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February 4, 2011

neal stephenson on rockets

This is more than you will ever need to know about the history of rocketry, a short essay by novelist Neal Stephenson:
To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:

1. World's most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman

2. Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time

3. A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator

4. Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system

5. Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability

6. Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline

It sounds a little bit like C.S. Lewis' argument for the existence of God, the unimaginable luck of arbitrary and complex events.  But it's just the beginning, and if anyone can take a technology that we take for granted and dissect it into its components and then project its implications, its Neal Stephenson, who is smartness is only matched by his ability to explain in terms we can understand.

It is a nice distracting read and you will know more than you did before.  It will make you look at your television and your cell phone in an entirely different way.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:58 AM

February 3, 2011

shut my gob

OK so I just spent the entire commute thinking to myself that with the last post I am implicitly endorsing the pro-Mubarak forces and/or doubting the protesters.  Which is why Egypt is just one big sticky wicket that is not serviced well with little four hundred word bursts of thought, or even the thousand-worders you might see on the op-ed page, because it is all a lot more complex than can be distilled into convenience.

And that's what the narrative is about, right?  Convenience?  Having something easy to understand and remember, something that we can all agree with?  Human events need now to be reduced to something that can be successfully communicated with an overlay on your Twitter avatar.  And if it's not so black and white, if it's not just a pro-wrestling-level drama of good guy versus bad guy, then that's for the history books to worry about, none of which will be read anyhow.

And this is all complicated by the fact that it turned into a shooting war yesterday, with pro-government thugs savaging the protesters.  I guess the best face to put on that is if Mubarak did not deserve to be deposed by his own people before, he certainly does now.  (And I hope the pro-government thugs live long enough to get trapped in a collapsed coal mine, each and every one of them.)  But even that: did Mubarak push a magic button?  Were the plainclothes security services going off the reservation?  And where is the military on all this?

I'm gonna talk myself into a pretzel if I don't just shut my gob and watch.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:20 AM

caller, you're on the line

Just now on NPR's The Takeaway (I know, I know) they had a quest on the phone from Egypt — a Mubarak supporter.  Are you opposed to the protesters? they asked him.  No, I believe change must come, he answered.  But you are pro-Mubarak?  I believe that he deserves to be respected, and should be given time to change the government.  Are you being paid by the government, they zinged.  No, he answered calmly.  Do you not want democracy? they asked, because he was now clearly a Communist.  I do, but we are not ready, we are not educated enough, and look at what happened in the Palestinian Authority.  Then they got Socratic, asking, are you not educated enough to participate in a democracy?  I am, he said.  So then are your neighbors not educated enough?  They are, he said, but we represent three percent of the country.

Basically he blew everyone's minds, because not only did he blow up the good guy/bad guy aspect of the narrative, he even refused to bow before democracy as the most exceptional form of government ever.

I'm not saying that I agree with the radio guest.  The Mubarak regime has certainly been painted as behaving as the bad guy, but I doubt it's as simple as all that.

I'm just saying that one-dimensional narratives make me nervous.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:39 AM

February 2, 2011

death of blogging news comes late

Oh now look at that, another think piece on the death of blogging, which I am responding to with my blog.  It is ironic, maybe even in the dictionary sense?

There are quotes from all sorts of NY digital media types, generally trying to put as much distance between themselves and "blogs" as possible, but the money is of course from Choire:

"It always has been an embarrassing word," The Awl's Choire Sicha said. "First it was embarrassing because bloggers were these dirty, horrible people, and then it was embarrassing because our grandmas have blogs, God bless them."

That is just the sweetest, most honest thing! I mean, I have no grandchildren because I have no children, but I probably should have by now.

I'm inclined to not agree with the premise of the piece, inasmuch as the boys and girls that persist in having blogs (pure speculation, of course) aren't "monetizing" them or "securitizing" them or "yo-mom-itizing" them, but merely persisting in having them.  But sleeping on it, my first instinct was wrong.  Maybe it was the headline that I was tempted to pick a fight with.  But there is a semantic shift that approximates "the death of blogging" that has happened, and it is interesting to note the transition from micropublishing to social media, as well as how far the "industry", if you can call it that, has come in the past seven or eight years.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:45 AM

February 1, 2011

omar shariff!

Here is an important thing that we learned about Egypt this morning:

Omar Shariff lives in Cairo, and has an opinion!

Also, Jordan's king totally fired his entire government in response to similar protests, which is not quite as transparent as appointing your intelligence chief as your vice president, but still.  That's one king that is lookin' busy!

But forget that: Omar Shariff?  He's lookin' sexxxy!

Posted by mrbrent at 9:13 AM

January 31, 2011

assange under the wire

To be fair, I did see one write-up of the Assange interview that was published after I published the last post — a recap by the awesome Maria Bustillos for The Awl:
In the past Assange has been criticized for grandstanding, for arrogance and recklessness, but none of these qualities were in evidence last night. Perhaps he has been taken down a few pegs by the extraordinary effects of his efforts; it is not too much of a stretch to say that WikiLeaks played at least some part in unleashing the tidal wave of unrest that is at present engulfing the Middle East; you could make this case based on their Tunisian disclosures alone. Or perhaps the editors at 60 Minutes are more sympathetic than we know, or are likely to learn. In any case, Assange's performance was spectacular. Restrained, intelligent, on point every step of the way.

So my impressions listening on headphones while walking and looking for dangerous black ice (!) are in line with the conventional wisdom, as crystalized by Bustillos.

(Though now I'm seeing an opposite take from Esquire's Foster Kamer.  OK, no consensus, but that's how we get chocolate in each other's peanut butter.)

Posted by mrbrent at 12:56 PM

assange the morning after (no not like that)

So I spent a little time this morning sifting through the pages and pages of reactions to the Julian Assange/"60 Minutes" interview I listened to last night, to see if my reactions were validated.

Sadly the Assange interview didn't really make it on anyone's radar.  Maybe because it was on "60 Minutes", which is technically unwatchable unless you are holding a copy of Reader's Digest in your hand, to convince your TV that you are of proper age?

So actually, only one reaction was truly validated: the WikiLeaks/Assange story is more than a couple weeks old and therefore entirely forgotten unless you stumble into like I did.

(Though please note that it's difficult to get through any day's front section of the New York Times without some story incited or corroborated by a WikiLeak cable.  Just saying.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:56 AM

January 30, 2011

remember julian assange?

I just listened to the "60 Minutes" segment interviewing Julian Assange about Wikileaks and his favorite color and all that.  Yes, listened — it's simulcast on NPR at least in this market, so I was running errands and that's how I caught it.  The visuals may have been all kinds of spooky, maybe dry ice, maybe he wore a cloak, but I do have to report this:

He sounded entirely sane and reasonable.

I'm just putting this out there because it was literally moments ago and by the time I wake up in the morning the narrative will have been formed: Assange is insane!  Assange is not insane!  Assange has a little bit of a booger hanging off his nose!  Usually I read the coverage first, so I'm curious to see how this will shake out.

Also, remember the time, back before Tunisia invaded Egypt, that we were all caring about Julian Assange?  We were young then, and unburdened.

Posted by mrbrent at 7:42 PM