Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Why we shouldn't be frightened by the Virgin Galactic accident

The BBC just published an article about the recent, fatal crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a test flight over the Mojave. The article, entitled "How safe can we really make space for future tourists?" does a rather superficial job of answering its own question, briefly citing the few major space shuttle and other orbiter disasters from the Space Age up into the nineties.

The problem with this analysis is that it does not, in the slightest, take into account the nature of the Virgin Galactic accident itself - an obvious move, one might think, if the author seeks to use this accident as a jumping-off point for a discussion of modern space travel, rather than the failures of older generations of technology.

So, let's pick up on that point: what caused the accident? Virgin Galactic's statement refuses to offer an official explanation by this early date, but the released information increasingly points to human error. From the statement:

The NTSB also evaluated the vehicle’s feathering mechanism, which is the unique technology that turns the wing booms into position for re-entry. The NTSB indicated that the lock/unlock lever was pulled prematurely based on recorded speed at the time, and they have suggested that subsequent aerodynamic forces then deployed the feathering mechanism, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the wings and vehicle.

Basically, one of SpaceShipTwo's pilots unlocked a "feathering" (read: braking) mechanism at high speed, and given what this seems to have done to the plane, this sounds like the equivalent of sharply yanking the steering wheel in a car doing eighty miles per hour.

While the accident is truly unfortunate, this is somewhat reassuring: an operator error caused the craft to break up, not a materials failure. Human error is universal to the operation of any machinery; for this we need look no farther than traffic deaths in the United States, which occur several times a day even without the presence of drunk driving. Humans make mistakes; this is a simple fact of reality.

This is reassuring because, if such an error turns out to be the cause of the accident, then the advanced technology available to developers of space travel vessels can actually protect against future repeats. (Maybe an automatic, speed-sensitive safety device could prevent the feathering mechanism from unlocking at high speeds - the way some cars automatically lock their doors while the vehicle is in motion.)

So, is space travel inherently more dangerous than any other, human-operated mode of mechanized travel? No. Risk of human error pervades all of our activity. The true question will be how the private space industry responds to challenges such as this.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tal Fortgang and Race in America

I recently read an article, republished from the Princeton Tory on the Young Conservatives website and authored by Princeton Freshman Tal Fortgang. In it, Tal rebuts the (apparently) pervasive phrase “check your privilege.” This is an instruction that, Tal says, he often receives as a white male. In his words, it is designed to make him “feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.” Okay, well, that really makes some inferences, but I get what he’s saying. This seems like a phrase that is supposed to single out stereotypically “affluent” individuals through gender and racial factors, reminding them that they, unlike others, somehow have it "easier than most."

I haven’t heard this phrase a whole lot, but it appears to have ruffled a lot of feathers, and for good reason. Again, Tal’s words: “I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line.” 

I agree with this assertion 100%. Making assumptions about anybody because of their gender and ethnicity is generally a bad move. Also known as prejudice, this type of thinking and behavior often create oppressive environments, whether they be in the arena of free speech, religion, or any of the whole gamut of individual liberties. 

Of course, I don’t know the specifics of Tal’s run-ins with this reprimand; he doesn’t specify the context of hearing the words “check your privilege.” Maybe he was flaunting a loaded forearm of Rolex hardware from behind the wheel of his Ferrari California, but I doubt it.

However, I could could see this phrase, following a terribly uninformed decision-making process, violating others’ personal rights or ability to function in their larger society, even in deceptively subtle yet important ways. As Tal states: “The phrase…descends recklessly…and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.” Somebody is trying to de-legitimize his opinions simply because of his appearance, thus harming his ability to participate in the public forum. That’s substantial, and worth noting. I’m not exactly weeping buckets for the guy, but it sounds like an irksome situation.

However, after relating his frustrations to the reader, Tal carves a path that I am less willing to follow. 

Most prominently, he begins constructing a caricatured, straw-man version of (though he never drops the word, carefully hewing to a thinly-veiled “they,” this pronoun’s antecedent being “those who ‘check’ me") liberal political ideology:

“Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them ‘stigmas’ or ‘societal norms’), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. . . check your privilege and realize nothing you have accomplished is real.

“But they can’t be telling me that everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me to Princeton.” 

Well, Tal, since you appear to have conjured a massive amount of somewhat crazed assumptions from this one phrase, I am actually skeptical that “they” are telling you anything of the sort.

Pardon my tone, but let’s review some of this. Tal sees this phrase, "check your privilege," as connoting belief in “racist and sexist conspiracies.” According to New Oxford American, a “conspiracy” is "a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.” Well, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the concept that our nation is fueled by a massive, conscious, and secret plan to maliciously and/or criminally oppress people of certain races or genders. See, I can dismiss it too. Anybody can, because that idea is pure bullshit. Coincidentally, Tal is also seems to be the only person who has encountered this notion.

That idea, apparently, is all that Tal can imagine when people (even if in a terrible and wrong manner) start to discuss the role of race and gender in the lives of our citizens. Just because there’s not a conspiracy surrounding these issues, doesn’t mean we should flippantly dismiss them, as Tal does, using an extreme caricature of many people’s actual political thoughts. 

In other words, Tal, we listened to your problem. Now it’s time to slow down, close your mouth, and actually examine how race and gender affect Americans’ lives. I’ll shut up, too, because now I’m also interested. How do different gender and ethnic groups experience different aspects of life in this country? Are there differences? If so, what are they? Hopefully we’ll all be a little more educated after this. Let’s look at the data:

Starting with the day we are born, there appear to be different American experiences that are dependent upon, or at least associated with, ethnicity: 

According to a CDC release from last year, you are least likely to die as an infant if you’re born to a mother of Asian or Pacific Islander ethnicity. Meanwhile, the infant mortality rate for those born to Black, non-Hispanic mothers is more than double that of children born to White, non-Hispanic mothers. 

Alright, so say we safely make it out of infancy. One major issue that might follow is how well we are taken care of - fed, for instance - as children. A great metric for this is food security, or insecurity, in a household. The USDA, which researches in this field, has some helpful definitions: 
  • Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

This chart, from the USDA’s research, demonstrates variations in household food insecurity by ethnic group:

It seems like race does, somehow, play a role in how well Americans eat. 

This very impressive CDC report from 2011 outlines a litany of issues in American life that vary by race and gender. Included:

(U.S. 2009 data, populations only older than eighteen unless otherwise specified. I did not include all listed ethnic groups from the report, only the three largest groups in the U.S.)


9.7% of males live below the federal poverty level.
13.4% of females live below the federal poverty level. 

8.4% of the White, non-Hispanic population lives below the federal poverty level.
20.6% of the Black, non-Hispanic population lives below the federal poverty level. 
19.0% of the Hispanic population lives below the federal poverty level. 

Inadequate Housing ("Inadequate housing is defined as an occupied housing unit that has moderate or severe physical problems (e.g., deficiencies in plumbing, heating, electricity, hallways, and upkeep). Examples of moderate physical problems in a unit include two or more breakdowns of the toilets that lasted >6 months, unvented primary heating equipment, or lack of a complete kitchen facility in the unit. Severe physical problems include lack of running hot or cold water, lack of a working toilet, and exposed wiring.")

4.9% of males live in inadequate housing.
5.5% of females live in inadequate housing. 

4.1% of the White, non-Hispanic population lives in inadequate housing.
7.8% of the Hispanic population lives in inadequate housing.
9.0% of the Black, non-Hispanic population lives in inadequate housing. 

Unhealthy Housing (“The CDC has defined unhealthy housing as the presence of any additional characteristics that might negatively affect the health of its occupants, including evidence of rodents, water leaks, peeling paint in homes built before 1978, and absence of a working smoke detector.”)

22.5% of males live in unhealthy housing units.
24.6% of females live in unhealthy housing units.

22.7% of the White, non-Hispanic population lives in unhealthy housing units.
24.2% of the Hispanic population lives in unhealthy housing units.
28.3% of the Black, non-Hispanic population lives in unhealthy housing units. 

Health Insurance (18-64 years old, 2008 data. Of course, pre-ACA, but still interesting.)

22.2% of males do not have health insurance.
17.3% of females do not have health insurance.

41.6% of the Hispanic population does not have health insurance.
14.6% of the White, non-Hispanic population does not have health insurance.
22.1% of the Black, non-Hispanic population does not have health insurance. 

Drug-Induced Death Rate (2007 data)

15.8/100k males die from drug inducement.
9.3/100k females die from drug inducement. 

16.9/100k of the White, non-Hispanic population die from drug inducement.
15.4/100k of the Black, non-Hispanic population die from drug inducement.
9.5/100k of the Hispanic population die from drug inducement. 

Coronary Heart Disease Deaths (2006 data)

103.1/100k females die from coronary heart disease.
176.5/100k males die from coronary heart disease.

134.2/100k of the White, non-Hispanic population die from coronary heart disease.
161.6/100k of the Black, non-Hispanic population die from coronary heart disease.
106.4/100k of the Hispanic population die from coronary heart disease. 

Homicide Rate (2007 data)

2.7% of the White, non-Hispanic population are homicide victims.
23.1% of the Black, non-Hispanic population are homicide victims
7.6% of the Hispanic population are homicide victims. 

Diabetes Rates (2008 data)

8.1% of the male population has diabetes.
7.7% of the female population has diabetes.

7% of the White population has diabetes. 
11% of the Black population has diabetes.
10.7% of the Hispanic population has diabetes.

This report is just chock-full of information, and I didn’t include several of the categories, some of which were hard to format the same way as the ones I have shown, and some of which were a little obscure. However, I recommend looking at it; suicide rates, motor vehicle deaths, and binge drinking rates are all in there. Most of the time, the Black population seemed to fare the worst in these categories, with the White population doing the best and the Hispanic population middling. There are exceptions, however, e.g. binge drinking. 

Okay, so next up: Education. This will draw from a 2010 USDE report

Retention Rates (2007 data)

13.9% of males have repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
8.9% of females have repeated a grade at some point, K-12.

8.7% of the White population has repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
20.9% of the Black population has repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
11.8% of the Hispanic population has repeated a grade at some point, K-12. 

Dropout Rates

College Readiness 


27% of the White population meets readiness benchmark scores.
3% of the Black population meets readiness benchmark scores.
10% of the Hispanic population meets readiness benchmark scores.

Educational Attainment

Unemployment (Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2014 seasonally-adjusted figures 1 & 2)

5.3% unemployment rate for the White population.
11.4% unemployment rate for the Black population.
7.5% unemployment rate for the Hispanic population. 

Update, Sept. 10: one more metric - Socioeconomic Mobility


This source (2012 data) has some well-defined parameters for "success" at each given stage, as relevant to the second graph:

One more metric I wanted to look at: Income


Alright, I could probably go on in this vein for a while, but I’ll stop there. What I’ve gathered from the data is: it’s time to blow the lid off this conspiracy! 

Okay, okay, just kidding. There are very consistent trends across most of the demographic metrics I’ve viewed that demonstrated White populations typically outperform Hispanic populations, both of which dramatically outperform the Black population. As far as gender performance, the margins are much smaller and sometimes reversed, but men appear to perform better most of the time. So race is somehow tied up in changing how different ethnic groups in America live the American life, for better for worse. 

What I don’t want to do here is diminish any of Tal’s accomplishments. Princeton is obviously a highly selective and rigorous university, ranked #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, so to say Tal didn’t have to both work extremely hard his entire life and exercise great talents to get where he is would be dumb. 

What I do want to do is illustrate that, in ways I don't fully understand, race appears to play a critical role in many facets of Americans’ lives. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the way things are right now. Instead of whitewashing and dismissing a conversation like this, as Tal does, (possibly fueled by his frustration with the “privilege” label) we should take moments like this to ask the important questions of why the broadly diverse phenomena of racial (and to a degree, gender) disparities occur, and what, if anything, can alleviate such racial.

Also, I know the main point of his article was to explore the heritage of his grandparents’ experience during the Holocaust, which I really had no issues with and didn’t attract any disagreement from me. 

So, that’s my reaction. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Saving Private Ryan: Movie Review

I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time yesterday, which easily exceeded my expectations. Steven Spielberg is unquestionably at his finest with this film. However, I believe my impression of the movie is significantly different than that held by much of the original audience due to the year of my viewing, over a decade and a half since its ground-breaking release. The reason for this, I believe, is that I have grown up in, and experienced the work of, the 'post-SPR era,' in which many war films are strongly influenced by the path SPR dictated in the cinematic depiction of combat.

At the time of SPR's release, critics immediately noted its graphic, realistic depiction of violence. David Edelstein wrote for Slate: “What Steven Spielberg has accomplished in Saving Private Ryan is to make violence terrible again. Nothing in the movie's melodramatic narrative can diminish the shocking immediacy of its combat scenes.” He points out that SPR stood in stark contrast to the unrealistic “rock-n-roll” combat depictions of the (my coinage, here) 'pre-SPR era.' Joe Morgenstern, writing for the Wall Street Journal at the time, made the same observation: “Saving Private Ryan. . . puts a new, indelibly terrible face on war.”

Much of this style comes from the stunning technical accomplishments of the movie, which scored a bevy of Oscars for its sound and visual design. The combat shots are gritty POV work, forcing the audience to watch the humiliating death throes and animal seizes of American and German soldiers.
While not reducing this accomplishment, the past decade or so of war films and shows have cemented this style as standard practice. So, for me, what was visually shocking in 1998 is now still obscenely difficult to watch, but not surprising, given such post-SPR films and shows as: Black Hawk Down, Flags of our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, The Hurt Locker, etc. While there are always exceptions, the noticeable shift from the pre-to-post SPR is from heroic, unrealistic violence to gritty, disturbing, and most importantly, realistic violence. I think this is a very important and good breakthrough for American audiences, and Saving Private Ryan is hugely responsible.

Again, however, when watching the film as a viewer in the post-SPR era, I accepted the visual style and was instead drawn to the moral questions that Spielberg poses via the travails of Captain John Miller and his unlucky squad, chosen for a “public relations” mission to rescue the last surviving Ryan brother in combat. The mission is ordered at the behest of General George Marshall, who justifies the perilous efforts required to locate and retrieve the wayward Ryan with Abraham Lincoln's “Bixby letter,” notifying a Civil War mother of the death of her five sons in combat, itself a letter of very deservedly glorified language. Marshall's implication is that Mrs. Ryan should not have to face the death of all of her sons as Bixby did, and barks the orders.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered squad under Miller (Hanks) is left to unravel the issues the mission involves. The mission itself is to find and bring home Pvt. Ryan of the 101st Airborne, who has missed his intended drop location in the Normandy invasion and is God-knows-where, certainly putting a lot of German soldiers between himself and Miller's squad. The mission is FUBAR. As the squad grimly tracks and fights their way to Ryan, they confront the deaths of two of their men in firefights. “We all have mamas,” notes a disgruntled private on the verge of desertion. Should two mothers now be childless so that Mrs. Ryan may, possibly, not be? How many men have to die for this “asshole”? The ever-staid Miller sticks to his orders as well as he might, but even he cannot resolve the question by the end of the movie, and dies having acquiesced to Ryan's own refusal to obey the order.

This question, of following orders until the ultimate sacrifice despite dubious terms of completion, gripped my mind and didn't let go. Personally, a satisfactory answer doesn't quite exist—I jump between the two sides of the argument; there is a tension within myself about the right answer. On one hand, following orders is what keeps our breathtakingly efficient armed forces on top of their game, and without respect for the chain of command, our troops are nothing. However, an unjust law is no law at all, and following a FUBAR order means making a FUBAR decision. Responsibility cannot be escaped, and more importantly, neither can the guilt of watching your men die around you for a cause you doubt yourself. It seems of the sacrifices demanded by the military is the occasional, sometimes fatal, inability to exercise one's own good judgement.

Whether Spielberg attempts to answer this question at the film's resolution or not is itself a tricky question. Ultimately, most—or all—of Miller's squad, including Miller, are killed while aiding Ryan's unit in defense of a crucial bridge. Though Miller's intention was to bring Ryan back following the defense attempt in case of success, he did disobey orders by allowing Ryan to engage in a massive firefight, even jeopardizing his entire rescue squad to aid the bridge defense. So, did this horrific ending (which Ryan interestingly survives) come about as a result of the FUBAR mission assignment, or as a result of Miller's bending the assignment to its breaking point in favor of his good judgement—that is, to stay and defend the bridge with Ryan?

It's tempting to criticize Spielberg for whitewashing all of this nuance with the closing scene of an aged, veteran Ryan and his family at the site of Miller's Arlington grave. However, Ryan's final words at the grave (for me, at least) dredge up that unsettling question of some lives weighed against others. “I brought my family,” says Ryan, hoping aloud that he has lived his life in a way that deserves the sacrifice of Miller and his men. It is easy to instead picture Miller and his entire squad, with their families, visiting a single Arlington grave site. Rather, the lone Ryan and his family move from headstone to headstone.

 To pretend answers is tempting but foolish in such a story. Instead, I leave the movie frustrated by these dilemmas and horrors of war. They are unthinkable, impossible, terrible questions, and posed unflinchingly by the genius of Steven Spielberg. 9/10. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Book Review: UFOs, by Leslie Kean (2010)

Rating: 5/5 - Go read this book right now!

I like to fancy myself a skeptic; evidence is kind of my thing. If you're going to make a claim, you should back it up. I try to marshal a lot of my own thoughts with the evidence-based approach. For this reason, cracking open Leslie Kean's UFOs today felt like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat - of evidence!

I arrived at this book with probably an average intellectual history on the subject of "Unidentified Flying Objects." At a young age, I was fascinated with - and slightly terrified of - the anecdotal accounts I had read, often featuring artist's embellishments: the lonely couple, driving along a country road before being abducted by a looming, light-filled saucer, manned by slit-eyed aliens at the helm, of course only recall the trauma of ghastly sexual probing while undergoing "hypnosis therapy." Unsurprisingly, it did not take long to shake loose from this dubious (to say the least) material, partially aided by some of the writings of Carl Sagan, who participated in UFO investigations by the US Air Force and asserted in his book, The Demon Haunted World, that "alien abductions" are easily explained by mass hysteria and waking hallucinations.

I became acquainted with other, likely explanations: swamp lights, weather balloons, abnormal weather, navigation lights on planes, crop circle hoaxers, forged photographs. We know the overall Hollywoodization of UFOs as extraterrestrial vessels of all kinds. Basically, pop culture says UFOs = aliens, preferably either really powerful or really goofy ones. (Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still one of my all-time favorite movies, though.) Now, UFOs are the subjects of satirized 50s-horror.

The somewhat stalled-out facade of UFOs today.

I think this collection of images and a general dismissal of UFO research to the confines of conspiracy-nut fantasyland is where not only I, but many of us, approach the subject from. It feels like a settled issue. Maybe our society was scared by UFOs for a little bit, in the past, but now we can laugh about it because we know better.

Enter Leslie Kean.

In an interview with MSNBC from 2010, Kean stated that the purpose of her book was to explore the roughly "five percent" of UFO reports that remain unexplained after official investigation. Ninety-five percent of "UFO" (Or "UAP," Unexplained Aerial Phenomena) reports probably fit in to the list of explanations I rattled off above, that is, they can be explained by natural or man-made phenomena.

However, once one starts to wade into the well-documented sea of that remaining, unexplained five percent, the laughter dies down rather quickly. This is the realm of quite shockingly verifiable evidence, not some half-assed campfire story. Some of the most credible UFO events are compilations of hundreds of independently confirmed reports matching in description and location, others are documented by original camera or radar data, and still others are backed by not only the pilots, high-ranking government workers and military officials who reported them, but also the follow-ups: extensive panel investigations that time and again methodically trudge through physical, climatological, psychological, artificial, or other possibilities until again and again arriving at the same startling conclusion: the evidence is detailed and reliable/the photo hasn't been tampered with/the eyewitnesses are credible, and we have no idea what the hell happened on [insert dozens of dates, times, and locations]. 

The fact of the matter is, a strain of evidence from hundreds of aviation, civilian, and military reports from around the world demonstrate quite convincingly that there is some sort of weird phenomenon taking place in Earth's skies, involving high-speed objects with incredible maneuverability and physics-defying capabilities. That, as it turns out, is not so difficult to establish.

What is difficult to establish is anything beyond this disconcerting realization - What are these things? Are they man-made? How do they work? Where do they come from? Do they pose a threat to us, specifically aviation? The line between fact and fiction is not crossed by acknowledging UFOs; it is crossed when giddily speculating the answers to these questions. (Looking at you, Spielberg).

As it turns out, this societal stigma of associating UFO research with crazy alien people is detrimental to finding out what is actually going on with this well-documented phenomenon. Kean isn't pretending to hold all the answers; she simply gathers up the best data she can find, holds it aloft, and asks, "Can we maybe look into this business?"

That, to me, seems like a reasonable and exciting question.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Map

I'm going to kick off my blog's life with an analogy that has been stirring in my head for some time now. I present "The Map":

The galley had been stopped at a small port town for only a few days and was still taking on fresh supplies when a wandering stranger sought out the ship's captain in one of the seaside taverns along the harbor. The stranger was seeking passage to the galley's ultimate destination, he explained, and offered funds to be taken aboard for the duration of the journey. The stranger's funds were adequate for the trip, and the captain agreed to take him on, for the stranger presented well and seemed without undesirable tendencies.

After embarkment and a few days at sea, the captain had conversed enough with the stranger to know that the man was fairly interested in navigation and might even have some insights to contribute; whenever course decisions were made by the captain and a few officers, the stranger was always invited in to observe and offer occasional commentary.

It was on one of these occasions that the stranger began to discern differences between the crew's knowledge of the sea and what the captain's map depicted. As the captain and his crew were conversing and marking out the next several days of sailing, the stranger remarked:

"Could not we instead cut directly between these two masses, avoiding the bowed path you are plotting out?" He pointed to the map.

The crew explained to him that the map was actually outdated in this instance, for a shallow reef, unmarked on the map, spanned across the stranger's proposed route, which would ground and capsize the galley if they tried to bear across.

Over the next several weeks of the voyage, the stranger noted several such instances. The map would picture certain landmasses out of place, or depict barriers not actually present, or as in the first example, simply not account for objects clearly present in the route. The stranger noticed that every time the map contained such an error, captain and crew would automatically correct the route without even needing to mention the discrepancy. Ultimately, it became clear that they knew the sea better than the map itself did, and likely could take the voyage without it.

When the stranger voiced his observation, he was surprised by the reaction:

"No, no," said an officer, "every captain on every ship before us has used this map. Its value is incalculable, and to forfeit the knowledge it presents us would be madness."

This seemed to be the pervading attitude regarding the map, which puzzled the stranger but ultimately brought him no harm as far as he could tell; he was safely deposited at his destination when the voyage finally ended and parted ways with the crew on fair terms. In his subsequent wanderings, he would frequently remember the crew and captain of that galley and shake his head with slight confusion.


Hello, my name is Thomas. I have been posting my opinions regarding politics, science, etc. on Facebook for some time now, but I think this is a better setting in which to share them. I hope you enjoy reading and potentially discussing future posts.