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October 30, 2014

i hate us: ebola

I find the fact that eight of ten Americans support quarantine for travelers visiting from Western Africa really depressing.  Like, embarrassed for my species embarrassing.  I don't want to begrudge a wee dollop of hysteria — after all, some people think Chris Christie is "charming."  But an 80% majority?  That's an awful lot of stupid people.

And when you combine this fact with the discrimination facing employees of Bellevue Hospital (the one with the Ebola patient) here in New York, it's pretty hard not to lose all faith in humanity.

Lookit: doctors got this.  Never mind how Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas screwed the pooch a bit, the CDC is on this, the NIH is on this and the City of New York is on this.  Ebola has been around for decades so this is not an unknown unknown we are dealing with.  You are not going to catch it from a subway pole or from the seat of a movie theater.  You are not going to catch in in parts of Africa that are not Western Africa.  You fools, you fools.

But never mind all that.  We're Americans, and public opinion overrules scientific fact, and so we will cure Ebola with torches and pitchforks.  It's not just the criminals that are a superstitious, cowardly lot.

Heaven forfend if an actual public health crisis in the form of a communicable disease were to happen.  It would not be pretty.

Though, to be honest, I find the fact that someone thought that this is an issue worth polling in the first place depressing enough in the first place.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:32 AM

October 29, 2014

antares failure

If you were cruising the social media yesterday evening, you might have noticed that an Antares rocket launch ended in a big explosion, as that's the sort of video that really catches everyone's attention.

Two interesting things about that.  First, note the explanation from Orbital Sciences Corp., the private company contracted by NASA to conduct the launch (with a payload of supplies for the International Space Station):

Though stressing the exact cause of the failure was unknown, an executive at Orbital lamented the lack of more modern alternatives to its rocket engines, which were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the failed aim of putting Soviet cosmonauts on the moon.

"When you look at it there are not many other options around the world in terms of using power plants of this size, certainly not in this country, unfortunately," Frank Culbertson, Orbital's executive vice-president, said after the crash.

So yeah, as Elon Musk, CEO of competitor SpaceX and general millionaire-happy-to-give-a-quote, noted, Orbital is using actual Cold-War relics as boosters for their rockets — not Cold War technology, mind you, but boosters that were manufactured forty years ago by the Soviets.

This is a bit of a punchline of course, but the real joke is that even if the boosters were of recent design and manufacture, it would still be using tech that's basically a century old.  To paraphrase Warren Ellis, we are still escaping the planet's gravity well by people a payload (and sometimes people) in a little craft perched atop a building-sized tower of chemical explosives and then setting it on fire.

You'd think we'd have come further?

And secondly, note that this NASA mission, vital to the ISS, was conducted by some dimestore corporation with a clear profit motive and all the other trappings that come with private companies.  Now check this graff from the NYT account:

By hiring private companies, NASA hoped to reduce costs, improve efficiency and spur a new commercial space industry, and it has taken a similar approach toward launching its astronauts in the future.

It so chuffs me that this has become dogma, that government is somehow less efficient than private companies, that the free market somehow brings better results, because it is absolutely not the case at all.  Think of the cornerstone American achievements of the Twentieth Century: Social Security, the Interstate System, and the Moon Shot (hell, even the Manhattan Project).  Were any of them, ANY of them, market-driven in the least?

And now just because some fairy tale of Neoliberalism — one which is not predicated on efficacy but rather the grab of government funds earmarked elsewhere — has calcified into common sense we've pretty much given up on our ability to get anything done at all.

In a word: ugh.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:52 AM