were we to following this alternative reality?

Quite close, according to Piers Bizony: "Those who imagine Apollo had the Moon race to itself are wrong," he says.

The US seemed to have taken the lead in 1968 when it successfully boosted three astronauts into lunar orbit with its Apollo 8 mission.

But the Americans rushed ahead with that mission because they were afraid that the Soviet Union was about to beat them yet again and pull off another space coup.

The USSR was using a rocket called the Proton which is still in use today. The Soviets were sending payloads into space with a view to putting a cosmonaut into a so-called circumlunar flight which would take him around the Moon and straight home again without going into orbit.

They had flown an unmanned mission a few months before Apollo 8 that had taken just such a trajectory around Earth's natural satellite.


Had the Soviets got to the Moon first it is unlikely that they would have abandoned it as swiftly as the Americans.

Not being a democracy may have enabled the USSR to spend money and marshal the talents of their population in a way that America could not.

Space historian Dr Christopher Riley believes that not only would the Soviet Union have continued with Moon missions, but they might also have built lunar bases.

And he believes that the Americans would have been compelled to do the same and even try to continue to outdo their communist rivals.

"The history that followed in the decades afterwards would have been completely different," he says.

Other stories on this theme:

Space exploration remains priority for Russia, Medvedev (12 April 2011 Last updated at 09:39 ET)
Space exploration remains a priority for Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev has said, as the country marks the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Who wants to be a cosmonaut when they grow up? (By Steve Rosenberg BBC News, Moscow - 11 April 2011 Last updated at 19:16 ET)
"Thirty yeas ago, everybody dreamed of becoming a cosmonaut," space expert Yuri Karash recalls.

"But a few years ago the Russian space programme had to openly invite young people to apply for cosmonaut training; and there was no one who wanted to do it.

"People are no longer interested in flying in a low Earth orbit. It requires a lot of time and effort and it's not as financially rewarding as it once was."


I ask the class who wants to be a cosmonaut later in life.

Denis doesn't. "I want to be a policeman," he smiles.

"I want to be a special forces soldier," Ruslan says.

"I'd quite like to be circus artist with my pet rabbit," replies Anya.

Even Fyodor, who dreams of being a pilot, admits he doesn't want to fly into space ("Because it takes too long").

Chasing the dream of human spaceflight (Jonathan Amos | 08:28 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011)
Sierra Nevada Corporation was given the biggest award ($20m) last February in Nasa's "seed fund" programme to develop a private crewship capability.

Known as the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program, it will soon announce another, larger round of financing; and SNC expects to be at the front of the queue again.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Antebellum rhetoric alive and well 150 years later

From the article: "When you hear charges today that the federal government is overreaching, and the idea that the Constitution recognized us as a league of sovereign states -- these were all part of the secessionist charges in 1860."

4 ways we're still fighting the Civil War (By John Blake, CNN April 11, 2011 9:07 a.m. EDT)

I don't think things are anywhere near that bad right now, but this is the danger of following the current political path. Maybe not another Fort Sumter, but I do fear more Oklahoma City style attacks. 9/11 ended those threats for a time, but I could see things heading back in that direction if the rhetoric does not tone down a bit.

But this is only one theme touched on by this article. Over all, it is very interesting and offers up a lot of food for thought. This has been a big topic recently with the 150th Anneversary of the start of the war. I've heard and seen quite a bit on this subject, most of it excellent, but this is one of the better articles I've read so far.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Are we done yet? Shutdowns, budgets, and debt ceilings...

The fight just gets dumber (By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer First Published: April 8, 2011: 7:25 AM ET)

A good article on the current budget situation and where we are going from here as the need to increase the government's debt ceiling approaches next month.

From the article:

Given the persistent push for spending cuts by the newest and most conservative lawmakers, that 2012 debate will now be tied to a vote over increasing the debt ceiling, which is the country's legal borrowing limit.

The Treasury Department estimates that it will be hit no later than May 16. The consequences for the economy if the ceiling isn't raised would be far worse than anything a government shutdown might yield because it would eventually cause investors to question U.S. creditworthiness.