The Enduring Legacy of Muhammad Ali

I’ve come to understand a little bit of the pull of boxing over the last few months.  I love Sun Kil Moon, and “Duk Koo Kim” made me look up the fighter.  I watched his last fight, his last struggle.  I get the attraction, the primal nature of it.  I wanted to see Ronda Rousey get knocked out that one time, so I watched video of it … a few times.  Then I watched other MMA videos.

And then I got back to the point, which is that any “sport” whose end goal is to cause major damage to the opponent’s brain really isn’t very sporting.  It’s ludicrous that we prosecute street fights and laud prizefights.

Ali deserved better, and frankly, we deserve better.  King was taken from us at 39 by a rifle shot; Ali’s “Parkinson’s” was diagnosed at 42.  The men were certainly different, and it’s perhaps a reach to equate the two, but it’s also safe to say that their social conscience and willingness to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human and strive to better yourself and your fellow man would have entwined them.  Both could reasonably be alive with powerful voices today, but no.

And yes, the enduring photo of Ali is him standing over Sonny Liston.  But did it have to be?  Were we really meant to have the final image of Ali be of him at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?

I feel cheated.

On calling people terrorists.

Boston is looking at an open wound tonight, and I don’t want to diminish anything that’s happening there.

We have to watch our use of the word terrorist.  Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”.  Let’s think about that for a moment.

What happened on 9/11 was coercion: Muslims around the world were encouraged to shed Western influences by using direct force to expel Americans and shock and disorganize their enemies on foreign shores.

What’s happening in Syria is not coercion, no matter how many times Bashir al-Assad says it is.  It’s civil war.  In the same way, what happened in Libya was revolution and civil way, despite all of Qaddafi’s statements to the contrary.

What happened with Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s was not terrorism.  It was the deranged act of an asshole bent on homocidal expression of his personal rage; there was no coercion to his way of thinking.  [Note: I opposed his 2001 execution.]

What happened with Eric Robert Rudolph during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics wasn’t terrorism.  People barely knew that Rudolph wanted to advocate against abortion.  They just knew that he was an asshole.

We throw “terrorist” around too freely.  Could this be a product of al-Qaeda or some other international terrorist that wants American influence removed from the Middle East?  Yes, and if that is the aim, I think that we can safely call it a terrorist act.  But if this is the work of a deranged asshole or team of deranged assholes who decided, “How do we wake a great day in Boston and fuck it up?  Let’s find the largest public outdoor gathering of people and kill and maim a bunch of people!”  You don’t have to be a terrorist to be an asshole, but you do have to be an asshole to be a terrorist.  Unless they are terrorists, let’s don’t give the motherfuckers the pleasure.

A Few More Thoughts on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Again, for the record: pro drilling, and this engineering problem is a bitch to solve. Other thoughts:

  • Some of the people I’ve heard complain loudest about the government response are the very same people who decry government intervention into the free market. My response is simple: either the market will take care of the problem, or you need government to intervene in markets. You can’t have this both ways.
  • As someone who does believe that the government has a place in the markets, especially in a regulatory role, I’m disappointed in the response. I believe that BP should be given every opportunity to fix the problem, but at some point, what makes the most sense is bringing in all the oil-drilling/oil-company experts from the US, whether they be BP, Exxon Mobil, or what. This is a problem that directly affects BP but indirectly affects the entire domestic oil extraction marketplace. It doesn’t matter whose screw-up this is: let’s get the damn thing fixed, and now. If there are smart folks at EM or other oil companies, by all means, lets get their brains fixing this problem yesterday.
  • I’m really praying that the top kill works. Seriously, praying.
  • I love listening to Barack Obama speak, but while he has a role in reassurance, this is a time for actions, not words. Bush made a speech about rebuilding New Orleans, as did any number of state and local folks in Louisiana … look how well that‘s gone. Politicians of all stripes are great at speeches, and marginal at execution. That said, corporations typically suck at execution, too. Trust me, I’m a corporate drone. 😉

Soapbox over for the day.

Disjointed Thoughts on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Justin was tweeting about the oil spill this morning, and some of things that I wanted to respond to would take way more than 140 characters. So I’m here. Random thoughts (because I’m too sleepy to write long-form this morning):

  • I’m generally in favor of offshore oil drilling. I think that renewable energy has to be where we head towards, but in the short term, we have to take advantage of the energy sources available to us.
  • I’m an engineer, so my thoughts on this are largely as an engineer.
  • Drilling at deep depths is hard. The biggest issue is the pressure: 152 atmospheres. Wrap your head around that: 152 times the atmospheric pressure. For comparison, consider that it’s 1.3 atmospheres at the bottom of a swimming pool. You’ve been to the bottom of a pool, right? Just because you could? You felt that pressure. Up it by 100.
  • The other issue is the length. If you’re working from 5,000 feet away, well, that’s hard. That’s almost a mile away.
  • All of that to say this: you have to have redundant systems at that depth. Redundancy upon redundancy. It’s not quite going to space, but it’s close.
  • In space flight, we deal with factors of safety that are ridiculous. We also have to be two-fault tolerant: any piece of a subsystem has to survive two unrelated failures and still operate. That’s a lot of redundancy.
  • It doesn’t seem that this level of redundancy was built into the blowout preventer. In any case, looks like there were four separate problems with the blowout preventer. Don’t say, “Well you said it had to be two-fault tolerant!” Look at the issues: one is a true fault [a hydraulic leak] and the other three are poor design choices.
  • Why did I mention spaceflight preparations? Isn’t that a red herring? To me, no. The reason we have such redundancy in space is because it’s expensive to access space to fix the problem, plus you have limited up-mass to carry fixes up to orbit. It’s expensive and really hard to fix these things when they break. The same issues exist with fixing this oil gusher. It’s taken this long to attempt fixes because the fix has to be designed, then manufactured, then installed. Given that these attempts are in hazardous and limited working conditions, they are difficult to implement. You are far better off implementing good engineering practices in your design and implementation than you are in having to apply those principles on the fly when the shit has hit the fan.
  • The slow response to implementing fixes is largely due to the poor access to the gusher, plus the temperature and pressure issues associated with the fix [seawater freezing, etc.]. The fixes for these catastrophic events have to be planned after the events; you don’t just have these things laying around in a warehouse somewhere, waiting to be implemented.
  • The code names for these fixes—top hat, junk shot, etc.—sound silly. They are. It’s not management-ese, either; it’s engineers talking in codespeak. We do that, but so does every other culture. It sure does make for funny commentary on the news, though.
  • These are really hard problems, but no one really gives a shit if they are when the shit hits the fan. If you do your job right as an engineer, you should never get noticed. It’s only when shit hits the fan that you get noticed, and that’s never a good thing. Rarely are engineers who fix problems seen as heroes; the main example I can bring up is the Apollo XIII rescue.

I think the engineers involved need to be held accountable, with their jobs and financially. Do your damn job right, and this isn’t a problem. Don’t, and it is a big one. It’s easy to pillory the corporations involved—especially when BP’s CEO is being tone-deaf, comparing the amount of oil as small compared to the vast volume of the Gulf of Mexico—but past the PR blunders here is a far bigger problem: not enough engineering rigor.

A lack of engineering rigor is at the lack of most technological failures, but is particularly evident in all energy-related ones. Oil wells, coal mines, nuclear power generation and storage … most any time they go south, it’s a combination of human error and poor design. Almost always, it’s because someone cut a corner. The temptation to cut corners is strong, especially as engineers, as a general culture, are lazy people. We seek efficiency because it allows us more time for noodling, air hockey, and beer. That’s why accountability has to be there. In spaceflight, it’s two-fold: if we screw up, astronauts die and the space program as a whole is threatened. Would that all engineers were held to that standard.

Massey Energy: Providing Context

I think that it’s evident from my writing here this week that I think the Web is about providing context. As I’ve been reading stories about the latest West Virginia coal mining disaster, I asked myself, “Hey, isn’t Massey Energy the company that owned the Sago Mine?” No, they’re not, but they are the one that essentially paid for Brent Benjamin to be on the WV State Supreme Court. Slimy guys, they spread money around like manure to keep their industry from being well-regulated.

Now, I’m not a Daily Kos reader, so I missed the DK evisceration of Massey Energy until some Googling just now. But why does it take a blog to bring this up? Why isn’t this stuff in the NYT story? Yes, they do Times Topics, but this kind of contextualization is important in this era where journalism is as much about small pieces, loosely joined as it is about who, what, where, when, why, and how.

I’m not suggesting that news organizations go all Bill Simmons, who calls the OKC NBA team “the Zombie Sonics” just to remind every one of his readers about the absolute travesty of the Sonics getting ripped from the PNW. I am asking for some context.

And while I’m talking about context: Worldwide deaths over the past 50 years from Coal Mining Accidents: 250,000. Nuclear Power accidents: 64. Rather than “Dig, baby, dig!” it ought to be “Fission, baby, fission!”

The Lesson Here Is Simple

So the complaint is that photography is being democratized. I think that’s a very good thing, unless, of course, you’re seeking to be a professional photographer. But the lesson here is simple and being learned again and again: be careful about going into industries that can be commoditized. You can make money doing this if you are very good, of course. It will take time for the business model to re-emerge: as it stands now, professionals get undercut by amateurs and semi-pros willing to work for less. Eventually, discerning customers will demand quality, and professionals will be able to price accordingly.

Examples: newspapers are dying, but the Wall Street Journal is doing just fine. Personal computers are a race to the bottom, except for Apple, who is still able to charge a premium for quality [real or perceived]. Sports blogs and semi-pro media are killing the sports media industry, but those ESPN folks in Bristol seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

People, of course, don’t like change. There may well come a time when aerospace engineering is commoditized [although I expect that it won’t; it is, after all, rocket science]. If that happens, I’ll either be exceedingly good at it—and commensurately compensated—or be willing to change careers.

Product of Interest

My brother is a journalist. I wonder what he’ll think of this. 🙂

Fred Wilson argues, “No conflict, no interest.” I think that’s right. I think journalism had this ethos of the disinterested observer at a time when it was needed to gain credibility amongst the readership. But to be honest, unless the journalist is an excellent writer, the disinterested observer’s explication of the situation is often dreadfully boring.

Storytelling matters. Documentary is a great thing, but few are compelling enough to grab mass attention. It’s far more often the biopic that tantalizes and interests. And once you have people interested, they’re gonna be more likely to do their own study. [Some folks just won’t; they either feel inadequate or disinclined. Their loss.]

Conversely, the writing of an interested observer can be worthwhile, but you must know the observer’s leanings to fully understand. If I write about manned spaceflight, well, y’all know that I work in it. I quite clearly have a vested interest in the continuance of it for fiscal reasons, but because I care about it—I could make more money on the outside, I assure you!—I also have a passion that, I hope, can be infectious about it.

[And yet I’m aware that I work for a conservative organization that may not react well to me openly blogging my every last opinion on manned spaceflight, which is one reason that I’ve been quiet about many things here. Just get me in a room and wind me up … 😉 ]

So yes, interested observers with a dog in the fight do have plenty to say. They’re usually more interesting than your dispassionate observer—who rarely exists, anyway. Give me the bias…

High School Kids Are Not Equipped to Choose a Career

I originally posted this just to del.icio.us, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. There’s apparently a movement to have high school students “major” in something as they progress towards college.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

I attended a magnet high school for science and mathematics. So did many of my friends: Jonathan, Rick, and Jess went to MSMS with me, Kat went to ASMS, and Brian went to NCSSM [which I didn’t know until a few weeks ago]. I think that most of our friends very definitely could have gone to those schools if those opportunities had been available for them when they were ready for them. All of us lived away from home for two years in a magnet environment, but I bet that we’d all feel the same about this: specialization at that age is a bad, bad idea.

When I look at my curriculum, I made a bet going in that I would be an engineering major in college, so I was very, very heavy on physics and mathematics, taking every course offered by the school in both curricula. I discounted everything else that I could to focus as much as I could, forsaking AP courses in the humanities that I really wish that I’d taken because they would have interested and challenged me. [Some of my peers did take those courses, but they weren’t able to take all the physics courses I did or able to do research at Mississippi State as I did.] At this point, you’re thinking, “What’s your point, Morris? You have an aerospace engineering degree and work in aerospace. You’re the prime candidate for this idea.”

Well, that ignores the fact that, for a period of time between 18 and 23, I felt like I’d been called into ordained ministry. [I now think that I was wrong, but man, the guilt messed me up for years.] I thought that all I’d done was very wrong for myself. I had a time of crisis, and I was ready to change. But because I had built up this massive momentum—insert your favorite fat joke here ;)—I was never able to break out of it. Granted, I am totally happy with things now, but what if I’d gotten into my field and hated it? All that work would be for naught, and at 22, I would have been starting over in school. Sure, that wouldn’t have fazed me much, but what about the very kinds of at-risk kids that the program in Jersey is trying to reach? Those kids don’t have the resources to change horses mid-stream.

High school kids are not equipped to choose a career as they enter those hallowed halls.

WaPo on Dick Cheney

So The Washington Post is running a four-part series on the influence that Dick Cheney has in the Bush Administration. I’ve read the first part today, and all I have to say is this: Dick Cheney scares the shit out of me. I really hope that whoever the next VPOTUS is turns out to be as weak and inept as Dan Quayle.

Also, the more I find out about John Ashcroft now that he’s out of office, the better he looks. I still think that he went too far, but compared with some of the people in this Administration who’ve done their best to throw away American civil liberties and large parts of the Constitution, he doesn’t seem so bad.

Makes me a little sick that I voted for these clowns. Twice.

Fistfight in Alabama State Senate

I rarely have reason to TiVo anything on Alabama Public Television outside of feeding my addictions to This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop. But tonight, Capitol Journal‘s 2230 broadcast will have video of State Sen. Lowell Barron being knocked on his ass on the floor of the State Senate. That will get “Keep Until I Delete” status on my TiVo.

Too bad we can’t make this a regular reality TV show: Montgomery Punch-Out. The list of people who need to be punched in the face down there is very long—on both sides of the aisle.