Saturday, July 30, 2011

Death Of The White Elephant: Part II

A lot of people who work for NASA aren't very bright.

In the first installment of this obituary I accused NASA of telling fibs. Since NASA isn't an individual this requires some elaboration. As I'll explain below, what I'm really talking about is an institutional culture of deceit and delusion, the negative results of which range from compounding scientific illiteracy to people dying.

In the Fall of 1985 I started my graduate work at Queen Mary College, London. This opened many doors including the one to the departmental lounge. Morning coffee and afternoon tea provided a remarkable opportunity to hear what some very clever people were saying. These people included senior personnel from various satellite and solar system missions including IRAS, Voyager, Galileo and Cassini.

One afternoon the conversation meandered to the topic of the safety of the Shuttle. Three professors with considerable expertise in such matters gave their estimates for the likelihood of "catastrophic failure." Two independently arrived at a failure rate of 1 mission in a 100. The third said he felt that was optimistic and that before the Shuttle had begun operations he had predicted a failure rate of 1 in 25. However, since the Shuttle had already survived more than 20 missions he had adopted a Bayesian approach and upped his failure estimate to 1 in 50.

This didn't seem to me to be possible. Partly because Dawn, my future-first-ex-wife, was a school teacher, I was aware that in a couple of months the "Teacher in Space Flight" launch was scheduled. Teaching in an inner London school was certainly a dangerous profession, but Dawn's expectation of returning home on any given day was much better than 1 in 100.

I asked the assembled experts how NASA could contemplate putting a civilian in such peril.

"NASA senior managers estimate a 1 in 100,000 catastrophic failure rate," replied one. His two colleagues nodded.

"And you get 1 in 100?" I said.

"Give or take."


Several years after this conversation I read Richard Feynman's account of his work on the Rogers Commission that investigated the loss of Challenger. It gave me goosebumps. Because the criminally dysfunctional mess that was NASA, and that Feynman "discovered," was well known to the three professors at my college and anyone else who had been exposed to the inner workings of the agency.

So how could NASA's senior managers come up with estimated failure rates completely divorced from those of their own engineers (who they ignored) and reality (which is a place other people live)? Part of it is they had no choice. Now... okay this may not make any sense unless, like me, you've worked for these people, but... NASA's senior managers were compelled to assume a microscopically low failure rate of 1 in 100,000 because if they accepted a realistic estimate they would have no choice but to ground the Shuttle.

Actually, even if you have worked for NASA, this idea doesn't make any sense in isolation. You also have to understand something I'll expand upon in Part III: A lot of people who work for NASA aren't very bright.

A couple of months after this coffee-room conversation, Challenger was destroyed. Dawn and I got back from shopping and as we unpacked I turned on the TV to catch the evening news. The first shot I absorbed was of two solid rocket boosters curving away from a single trail that terminated abruptly in a roughly spherical cloud.

"I suppose they all died instantly," said Dawn, blinking damply at the screen as the 73 second flight was replayed.

It was a couple of hours after the "major malfunction" and news pundits had already enhanced some critical video clips. Something pertinent to Dawn's not uncommon supposition was readily apparent. Whatever the cause of the "explosion" it had left the SRBs relatively undamaged. Further, interest had already concentrated on a plume near the rear of the vehicle. You didn't have to be a rocket science to realize that the location of the apparent failure combined with the lack of damage to the SRBs made it quite likely that the crew cabin had survived the explosion.

"I'm afraid they probably didn't," I said to Dawn.

We still don't know for sure. The Kerwin report concluded:

"[T]he crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure."

This conclusion may have been sanitized for public consumption. Lead NASA investigator Robert Overmyer was convinced at least some of the crew were not only alive as the crew module plunged towards the ocean, they were also conscious. Based on the positioning of certain flight switches, Overmyer concluded:

"Scob [Commander Dick Scobee] fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down... They were alive."

This raises a key question. Wouldn't it have been a good idea for the Shuttle to have some kind of escape hatch or ejector seats or something? You know, like other experimental aircraft and spacecraft.

But that would be silly, wouldn't it? The Shuttle didn't need an escape facility. The expected failure rate was 1 in 100,000.

The full and well-documented story of exactly how badly NASA screwed up is beyond the scope of my musings here. Anyone who has read Feynman's account of his investigations may, like me, have been driven to angry tears by the sheer stupidity and negligence of senior NASA personnel. The fact nobody was ever convicted of crimes relating to the death of the crew is only unsurprising because we expect so little accountability from senior personnel in federal agencies.

But at least the thorough investigation into the Challenger disaster made it clear that those seven individuals did not die in vain. The culture of deceit and delusion at NASA would be changed so that such an "accident" could never happen again.

When an equally avoidable accident did happen again, I decided I didn't want to play with rockets any more.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Death Of The White Elephant: Part I

With the Shuttle "fleet" finally decommissioned it's time to crash the ISS into the Pacific and dismantle NASA.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that on the final Shuttle launch NASA would still be lying to the American public. I hadn't watched a launch for years, primarily because they make me feel physically sick. Partly this stems from the fact that the craft is a death-trap, but the manipulative, disingenuous garbage that accompanies the Shuttle traveling "into space" also contributes to my nausea.

As those of you who have read Douglas Adams will know, space is big. When I was teaching introductory astronomy, one of the first assignments I gave was intended to give students some idea of the scale of our neighborhood. For the first time ever I've worked out the numbers using "British" units. Somebody should probably check my arithmetic.

Suppose the Earth is a basketball. On this scale the Moon would be a bit smaller than a baseball twenty-four feet away. I think that's quite an instructive image. On this same scale the Sun would be a bit less than two miles away. If you can imagine something like a spherical five-story building that is very hot indeed then you're getting a decent idea of the Sun.

So we've learned that in our immediate vicinity - our little corner of space - the Moon at only twenty-four feet away is much closer than the Sun, and the Sun is much bigger than both the Earth and Moon.

During the countdown before Atlantis commenced its eight minute journey into "space," various key personnel added whimsical speeches to their usual pre-launch routine. We were reminded of the thirty magnificent years of the Shuttle program and its pivotal role in space exploration. The notion of the Shuttle "exploring space" came up time and time again, wearing more enamel from my teeth on each occasion.

Let's put the Shuttle on our scale model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. Remember the Moon is twenty-four feet away, the Sun almost two miles. On this scale the Shuttle orbits the basketball that is representing the Earth at a height of one quarter of an inch.

Exploring space? The Shuttle explores space in the same way an automobile going round Daytona International Speedway explores Florida. Except much less so. The idea is completely preposterous, although it does invite further comparisons between NASA and NASCAR that I'll explore in the second part of this rant.

I think what really bugs me about NASA selling the Shuttle as space exploration is that it reflects the broader NASA culture of lying to the public. And that in turn reflects a deeper culture that led to the unnecessary deaths of fourteen astronauts. NASA lied to them too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I Was Wrong About God

I was recently taken to task by someone I respect for proclaiming myself to be an atheist. His view was that, as a scientist (albeit retired), the only rational position I can take is one of an agnostic.

Up until a few minutes ago I agreed, at least in principle, with his stance. That is, I accepted that atheism is a metaphysical belief and as a belief it cannot be entirely rational.

In fact I've always had a counter-argument in my back pocket. As a scientist I'm allowed (and possibly required) to invoke Occam's razor. Since modern physics strongly suggests that we don't need God, simplicity requires that we should just do away with him altogether and move on to something more productive like game theory.

Which I did. And as I was mucking about with a payoff matrix relating to a Limit Holdem situation on the turn, it suddenly occurred to me that I was being far too wishy-washy with this God business.

Part of the difficulty here is defining exactly what it is that I don't believe in. The American Evangelist has a very different God than a liberal British Anglican. The former is the traditional, Old Testament law-giving lunatic that I (and Jesus) have described elsewhere, whereas the latter is a sort of bake-sale supervisor who no longer likes to show off the fact that he has ultimate power and dominion over everything. I see no point in worrying about pantheistic traditions. If God is in a stone and this has absolutely no impact on how the stone behaves then I really can use Occam's razor to zap that deity into meaninglessness.

It seems to me that any God worth believing in must be omnipotent, omniscient, and in some sense supernatural. "Supernatural" pretty much reduces to "creator of the Universe" since anything else would put God within the Universe and thus subject to physical inquiry and explanation. And if you created the Universe it follows you can tweak its behavior whenever you choose.

So we can't build a Godometer and attempt to detect The Almighty, but we can look at his handiwork and the way he maintains it to address the question of whether his existence is plausible. And this gets us into the heart of theology.

Theologians through the ages have devoted their lives to the question of why God allows such horrors to afflict his children. They have come up with exquisite schemes involving original sin and free will and heaven and hell. And... okay maybe I'm missing something, but isn't it all complete bullshit? It seems to me the complex stories these people weave are desperate smoke-and-mirrors routines that attempt to divert attention from something rather obvious.

Put yourself in God's shoes for a moment. You see a human being battering a cat with a baseball bat. What would you do? Not only are you all powerful, you have infinite mercy. Give me one sane reason why you wouldn't stop the human crushing the skull of the cat?

There isn't one. But God doesn't save the cat.

And that is why millions of people have written billions of words on God's refusal to prevent suffering, and why the major religions can't agree on The Answer. There cannot be an answer when the premise is false.

The cat is not saved because there is no God. Any other conclusion is irrational.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse

About three years ago I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse that contrasted her to Jane Austen. I'm not sure why since I never really listened to her, although a woman I care about did. And I didn't know that she lived in Camden Town...

You sing the blues
You're the face that's in the news
Ellen Mayhem in Gucci shoes
Everywhere I turn the dial
Lipstick-laden alligator smile

You were amazing
But I didn't want to know
Friends call me crazy but you seemed so
Very peculiar

The Gothic World
Sails of England are unfurled
Miss Jane Fox your hair is curled
In Mansfield Park you lay your head
Sense and sensibility are dead

You were amazing
But I didn't want to know
Friends call me crazy but you seemed so
Very peculiar

Remember the first time I read you
Remember the first time I heard you
Remember feeling sure that
I would never fall in love
No I would never fall in love again

In Camden Town
Coach and four or coke and crown
Mini-skirt or wedding gown
Prejudice can't bruise your pride
Sisyphus on ice you're gonna slide

You were amazing
But I didn't want to know
Friends call me crazy but you seemed so
Very peculiar

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sex In The Dark?

Over the last couple of weeks I have been asked if I was (i) dead; (ii) writing erotica. I used to get asked if I was dead a lot, but I'm glad to say that changes in my lifestyle over the last few years seem to have resulted in fewer inquiries about my continued existence. Either that or people have ceased giving a crap. I haven't been blogging primarily because I am so hacked off at the DoJ and Full Tilt Poker for making my life and that of hard-working friends way more difficult than it need be. Concerning the erotica...

No. But that is the second reason I've been blogging less.

Blind Straddle is an online monthly poker publication and has nothing to do with mounting your partner with the lights off [1]. My June contribution can be found here.

[1] Although given the editors broad-reaching media interests, that may change in future issues.

Since I'll be writing a monthly column for Blind Straddle for at least the next year, most of my poker musings will appear there rather than here. I'll save my blog for my bitter complaints about all the sorts of things I usually complain bitterly about.

If you're worried about missing anything I encourage you to sign up for Blind Straddle e-mail updates through the website. Actually, even if you're not as neurotic as me, I encourage you to check out the site for links to excellent poker resources and like the Facebook page.

The July issue comes out next week and includes some of my thoughts on how to exploit losing players by understanding their psychological weaknesses.