On-The-Job Training

Over half a year in, the Trump administration is learning that running the US of A is not like running a business (particularly like a business in New York or New Jersey, rife with graft):

…unfortunately, there are so many bills that have piled up and commitments we have made that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling that it’s not fulfilling obligations the United States has offered. I would welcome an opportunity to see a debt-ceiling package that included spending cuts as well. I think there’s some that advocate for that, but I think more likely what we will see is a clean debt ceiling for right now, so that’s probably an issue that will be addressed in the future,” he added.

Actual budget cuts, or even the fake ones that merely reduce the increase in the rate of growth, are the projects of the future, and they always will be. At least until we run out of other peoples’ money, as Venezuela just did.

And in the Department of Duhhhh…

“I think one of the lessons learned from the healthcare debate is that did not happen, and so therefore a lot of conservative groups were splintered as the bill came out of the House, which I think left us at a deficit trying to earn back their support over time. And I don’t mean to deflect responsibility for that because that was on all of us, but that bill was moving long before we were ever inaugurated,” he said.

“I think our relationship with the Hill is shared as well, that one of the lessons learned is to make sure we are doing that sort of outreach before we launch a project…”

If only we’d elected someone who actually understood how government works, and who’d at least read the Constitution and respected the rule of law.

And in this, of course, we have another parallel with Barack Obama.

Risk-Averse Millennials

In response to a young woman who (almost literally) poo-poos being an astronaut, Ben Domenech says that they need to seize their own destiny:

Space is the next frontier. Throughout the history of America, we have been a nation driven by the idea of the frontier—a place where law was slim and liberty was enormous, where you could make your way in the world based on your own ambition and abilities, not fenced in by the limitations of society. The idea of the frontier is a stand-in for the idea of liberty. The danger for the millennial generation today is that even as they inhabit an era providing utopian degrees of choices, they have become too fearful to actually make those choices and seize the future liberty allows. In so doing, they deny their inheritance as Americans.

We have an abundance of evidence on this front. Millennials are extremely reluctant to invest or risk their capital. UBS found that in the wake of the financial crisis, millennials appear more risk-averse than any generation since the Great Depression. Brookings has analyzed the sense of displacement driven by technology, seeing Spike Jonze’s “Her” as a prediction of the world as it will be when millennial values drive society. And Megan McArdle has written eloquently about the fear of failure of any sort, even in the smallest ways, that animates young Americans.

“The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself. And this is what she asked me: “I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

Consider the experience of millennials today as illustrated by Aziz Ansari in “Master of None,” quoting Sylvia Path’s “Bell Jar,” on the impossibility of making choices when overwhelmed by the options before you.

If there is a novelist who predicted the risk aversion at the heart of the millennial generation, it is the man who wrote that “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Walker Percy’s work spoke with the voice of the displaced Southerner wrestling with the inheritance of tradition and the modern age. His understanding of dislocation and despair and regional displacement speak to a different sort of placelessness which animates this generation. His protagonists prefigure the rise of hipsters—the love of irony and pop culture and memes as insulation from seriousness, a tranquilizer for despair. Fear of failure runs through his work, and the crippling fear of making a choice in a world full of choices that could lead down the wrong path.

Read the whole thing, but there’s another point to be made here: Much of West’s perception of what it is to be an astronaut is dated, largely influenced by the Apollo mythology (and yes, I know this is an attempt to be comedic). The vast majority of space travelers of her generation are unlikely to be NASA astronauts. For many, yes, there will be math, but for many others there will not, but the real point is that there will be many, and few of them will be overtrained civil servants. Like the storm-tost’ immigrants of Lazarus’s (non-legally binding) poem discussed so much this past week, they will likely be more akin to the people who set of first from Europe for a New World, and then headed west. And many those who headed west, or their descendants, will decide that the direction of the next frontier is up from there, and then out. And regardless of the generalizations of the nature of her generation (or any), there are many members of it who will know doubt take Domenech’s advice and seize their own moment. It’s not your grandfather’s space program.

As an aside, I’d note that Nolan’s quote was likely influenced by Wilde’s aphorism that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.

[Update a couple minutes later]

As usual, the comments are figuratively pedestrian when it comes to our future in space.


Thoughts from Glenn re this story from Gizomodo about Google:

You can make diversity your top priority, or you can make profitability your top priority, or you can make technical excellence your top priority. But you can only have one top priority.

Similarly, you can make safety the highest priority, you can make cutting cost the highest priority, or you can make actually accomplishing the mission the highest priority. Pick one.

[Monday-morning update]

Planetary Protection

There may be some useful changes coming to NASA:

JPL has butted heads with the office over the next big mission, the Mars 2020 rover, which will gather rock samples for later retrieval to Earth. JPL is interesting in having the rover target areas with subsurface brines, an activity that would not be allowed with its planned level of cleanliness. Moreover, the planetary protection office has not yet agreed on the efficacy of the techniques JPL will use to sterilize the tubes in which the rover will cache rock cores. If the issues aren’t resolved, Rummel says, the rover could be headed for a bureaucratic “train wreck”.

The office, which has always been limited by a small budget and staff, continues to gauge a spacecraft’s “bioburden” based on a classic measure—the number of cultivable microbial spores it carries. “Some of the numbers we’ve been operating on date back decades, and it’d be great to revisit them,” says Sarah Johnson, a planetary scientist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She thinks the office should take advantage of two innovations: chemicals that can separate DNA from dead and living cells, and genomic sequencers that can classify the living ones by type. Scientists could then, for example, assess their individual likelihoods of surviving on Mars.

As a member of the Curiosity team, Johnson would like to see a change in policy that would allow the rover to sidle up to the wet streaks to give them a close look, even if the drill itself—currently on the fritz since December 2016—could not be used. In their op-ed, Fairén and his colleagues go further, saying NASA should slightly lower its sterilization standards so that robots as clean as Curiosity could explore special regions. Fairén says there is growing evidence that the harsh environment on the martian surface—a combination of frigid temperatures, caustic chemicals and deadly cosmic radiation—would kill Earth’s microbes quickly, especially in the limited numbers that ride along with robots. Even if some survive, he adds, future missions could distinguish between earthly and martian microbes by sequencing their genomes.

As the article notes, it’s inevitable that humans are going to go there. If they want to look for non-terrestrial life, they need to start doing it now.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!

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