Career Day

MFA graduates and self-publishing evangelists have really poisoned the well on writers talking about being writers—not that the water was ever really potable, exactly. It's a strange job to discuss with non-writers because there are certain expectations there, both good and bad, that don't apply to "IT specialist" or "salesperson." I mention this at all because I recently participated in a career day at my daughter's school and had to describe my job to middle and high school students. My talk was not particularly inspiring for a lot of reasons. It was too process-heavy: "Here's how querying works," and such, which nobody really wants to know how to do. Not even writers. People want "writer stories"—something to fit the mysterious mold shaped by the forgotten generation. In retrospect I'm not sure how I could have better organized the talk. How do you become a writer (as opposed to a typist)? You become a servant of the written word. You read all the time. You put a straw into the largest puddle of life and literature you can find, and drink until full, and then drink some more. You spend your life trying to apply to your pages what you've learned from the pages of others. That's it, I suppose, though it feels a little grandiose to spell out.

"What do you write?" is a hard question for me to answer. I write as widely as are my interests, and deeply in select areas, but there is a lot of mercenary work in between that requires very little puddle drinking, and in my more sullen moments, I want to respond, "Of the stuff that I'm proud of, or including the shit that I also have to write to pay bills?" Still, I would never submit work to editors that I am not proud of in terms of the quality of prose. (What editors do to it is something else.) The very notion of slapdash writing is abhorrent to me, and I am perplexed by the endless army of writers who leap from bed every morning eager to grind out disposable "content"—there's no greater profanity—or write 20-lists punctuated by animated cat GIFs. This massive Internet organism chasing down clicks. The reason the Buzzfeeds and Fusions of the world have pivoted so effortlessly to video is because they never gave a damn about prose in the first place. (Buzzfeed's longform section excluded.)

I've never understood people content with just doing a job. There has to be some grand purpose and wild, far-off ambition, and when one looks back on his or her life, it has to have been about more than money. I've never not wanted to sink my hands into the planet's soil and pull madly until it spins a little faster. That is a big part of the reason that I think I get the people who work in the space industry, from janitor to scientists. A couple of years ago, there was a piece in the Washington Post about the men and women who built the A-3 test stand for NASA's Constellation rocket. (I've written about test stands here.) Welders and machinists and such—blue collar workers of the sort who built America and keep her going—and they were just in doleful disbelief that Constellation was canceled and their work discarded. They built the test stand that would take humanity to Mars! If you are a welder, is there a greater possible achievement? (Is there a greater achievement for any trade?) And they did it. And the White House shut it all down and built fences around the test stand and locked the whole thing up. The SLS, which replaced Constellation's rocket system, is incompatible with it. My heart breaks for these people. When I toured NASA Stennis, the test stand's only acknowledgement as we passed by, in fact, came from another passenger on the bus: "Poor A-3." On we drove.

Surprisingly often, when I interview people in the space program, they apologize for sounding too lofty. There is no need for such apologies. If your job is the exploration of the Jupiter system, and your goal is to unlock the mystery of life itself, you are entitled to a little loftiness, because there is no loftier calling. My own far-off ambition is simply too great to put publicly in print, but my higher purpose is the American literary tradition. To write something worthy of being included, and maybe being remembered—something to justify the privilege of having written it in the first place. Most writers have some goal. The big scoop, the definitive take, the scandal revealed, the injustice righted. Those things matter to me, but nothing matters more to me than the words themselves, and their employment and poetry in telling the story. Batman can bring justice to the world, but can he do so in well-ordered paragraphs? I probably should have talked about all this during my presentation.

** The classroom scene in City Slickers is to me the definitive representation of career day, and though I didn't collapse entirely into a midlife crisis during my talk, it did occur to me how close I now am in age to Billy Crystal in that film. He seemed impossibly old when I first saw it in grade school, and here I am. If I am totally honest, I could probably use a cattle drive to sort out things in my head.

Neal Gabler and the Hungry Writer

This month, Neal Gabler has a piece in The Atlantic wherein he discusses the perilous financial state of Americans and describes openly "his secret shame"—his personal financial woes. It's one of the more unnerving things I've read this year, if only because Gabler's biography of Walt Disney sits on my nightstand (it's a masterpiece) and as a writer, I just assume that if you can produce something like that, you can do anything, and you do so from your other apartment—the one in Montparnasse that you bought because you liked the tree out front. Gabler is a consummate writer, skilled with the pen and willing to do the hard work of research to make his journalism sing. When I think of the challenges that must come with researching Walt Disney's life, I lapse into silent awe that it's even possible. Such research involves more than the basics, or even the extraordinary. Rather, it involves a lone scribe doing battle with the most powerful media company in human history. Walt Disney isn't just a man, but a brand and an American ideal akin to Washington or Lincoln. (Disney himself recognized this, and it could be a source of anxiety and exhaustion for him.) The Walt Disney Company, which I admire greatly, has a vested interest in keeping its namesake a secular saint. I imagine that the company did not exactly meet Gabler with open arms, and yet Gabler successfully unveils Disney the man, great and good in the best ways—Walt Disney was a truly good man—but also flawed, complex, moody and sometimes selfish, searing and tyrannical.

Maybe the aura of Disney extended, as I read the biography, around Gabler, just as we see the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty and cannot help but apply that same sense of intrinsic wonder to Gustave Eiffel. Of course Gabler is a colossus! Of course he's flush, his only concern being the business end of a word processor. But we now know better. It's not like this isn't without precedent. Nobody thinks of Hemingway in Paris and recalls that he starved while there, pennies to his name, but that was the Paris he knew.

Gabler's piece has been like a wrecking ball coursing across my brain for weeks now. While I will not reveal my personal finances (unlike Gabler, who puts it all out there in heroic detail), I will submit that I'm doing OK. I write a lot—approximately 1,000 publishable words a day for a half-dozen outlets, not counting my book work, commonplace writing, or correspondence—despite my living in the middle of nowhere (a place, it must be said, where the cost of living is low, taking my income even further). Still, I worry constantly about money because my daughter attends private school and I expect of myself to be able to provide her a first-rate education now through the end of her college career. (There is a 1% and concomitant "social network," and my goal in life is to enable her to be a part of it.) Moreover, like many, I live with an acute, chronic case of imposter syndrome, ever in expectation that my house of cards will collapse and I'll have to figure out how to begin again. I want to die in front of Microsoft Word (in 40 years or so); I never want to go back to the myriad jobs I held previously (however tempting it might be to don a Starbucks apron and tell some of my younger, inexperienced editors to fuck off).

Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield has spoken eloquently about such fears, using the example of being chased by a bear. When you are being chased by a bear, he says, you're not worried about being chased; you're worried about being caught. When the bear catches you, you're not worried about being caught; you're worried about being eaten. When the bear starts eating you, you're not worried about being eaten; you're worried about being killed.

And so when I read that Gabler would have trouble coming up with $400 in cash if asked, I wonder what my own future holds. I am not a financial wizard. I'm barely a financial street magician. Certainly, I am talented and have had extraordinarily good fortune, but what about next year? This is a high stakes business whose fortunes are ever in flux. Melville died penniless, and he's the greatest author to ever live. How fast is the bear running? Will it catch me, and what happens then?

On Jury Duty

In terms of timing, this week was as good as any for jury duty. I've been attempting Will Bowen's challenge detailed in A Complaint Free World (excellent book), and so I've tried not to complain about being called. I've largely failed in this task, though the actual experience of serving on a jury was interesting and awkward and something just shy of rewarding. I was summoned to the 19th Judicial District Court in downtown Baton Rouge on Monday and did so. The initial "jury room" is more like a jury auditorium, and was filled with what seemed like hundreds of prospective jurors. That in itself amazed me, as there is no way for the court to track who did and did not receive a summons. You don't have to sign for it; it just appears in the mail like a spider. I was momentarily tempted to just toss it and take my chances, but in the end, the fear of getting pulled over for speeding and then getting hauled away in cuffs for an outstanding bench warrant seemed too high a risk to take. If I'm going to get arrested in this town I want it to be for something interesting. (I kid! I want it to be for something boring that I'm immediately acquitted of.)

Nobody in the jury auditorium was in good spirits. It was like a giant waiting room at the DMV, and the whole process seems like punishment for being on the voter rolls. (That's the list from which names are drawn, apparently.) It seemed to be a representative sample of the city with respect to race, gender, and age, which was encouraging. At the start of the day, one of the court's judges entered the room and acted as a sort of master of ceremonies. He was quite skilled as an entertainer and he did liven spirits a bit. (I didn't get his name—my spirits weren't that livened.)

After his little opening standup act, the jury administrators got down to business, asking everyone with a legitimate excuse for missing jury duty to line up around the auditorium. It was a blockbuster crowd, each person in possession of reasons to be anywhere but there. I had no such excuse and did not line up. Also, even if I did have an excuse, I feared that I'd just be rescheduled for summer or some busy time of the year. Like I wrote above, this was as good a week as it was going to get.

The next five hours involved waiting. Projection screens were lowered and we were all treated to a movie starring Kevin Bacon, in which he plays a Marine Corps officer charged with bringing home the casket of a fallen fellow Marine for burial. I didn't get the movie's name. The 30 minutes or so that I saw were surprisingly moving and compelling. Actually, I think it was the best performance I've ever seen Kevin Bacon give. But there was an adjacent quiet room, so I absconded there in hopes of getting work done, which I couldn't because there was no Internet access, and my cell phone couldn't get a signal through the stealth bomber material from which they apparently built the courthouse. So I read a book I had brought. (Moby-Dick, for the nth time. If you haven't read it, it is not the book you are expecting! Read it!)

At 1:30, if I recall correctly, my name was called and I reported to Judge William Morvant's courtroom on the eighth floor of the building.

Some thoughts:

Judge Morvant and his bailiff are an enormously charismatic duo and have a lovely repartee. He strikes me as a judge from central casting. Aged but not old, balding with graying hair—a very distinguished look—and he spoke carefully but also thoughtfully. He has the soft hint of a "river" accent suggestive of the where my mother grew up.

Note to television producers: If you need a new courtroom celebrity, this is your guy.

Approximately 30 prospective jurors were seated, and 12 at a time were brought to the jury box and were interviewed by the judge and the two lawyers. Tell us about yourself kinds of questions: name, marital status, job, and whether we had served on a jury before. I had not. Then the lawyers interviewed the jurors to weed out the ones who might work against them. "How do you feel about personal injury lawyers?" was one question asked that tipped immediately the case to come. Later, "How do you feel about insurance companies?" by the defendant's counsel, if I recall. They asked also whether any of us had pending litigation, and if we'd ever been in car accidents, and so on. Everyone eventually chosen agreed that we could be fair and impartial.

This questioning lasted a couple of hours, and I was chosen despite my questioning the concept of "sympathy," which you're not allowed to have but what I consider to be a challenging sort of rule because as human beings we make instant and enduring value decisions about everything and everyone. See this commercial:


So anyway I asked about this and the judge explained it quite well I think—something to the effect of not using a verdict as an opportunity for revenge—"We'll send a message!" or "He seems like a nice guy. Forget the evidence; he's OK to me." I may have misunderstood all of this, but it's what I took away from it. I remain convinced that lawyers are in the sympathy business and this is rule requires enormous hair-splitting when it applies to personal injury cases where there's no visible injury (e.g., a severed leg).

This was a civil case. The plaintiff was suing for medical bills and emotional distress resulting from a car accident—you get the picture based on the "feelings about personal injury lawyers" questions above. I don't want to go into much detail about the case, not because they aren't intriguing, but because I'm not really interested in relitigating it here, and because the deed is done and there's no reason for me to pile on.

I will say this, though: the defense lawyer was a genius. It's been a really long day, I'm quite tired, and I can't recall her name, but it will come to me in due course and I'll update it in the morning. [UPDATE: Valerie Bargas. If she's your opposing counsel, settle. Actually, run. Drop your case and just apologize for... everything.] She was a shark. She dismembered pretty much every witness called by the plaintiff, seemingly effortlessly, and then proceeded to remove the still-warm organs from the carcasses left behind. The plaintiff's counsel seemed to have an aw-shucks, kind-eyed "I hate to even do this to the poor defendant" pose, and it was effective at times, but overall, when Bargas spoke, it was with surgical precision—surgery performed with a steak knife, mind you—and was so compelling that you couldn't help but wonder what she'd do next.

"You're claiming losing 'joy of life.' Interesting. So we looked at your Facebook profile and..."

Again, you get the idea.

So the proceedings more or less lasted for two days, and on the third day we deliberated.

Not long after entering the deliberation room, it became Thunderdome. The comity of the previous two days vanished almost immediately when the requisite number of nine jurors discussed their opinion of the evidence and agreed right away that the injury claimed by the plaintiff was pre-existing, and that he was not entitled to $875,000 he claimed necessary to make him whole again. He was basically asking us to hand him a winning lottery ticket by ruining another man's life. That and the evidence of his previous injuries meant he didn't meet the "preponderance of the evidence" standard we were ordered by the judge to weigh.

The vote was 9-3—repeatedly taken just to be sure that nobody wished to change his or her mind—and one of the three was then infuriated at our decision that the plaintiff's injuries were preexisting, and thus the defendant was not at fault. (This was the plaintiff's third lawsuit against someone with whom he had been in a car accident, and each time he sought medical treatment, he only did so on recommendation from his lawyer, and only with doctors the law-firm preferred. I mean come on.)

There was shouting in the jury room! "I HAVE INJURIES AND MAYBE HE DOES TOO!" Incoherent shouting and tears! "I'M IN PAIN RIGHT NOW BUT I JUST TRY TO BE NICE TO ALL OF YOU!" It was a bit childish, but more like a really bad attempt at manipulation. She wrote a note to the judge, though insisted that nobody read it, so I do not know its exact contents, and nothing really came of it. Another juror shouted back something, and there was a back and forth, and the matter was already settled anyway so we just pressed on with the paperwork and alerted the bailiff. Meanwhile she (i.e. the upset juror) demanded to see the medical records (her right), but the records then provided were literally thousands of pages long, and even if someone wanted to read them, we're not doctors and no matter how hard we studied the MRIs somewhere in that paper mountain, nobody was going to point thoughtfully at it and say, "Hey guys I just noticed something. Check out the thickened ligamentium flavum here—I—I have a better diagnosis!" This isn't House. With respect to medical details, we relied on the expert testimony of physicians for the plaintiff and the defense. That's why they were there, after all. I'll add also—maybe I will re-litigate this after all—if you have a problem about which your doctor says, "I can fix this, but it'll take 10 years and half a million dollars," find a better doctor.

Not on our jury.

But the shouting. So what made it so much worse was that after the jury room went weird with this hysterical clownish shouting at the injustice of it all (even though justice was being served per the law after honest discussion by all jurors), it was lunch time and we had to sit in the jury room for an hour in awkward silence (the angry dissenter mumbling endlessly about everyone else, as she perused the medical records, not really reading, but really wanting all of us to know that she was reading—she never did produce some new evidence or even then try to persuade anyone) and eat our little salads and burgers.

What did I take away from this. First, I hope I'm never again in a car accident, because I'm one litigious party and a one bad jury away from losing everything I own and then some. $875,000 is total financial ruin. After the woman lost her mind, a collective "southern mentality" kicked in, and everybody wanted her to know that, no, we really do think you're a nice person (she said nobody liked her, which we did, an hour earlier) and that no please, tell us again everything you just shouted fifteen times. I began to worry that people would just start to agree with her simply to make her feel better, which really would have been a miscarriage of justice. (Again: let's ruin this guy's life because an unhinged person didn't take her lithium this morning.) If we wrongly went down the injury road simply to console this person, I cannot imagine how many weeks we would have been in there debating over how much "Loss of Joy" money the guy was now entitled. ("FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS? I'M IN PAIN! YOU CANNOT PUT A PRICE ON MY PAIN! But it's closer to three hundred thousand.")

Second, the jury experience is not horrible, but not something I'd like to repeat. How I feel for the jurors on six-week murder trials! (To be clear: everyone on the jury had a chance to speak their feelings and thoughts without interruption. It was all carefully considered, but the defense just had a much stronger case.) Third, at least in the case of Judge Morvant, the courts really seem to be run by men and women who care about justice and who want the system to work, and want us to leave believing that. And I think we did. But I don't think it always work, and I think that personal injury lawyers are very good at their jobs, which gives me pause when I consider how predatory some of them have reputations for being. The good news is that I can't be called for jury duty for the next two years. And I have the name of a good lawyer if some guy tries to sue me over a minor accident.

A Few Happenings in the Cosmos

While covering the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas last month, I wrote several pieces on various happenings and findings in and about our solar system. Here are a few snippets of pieces that resulted, published by mental_floss. (And let me just add that if you've never had to explain nuclear spectroscopy for a general readership, you just haven't lived yet.) Every Inch of Ceres Is Now Mapped—and Yet Mysteries Remain

Dawn is loaded with delicate instruments to help decipher the dwarf planet's secrets. The Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) maps elements on the asteroid so that scientists can make sense of the surface and processes at work. The instrument works like this. Galactic cosmic rays smack into the regolith (the loose surface layer; on Earth, think: dirt), and interactions with the surface lead to emissions of neutrons and gamma rays. GRaND detects these emissions as they bounce into space. Neutrons at different energy levels correspond to different surface elements.

During the regolith interaction, when the cosmic rays hit the nucleus of an atom, the nucleus explodes, sending neutrons and protons in all directions. Some neutrons escape the regolith, some smash into other nuclei. Here's where it gets interesting. If a neutron hits the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, it loses energy in the interaction, similar to the way a cue ball stops when it hits another ball in a game of pool. When GRaND is counting neutrons, therefore, lower numbers suggest more hydrogen.

That's what is shown on the above map [not pictured in this blog snippet—dwb], which is color-coded for the presence of hydrogen. (Blue is more; red is less.) The area in blue is the north pole of Ceres, and as the map reveals, it's teeming with hydrogen, relatively speaking. This indicates the presence of water ice—H2O—near the dwarf planet’s surface. This is the first time such ice has been detected, and the finding is consistent with longstanding scientific predictions. Planetary scientists will continue analyzing the data collected by GRaND and other instruments in order to better understand the origin and evolution of Ceres.

5 Space Missions Under NASA Consideration

You have to admire the effort it took to build the acronym VERITAS, which is short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy. VERITAS is a proposed mission to visit Venus and figure out where things went so wrong. Above the clouds, Venus is far more hospitable to humans than Mars. Its temperature and weather aren't all that different from Earth, and scientists have proposed colonizing Venus with a series of airships. Below the clouds, however, Venus is a living hell. With surface temperatures near 900°F, it's hotter than Mercury, and its south pole is consumed by a rapacious, undying superstorm. The questions VERITAS intends to answer involve the state of Venus's geologic activity; its tectonic characteristics in comparison to Earth; and the evidence of past water at its surface.

[Blog note: My favorite line in the piece was cut, and I'll share it here: "Venus is the place where people in hell are afraid they'll go when the die."]

What is an Ice Volcano?

Think back to the volcano diorama you made in grade school. Little mountain, maybe trees and plastic dinosaurs (because every grade school project is improved with dinosaurs). In our model, red food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar are meant to simulate what's going on when a volcano erupts. Magma, which is molten rock and volatiles, builds up pressure until the ground gives way and it spews forth from vents in the Earth's surface.

This sometimes looks like the occasional, seemingly apocalyptic eruptions of Volcán de Colima in Mexico. Sometimes it looks like the gentle flows in the Pacific islands where you can hire a tour guide and observe lava streams as they roll along.

A cryovolcano isn't all that different. Like an Earth volcano, it results from pressure beneath a celestial surface. Rather than molten rock, however cryovolcanoes are the eruptions of molten ice, sometimes called cryomagma. Ice volcanoes can erupt violently or flow gently, just like the volcanoes on Earth. The gentle "tour guide" eruptions are believed to be like flowing slurries.

[Blog note: Bring tequila, triple sec, salt, and a bag of limes and you can throw the best rita party on Pluto.]

The Tropics of Pluto

“Pluto is a very complicated place,” said Richard Binzel, a professor at MIT and a co-investigator of the New Horizons mission. “We’ve been trying to go back to basics to see how seasons and climate might be shaping Pluto.”

Scientists have worked out the location and nature of Pluto’s tropics—a concept that might seem unlikely on a frozen planet 6 billion kilometers from the Sun. To understand what “tropics” means in this context, consider the axial tilt of the Earth, which is 23.5 degrees. The tilt is the reason that our planet experiences seasons, and over the course of a year, the Sun is directly over one of any latitude between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5 degrees south). That’s why the tropics are known for their warm weather.

For comparison, Pluto’s axial tilt is 120 degrees. This makes the range of tropical latitudes much broader than Earth's... Moreover, just as the axial tilt of the Earth gives us arctic circles with their attending stretches of dark winter or midnight Sun, Pluto's extreme tilt creates arctic circles as well—circles that reach nearly to its equator. “If Earth were tilted by same amount as Pluto, we [in Texas] would be in the arctic zone on Earth," Binzel said. A result of the overlapping arctic and tropical zones is that Pluto actually has "tropical arctic" bands.

The Plan to Send a Submarine to Titan, Saturn's Largest Moon

Here is an actual problem that scientists have tackled, not as consultants for some sure-fire science fiction blockbuster, but rather, in order to put together a very real NASA mission: How do we launch a submarine into space, send it to another world, and drop it into an extraterrestrial lake?

As it turns out, a lot of work on the problem has already been done. The traditional shape of a submarine doesn't lend itself to the classic entry shell seen previously with the Mars landers. The Titan submarine team soon realized, however, that the submarine would fit quite nicely inside the cargo bay of a scaled-down space shuttle. Better still, DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—has already built a scaled-down space shuttle, and it's flying today. It is called the X-37B—and the submarine would fit inside it.

The entry velocities for a mission to Titan would be the same as Earth orbital velocities, something the X-37B and its thermal protection can already handle. ("For [this phase of] the study, we just said, 'Sure, we could make that work,'" Lorenz explained at the forum.) Such an entry vehicle would be especially useful in that it could fly to a designated spot without dealing with the winds and consequent uncertainties that a typical parachute descent entry would have to overcome.

Next, the Titan team considered extracting the submarine from the back of the vehicle, much in the same way the U.S. Air Force pushes a MOAB from a C-130. They also looked at ditching tests conducted by NASA in the event that the space shuttle would ever have to land on water. A splashdown on Titan of their spacecraft, they found, would be quite forgiving, and if they attempted such a landing, they could simply flood the entry vehicle, let it sink, open the back, and let the submarine swim out into the sea. From there, the vehicle would conduct preliminary sea trials to discern maneuverability, and then get underway.

[Blog note: Ralph Lorenz, the project scientist on the mission study, had a magnificent quote that's elsewhere in the piece, but that I wanted to share here: "The virtue of this study is that you just need to say those words—Titan submarine—and everyone kind of gets that it's out there, it's interesting, and there's a lot of exciting potential."]

Hello #LPSC2016 Readers!

This is my second year covering the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, an annual gathering in Houston, Texas of the world's planetary scientists. Most of my coverage will appear at mental_floss, and I'll post links as they go live. I suspect if you've arrived here, it's from one of my m_f pieces. If you enjoyed that work, here are a few pieces of note that I've written about planetary science and external issues affecting the field. The Scientists Who Conquered PlutoThe Week

We know well the way astronauts think because we've studied them for so long — lionized them, rightfully, in books and movies and on television. We understand the human adventure. We understand that astronauts train hard and while in space live in pretty miserable conditions. But we also understand the glory of being an astronaut. They are humanity's ambassadors. They are exploring the final frontier. They've played golf on the moon! But what of these people — the New Horizons people, these spacecraft pilots and planetary scientists who study the outer reaches of the solar system? What can be made of them? Alice Bowman said the words, "We are outbound from Pluto." Has a more breathtaking string of words ever been uttered?

Our Golden Age of Space Exploration, The Week

The lighting of Pluto is a coming of age for humankind. It is the end of one thing — proving that we can visit any world we so choose — and the beginning of something profound: looking outward, beyond the orbits of the planets, with an eye toward active exploration. Contrary to common lamentations, NASA is not an agency flush with cash (its total budget takes up less than one half of one percent of the federal budget), and it is not an agency adrift. We are, in fact, living in a golden age of space exploration. In a five-year span, humanity will have visited the farthest planet in the solar system and set a course for the Kuiper Belt (long hypothesized, but only discovered in 1992); executed a hair-raising entry, descent, and landing of the Mars Science Laboratory; and rewritten the books on Mercury and Saturn, based on the astonishing discoveries of MESSENGER and Cassini, respectively.

When Congress Puts NASA on Hold, Planets Don't Wait, The New York Times

Two years ago, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) spacecraft, a $671 million mission to study the composition of the Martian upper atmosphere, sat at Kennedy Space Center ready to go to space, but with no one there to push the button. Congress and the Obama administration were competing to see who would blink first, but the planets weren’t waiting. If Maven didn’t lift off before the close of its launch window, the position of Mars relative to Earth would force a launch delay of 26 months. This would have had repercussions for Mars missions subsequent to Maven, as well as for scientists awaiting data for study and analysis.

NASA's Spaceship Factory, mental_floss

Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world's greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it's all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep 'em firing!

Mark Kirasich, the program manager of Orion, described the Orion team as the "craftsmen of the 21st century." In some beautiful future of humanity, this is the job where blue collar men and women punch in at 9, ply their trade, punch out, and grab beers before flying home on jetpacks. Today they build Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rockets that will take them into space. Previously, they built the 15-story external fuel tanks for the space shuttle, and the first stage of the Saturn V rockets that sent men to the Moon.


Parenthood and Checkmates

This weekend my daughter participated in her first chess tournament. More accurately, she participated in our first chess tournament, as my chess tournament experience is non-existent. The whole thing was a bit tornadic for me, my emotional winds driven primarily by pride and love and fear. I loved chess in middle school, and especially as a high school student, but the idea of participating in a chess tournament was somehow beyond my reach. I knew they existed, and where they happened, and when they happened, but my insecurities were (and are) too great, and the whole thing seemed like something other people do. This was despite my membership in U.S. Chess and enthusiastic participation in the Internet Chess Club. I desperately wanted to be a part of the chess community, but taking the leap required some inner strength or certainty that I lacked entirely.

(Playing online was no problem, though it wasn't really possible until I was in high school, when Internet service providers proliferated. I wonder about millennials, who always had the Internet [and at high speeds!]—whether a nontrivial percentage of that generation wasn't marred by growing up entirely in a secure, antiseptic online environment. The monstrous behavior of online gamers is perhaps a result of this; children playing with friends without ever leaving their bedrooms, or even meeting them face-to-face. It is play without the risk of rejection and free of consequence for words and deeds. My daughter's generation is therefore suffering a kind of overreaction to this. We're foisting our own insecurities on them—insecurities about ourselves, and about the causes of what we see as a lost generation.)

My daughter somehow discovered chess at school, and asked to join the school chess club, and the whole thing caught me off guard and I am thrilled by this turn of events, of course. I bought her a regulation chess mat and weighted pieces, and an obnoxiously pink chess bag because she likes pink, and on some level, I guess, to make some kind of political statement that she's too young to make. I fought wars on my own mat in my youth, and I hope hers lasts as long. (My chess clock wasn't so sturdy and I replaced it with a $20 job I found on Amazon.)

I've tried to remain cool about all this, but it's hard because she's surprisingly good and really seems into the game. She pesters me constantly to play, and I always do when asked. For the last couple of months, a board has remained unfurled on our kitchen island, and we sneak quick games in before school or between homework assignments. When her chess coach informed the team of a tournament, I asked him (when she was out of earshot) if she would embarrass herself by participating (I had no idea how kids her age played or how experienced they were) and he said no, that she was more than ready. I later asked her if she wanted to play, and she said "Of course!" and that was that. We were on our way.

It was held at a local middle school*. Honestly, the setup was just like you see on TV: a giant auditorium (in this case a gymnasium), tables as far as the eye can see, and thousands of chess pieces arranged neatly and ready for battle. (Her age group didn't use a clock, though she's become quite adept at managing time and would have done fine with one.) Here is how a tournament works, logistically, from the point of view of a parent. We arrived 30 minutes before the tournament began and signed in. (We had pre-registered.) She was given a name tag of the Hᴇʟʟᴏ ᴍʏ ɴᴀᴍᴇ ɪs variety. Everyone—parents and players—gathered in the gymnasium bleachers and waited for the official start. The tournament director—an enormously charismatic man with a deeply held belief of chess as a force for social change—spoke briefly, thanking the volunteers and sponsors for making the event happen. He also explained the rules of the tournament to a room of nervous young people from grades first through twelfth. Kids asked questions and he graciously answered them. (Note: I didn't get his name to my great regret; if you happen to stumble upon this page and know, please contact me.) He then explained the rules for parents. Basically, there was only one: no talking. At all. No—taking—at—all in the tournament hall. In previous years, parents weren't welcome in the playing hall, but this year was a bit of an experiment. For what it's worth, I would prefer, for sake of the players, that parents again be expelled from the room at the tournament's open. By and large, everyone remained quiet over the course of the day, but frequent trips in and out of the auditorium meant the opening and closing of doors, which sounded like cannon-fire amid the silence.

After the Q&A, kids were assigned to tables based on their ages and skill levels. My daughter was at the "K-2" table for the youngest children eligible to play. (I cannot figure out what K means, exactly. Kindergarten is the obvious guess, but the other tables were K-5 and K-10 and so on. So I have no idea.) The kids were called by group (with groups being labeled on their name tags), and where they might sit was determined by staff at the tables themselves. I couldn't hear anything going on, and could only scarcely see, so far were we from the kids. (A line on the floor became a demarkation point: no parents could cross, to prevent us from distracting our kids. This was a very smart decision, though like every parent with a smartphone, I wanted desperately to get a picture of a games in progress.

An exterior room was set up for parents to play games of our own, or eat or read or work or whatever. We were all encouraged to leave. I did not. I couldn't see my daughter, and on her behalf, I stood (I was too anxious to sit) and willed her to have fun and hoped that she would do well. (Before we arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and told her that even losing every game wouldn't be something to be embarrassed about. That she was young and many had been playing games much longer than her, and that our real job was to just learn what tournaments are like. When she expressed nervousness, I asked her if she knew how to play chess, and she said yes, and if she had fun playing chess, and she said yes, and said that there was nothing to be nervous about, then. She would get to spend the day playing a game that she enjoys! She seemed to like this argument, and expressed no further anxiety.)

Once the games began, I remained largely in the dark. The first game was a total mystery, as was the second. On her third game, she had moved to a different seat at the table, and while I couldn't make out the game or the position of pieces, I could see her hands and the confidence with which they moved, and knew right away that she was in command on the board. She handed some little boy his ass. Her chess coach had a better view of things, and said that it appeared she was doing very well. He pointed out that she was no longer sitting. She was on her feet and "in the zone," moving pieces decisively and, for the most part, effectively. When I saw her face and the way she leaned into the board ready to pounce—a four-foot Garry Kasparov—I could see that she was happy. She was having fun. She was having a great time playing in a chess tournament!

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, I attempted to maintain a poker face and hide any anxiety I might be feeling. I'm not sure what I was nervous about, exactly, or even what my feelings really were. While I tried to work through this, I felt immense pride at how effortlessly she settled into the tournament. The games were played in a round-robin format, and she played 6 games in addition to others for fun while waiting for the next game to begin. She seemed to be in her element. Two and half hours of chess concentration is an exhausting business. I was moved by how smart she is, how old she's getting, and how few years remain before she goes off to make a mark on the world. In a way, the tournament was like a little glimpse of the future. Parents couldn't go anywhere near the players, and that was fine, because they didn't need us! That was a hard reality to consider: adulthood, and her leaving the nest.

In many ways my daughter and I are alike, but she differs from me in one big way: she can fit in with any group of people. She knows how to say hello and get invited to do what they are doing. It's a beautiful thing to see.

At last the tournament ended, and she met me for lunch. (We brown bagged it, though there was jambalaya for sale from the gym snack bar.) She told me about the games she played, and that she had fun, and that she won some and lost some. She was in great spirits, though a bit fatigued from the play. We ate—I even grabbed her a box of Girl Scout cookies that we're selling. After lunch and before the awards ceremony where we would get the results, the tournament had set up a craft station for the young players, and they were able to decorate little paper crowns with jewels and such. She enjoyed that as well.

Parents packed the ceremony. When the director got to her section, I stopped breathing, I think. Then they called her name. She had earned Third Place, which came with a lovely trophy topped by a knight. I was over the moon. She was thrilled, too, but not entirely. After pictures were taken of all the winners (she was one of the only girls to place in the tournament), she told me what was bothering her. She had seen a beautiful marble buried in the dirt along a sidewalk, and wanted desperately to get to that buried marble before someone else dug it up. To the marble we went. We used a twig to excavate it, and when she finally had her trophy and marble, she beamed. She has greater perspective on the "importance" of these things than I can ever hope to have. And she's still my seven-year-old, with a few years left before she's off to college. We celebrated with ice cream.

Amelia with chess trophy and marble

(*About this middle school. It was Scotlandville Magnet Middle School, and was very clean and nice—the kind of school any parent would be thrilled to find when moving to a new area. [We are not changing schools; we're all-in for Baton Rouge International School through 12th grade. As a taxpayer, however, the quality of schools in the area matter to me more, perhaps, than they should. When I see terrible schools, I want to know why, and why my money and those children's time—present and future!—are being squandered by mediocre adults.] The classrooms impressed me most. Lessons were still on the boards of a couple of the rooms, and the things kids are learning today, at least at this particular school, are extraordinary. Video game development—I don't know the details but would be curious to learn—, and serious science and engineering topics that escape me but are far beyond what we learned when I was in middle school. The granularity of the topics under discussion blew me away. I'm assuming a lot, but the way the notes were organized and written on the board suggested that the topics weren't passing references in a simplified lesson, but rather, were actually the lessons themselves. It was inspiring. I only had an available sample of three classrooms to gather this information, but it seems unlikely that I encountered three outliers in a row. Based only on what I saw, this school is the real deal.)

Scenes from a Coffee Shop

Most of my work is done from coffee shops. This blog post is being written from a local CC's, which is a Louisiana coffee chain. (I live in Louisiana.) As a rule, I rotate the places from which I work. There are three Starbucks and four CC's reasonably close to my house. There's no real method in choosing where I work on a given day, but morning-time traffic is often a consideration, and the simple need for a change of scenery (staring out the window at Airline Highway traffic versus staring out the window at Perkins Road traffic). I have an office at home, and I do a lot of work there, too, but this business can get pretty lonely, especially when you're deep into a project and despairing over the impossibility of it all. It helps to have people around, even though my actual interaction with other people is limited to "I'd like a grande medium roast." I've mentioned previously my love for the Relax Melodies app, which allows you to choose from a variety of sounds, mixing together up to 12 in order to create the most soothing white noise possible. (Presently I have Rain, Winds, Thunder, Train, Wind Chimes, Storm, Wind Surge, Heavy Rain, Rainstorm (do you see a pattern here?), Thunderstorm, City Ambiance, and Crowd playing. If this were actually a storm, I'd likely be swept to Oz.) This is my default mix, though I add various sounds depending on how loud neighboring tables are. I look for a sound effect that matches his (it's always a man) voice, thus canceling it out.

I'm always curious about the people around me, though I never ask them why they're not at work doing an actual job. To the best of my knowledge, none of them are writers. (I'm not sure I've ever seen another professional scribe in the wilds of the town.)

Some are easy to identify: business types—consultants or salespeople—usually use an iPad with some sort of leather case that also holds a large notepad. Occasionally, salespeople actually meet clients, and those are the worst because the whole thing is so phony. (That is to say, it's usually some sort of pyramid scheme at work. Actual salespeople with million dollar contracts at stake, I suspect, meet in their offices downtown, and take prospective clients to an expensive lunch.) Students are frequently to be found. They're the ones wearing hoodies and using high-end Macbooks they shouldn't be able to afford. They drink trenta-sized fraps (or Mochassippis, as they're called at CC's).

Occasionally, I see groups of really old men gather. They usually sit in the leather chairs, and are very loud but generally in high spirits. They discuss politics, but distantly. They've seen it all and are in agreement about which candidates are good and which are not. Debates never ensue. Whatever their party is, they don't seem particularly loyal.

Occasionally, two people who are friends with each other might meet for a quick cup. They are usually women, and they tend to be in their late 40's or early 50's. I almost never see couples (in the romantic sense) who meet to just have coffee. I suspect the reason for this is that drinks everywhere are now served in paper cups, which basically scream, "Take this and please leave." There's nothing relaxing about it. (Because I have no intention of leaving, they don't really bother me, though I'd kill for coffee served in a proper cup and saucer.)

When I'm not wearing headphones, the conversations I overhear are almost always the same. Friends who meet almost always discuss family problems: recent deaths, aging parents, children adrift—that sort of thing. There are occasional religious discussions. (When there are, that's usually the whole purpose of this visit.) They swap Bible website addresses and talk about what the Lord says about forgiveness. (Forgiveness is invariably the topic of discussion.) One or both bring those Bibles with the zipper on the side. It's serious business, the religious meetings.

After almost 10 years of this, I've only overheard one fight, ever, and it was between two middle aged sisters over money. Not even big money—inheritance-level money—but over a 100 dollars or something. They didn't seem impoverished or anything where 100 would change someone's life. Between the two of them, they probably had 25 dollars worth of specialty drinks and bakery items. I guess it was a principle thing, but the discussion got out of hand, and in the end one of them left in a huff and that was it. Starbucks got boring again.

I never order the pastries at Starbucks. Baked goods are my weakness. Bread, croissants, muffins, cookies, cakes—I'll eat any and all of them. But when Starbucks foisted their La Boulange atrocities on the world, baristas, still learning the ropes, tended to open the plastic wraps (think: Twinkie wrappers) in front of customers, and then microwave the pastries before serving them in a paper bag soon sodden with grease. In the worst way possible, this destroyed the illusion of an actual bakery somewhere in the back. If I wanted a microwaved Little Debbie, I could go to Dollar Tree and buy a box of six for a buck. Anyway, Starbucks baked goods have always bothered me because of their uniformity of appearance. If ever you've baked anything, you know what I mean. You bake a tray of muffins, and some are bigger than others. Some are smoother on the surface, and some come bursting forth as shown on the cookbook photo (or the picture on the box). There's a certain inevitable variety in the results. But Starbucks pastries all look precisely identical, as though they were 3D printed, frozen, and shipped to shops across the country. It's unnatural and kind of disgusting.

(Likewise, I never order the specialty drinks, though my reason involves the high calorie counts. I can't imagine drinking more calories than I would burn in a five-mile run. The drinks themselves are delicious and wholly appealing, however.)

The only people who really bother me at coffee shops are the ones who come alone and spend an hour talking on their cell phones. The human brain evolved, I guess, to filter out (when necessary) two people carrying on a conversation. One person on a cell phone though, and it's triply distracting because 1. He or she speaks louder than two people having a normal discussion; 2. Anyone with such a gross lack of self-awareness is also likely to be overly animated, and emote and use theatrical hand gestures; 3. The human brain goes crazy wondering what in the hell is going on with the loud half-conversation. The brain hears a person posing and answering questions and wonders instinctively, "Am I the one who should be answering this person?" Or maybe it's a matter of evolution-driven self-preservation: the caveman who talked loudly to himself was the one likely to bash you over the head with a club. Be wary.

(Of course Larry David addressed this very problem on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

I have no idea what people think of me. "When will this guy get a job?" or "Why is he always here?" or "What is he typing?" I don't know. Maybe they think I'm a non-traditional (read: old) student. It doesn't really matter, and by rotating coffee shops just often enough, nobody ever gets the chance to ask.

Beginners Are Not Welcome Here

Last year, my daughter got a betta fish. Let me back up for a moment. Twenty years ago, I got a betta fish. It came in a vase, maybe eight inches tall and five inches at the roundest, with a narrow mouth at the top. The vase was filled with water. Some sort of plant plugged the mouth of the vase, and its roots derived their nutrients from the fish who lived down below, and the fish ate the plant's roots. It was basically a little ecosystem. Every couple of months, I would replace the water, and in the meantime the fish would hide in the plant's roots, and swim around, and do pretty much what you expect a fish to do, which is not much, and the fish and the plant lived in harmony for about two years, which is pretty good for a little fish. The fish died and then the plant died, and that was that.

So last year my daughter got a betta fish. We bought it from PetCo. It came in a clear plastic container the size of a butter dish. I looked up online what food would be best for the fish, because there are about six thousand fish foods at PetCo, and my previous betta experience involved a plant.

I soon had my eyes opened to an extremely depressing, and I would suggest, new part of American life. There are, apparently, some serious betta fish enthusiasts out there, and they all have very strong opinions about how to care for a betta. (That's not the depressing part. I'm totally OK with people being interested in whatever.) On more than one betta discussion board (there is more than one betta discussion board), some would-be fish owner would ask for advice for buying a fish, and the response would be so heated that even Jonathan Edwards would step back and say, "Whoa, fellas, let's take it down a bit." Make sure you get a certain kind of water pump that doesn't disturb the water, because bettas are sensitive to noise. (There are stern warnings to affix some sort of sponge to the filter as a makeshift noise dampener.) Aquarium sizes—my god the aquarium sizes. Forget the betta tanks you buy off the shelf at pet stores—you need serious water volume for the fish. At least 2.5 gallons—or maybe 5 gallons! (For a single fish!) Then there are the plants, and decorations, and a certain kind of rock where special vacuums to clean the bottom can do the best job, and a heater—don't forget the heater, you monster!

Now I'm not saying that betta fish today are softer than when I was young, but based on my Internet research, there is no way these fish are presently able to survive in the wild.

I get that we want to be humane to our pets, and I agree that we should do whatever is reasonably possible to make their lives worth living. But the Internet breeds enthusiasts and experts each trying to out-enthuse the other, and what you end up with are beginners turned off of the whole process. I felt bad for the poor beginners wanting to know which betta tank is best—there is no "best betta tank." You can get the 30 gallon shark tank or you can get the hell out of here.

There have always been judgmental know-it-alls in all areas of life, but rarely have they been so angry at the prospect of someone new entering their little kingdom, and so angry that someone might enter their kingdom with insufficient zeal. You like Parcheesi? Well unless you're prepared to study for grandmaster-level Parcheesi play, beat it loser. We got no time for fun around here.

(For the record, we opted for the 1.5 gallon tank with the photograph of a betta on the box. Whatever pump it came with is what we use. I sprung for the heater because it was cheap, and because nobody wants to be cold all of the time.)

For a while, I thought it was just the fish community that had lost its collective mind. Last month, though, my daughter and I decided to get a bat box for the backyard. I had never heard of such a thing; we learned about them at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Basically, a bat box is about the size of a pizza box with a slot on the bottom for bats to get inside. The box is a little shelter for them, and once they get in there, they know what to do. They're bats. They're dry. They're happy. Apparently they eat lots of mosquitoes, and everyone wins.

So our project, in theory, looked something like this: 1. Get a bat house; 2. Paint it; 3. Hang it on the back fence. Like an idiot, though, I googled "bat box" and was once again sucked into the world of angry enthusiasts. (Bat enthusiasts, specifically.) The general format of online discussion followed the betta fish one almost to the letter. On some discussion forum, someone would post something like, "I'd like to get a bat house. I saw one at Home Depot. What do you recommend?"

The responses: "Are you kidding? Home Depot? You're wasting your time. Your best bet is to build your own. Here is a 375-step instructional website with blueprints and directions for how to run electricity to your bat house so that they can have a tiny television set to watch during the day. You'll need an extra iPhone. My bat house has about 500 bats in it, and..." And so on.

I can't imagine that anyone would read this and say, "Oh, well I'll whip out my bandsaw and get to work." Rather, he or she will read it and say, "Well, I guess my bats are going to be homeless."

Ultimately, we bought a $25 bat box at Ace Hardware. We painted it and hung it on the fence. Maybe bats will move in. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll opt for some Bat McMansion down the street. I don't know what will happen. (Apparently it could take up to two years for bats to find and move into the house.) What I do know is that my daughter and me got a cool experience out of the deal, and that we have a bat house. Maybe it's subpar. Maybe it's a bat shanty. But if a bat moves in, that would be pretty cool. And if not, we're out $25 dollars and a couple of hours. I can tell you with certainty that if I had to build a bat house ("It's easy! All you need is—") it never would have happened, because I am a normal human being.

I wouldn't have mentioned any of this except that I ran across it again today while reading about fitness. I love running, and do five miles a day, six days a week. The run plus warmup, and just pulling my running gear on, takes about an hour total, start to finish. (I've been neglecting my long runs because it's basically become impossible to cordon off three solid hours of my day for anything that doesn't have a paycheck at the end.) Even for five-milers, because my schedule is a little weird lately, and because it's freezing in the mornings, it's become really difficult to get a good run mid-day without spending the day fretting over it, and trying to figure out when and how I'll do it. So I have a membership to Planet Fitness, and until things settle, I figured that on hectic days, I'd just plan to go very early in the morning and do the stationary bike or treadmill.

On a whim, I decided to look into the little "30 minute fitness circuit" they have in the back of the gym. I thought I could throw that in alongside my cardio. I wonder what people think of it? I stupidly wondered. So I went to google, and that was that. Same format as the betta fish and bat box. Multiple someones posted in various places a question to the effect of:

"I'm a beginner. What do you think about the 30-minute circuit at Planet Fitness?"

And the responses are all the same: "It's garbage! You'd be wasting your time. What you need to do is plan a MWF workout working alternate groups. So on Mondays you're going to start with single leg hamstring curls and dumbbell neutral grip bench presses..." and you know the rest. These enormously overwhelming and confusing exercise plans that no normal human being will ever do, because no normal human being wants to pick up a car (or house 500 bats, or have an ocean-like aquarium for a single fish). Why not let the beginner just be a beginner? Hey guy, go to Planet Fitness and do your 30 minute circuit, and eat right. When you're ready, branch out.

The thing is: I know that these experts and enthusiasts know their advice will go unheeded. It's never about helping the beginner. It's about feeling superior in your godliness at that one tiny thing in the world you are great at. What I don't understand (aside from the anger) is how someone could love a hobby so jealously that they sabotage the efforts of others. Our wired world has made loners of all of us. We don't know the names of our neighbors, and don't want to know. It seems like common interests would be a great way to bring people together in the real world. "You want to get a fish? That's awesome!" Instead, somehow the Internet has made doing anything new a little lonelier and a lot scarier. "You want to get a fish? You're not ready."

[Image credit: h080]

NASA's Spaceship Factory

Last week I visited NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to view the newly-built Orion pressure vessel. I found the whole thing to be a deeply moving experience, and a glimpse of the kind of future we all want desperately for our grandchildren, and for the human species. I am very proud of this essay that came out of the event. It's published at Mental Floss, and I hope it finds a good audience. A little sample:

Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world's greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it's all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep 'em firing!

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Walt Disney and Parenthood

If Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination were about anyone else, it probably wouldn't have been as fascinating a read as it was. (If it were about anyone else, it would also have a pretty misleading title.) But Disney is such a compelling person, his story so unlikely and extraordinary and American that every little morsel of information about him somehow becomes hyper-interesting. In the end, of course, one feels like the reporter trying to figure out Charles Foster Kane: it's impossible, and the more you learn about Disney, the more enigmatic he becomes. On that point, I greatly admire his serious biographers for the sheer will that must be necessary to peel back the steel layers of "Uncle Walt" forged by the Walt Disney Company, and tease out a fallible human being inside. That can't be easy, and it can't be fun. (On that point, an aside: Of late, Apple seems eager to borrow the Disney mold, and shamelessly rewrite Steve Jobs into a kind of sagacious, enlightened Uncle Steve. The most visible, laughable example I can think of involves the covers of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography: Before and after. Meanwhile, poor Isaacson has been pilloried for what is very likely an accurate depiction of Jobs—one that's consistent with every other pre-cancer biography out there. Jobs was a horrible man who happened also to be a visionary. He could be monstrous to those under his employ, and was profoundly selfish with his personal fortune. He wasn't Yoda, and he sure as hell wasn't Walt Disney, who was a genuinely good person. That doesn't mean Jobs wasn't a great businessman or genius, but let's not pretend he was anything other than what he was: a powerful, miserly asshole.)

I think a lot about Walt Disney and how he might fare today. Lately, I think about what his childhood would be like in 2016. Disney wasn't a great student, and dropped out of high school in order to join the Navy during World War I. (The Navy turned him away because he was 16, and so he lied about his age and managed to get into the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He would eventually drive ambulances in France.) Today, I suspect that Disney would have been given a prescription for Concerta at a young age, and would have gone on to earn an MFA in studio art. I doubt he would have forged his birthday to go to Afghanistan. He would have listened to his father, and I believe he would have gone on to be the best foreman at the O-Zell jelly factory.

It raises the question of how important were the wrinkles in Walt Disney's character. Had Elias succeeded in ironing them out, would Walt have conformed thoroughly? Or beneath the surface of any young person, is there something more durable than that, and consequently, is it a parent's job simply to get out of the way? (This makes psychoactive drugs an even more terrifying enterprise: if I make some catastrophic parenting decision, I might create a problem but I won't likely rewrite my child's makeup. But medicine acts at a chemical level—it is changing someone's brain, and by design. So which are the defects and which are the blessings in disguise? Choose wisely and good luck!)

Elias wasn't exactly Ward Cleaver, and he certainly wasn't trying to create Walt Disney the Entertainment Colossus. So is it all dumb luck, genes, and disposition? As a parent, I wonder which is the more unsettling prospect: that I'm invaluable, or that I'm irrelevant? Am I one bad decision away from quashing the next Walt Disney, or was the die cast at childbirth? Alternatively, is it going to come down to how the wheels align, and either they do or they don't?

After 100,000 years, how has our species not yet determined the proper and foolproof rearing of children? How have we not at least answered the big questions? (E.g.: If you do this your child will become a drug addict.) Parenting on some level is an almost laughable endeavor—"After 100,000 years, I've figured it out." As a father, I operate under the assumption that I should give my daughter enough guidance for her to find her own path, and that I should help correct her worse impulses, but not all of them, because some friction with society is essential if she's going to move ahead. A strong work ethic is imperative, and instilling that ethic is fraught with peril.

Here I would consider such childhood hardships as Walt Disney was forced by his father to endure: the newspaper route, most notably and notoriously, foisted upon an 8-year-old in the sub-zero Missouri winter. It haunted Disney through adulthood—but you can't argue with the results. I couldn't intentionally traumatize my child even knowing it would lead her to greatness. Is that a moral failure? Sacrificing immortality, essentially, for her joy today? Again, this is something to which I'll never know the answer, which is a small comfort. I'll labor under the assumption that I am right, though, which has taken me this far in all other pursuits. Ultimately, the variables of personality are just so wild and plentiful that to even consider them is to stare into the abyss.

Everything You Remember About the Original Star Wars Trilogy is Wrong

Last night I re-watched Star Wars Episode I. Like everyone else on the Internet, I've been conditioned to remember the film as the worst thing ever—an abomination before God and man!—but I do recall very much enjoying it when it first hit theaters in 1999, and post-re-watch, I feel comfortable saying that it's still a fun movie. It's not The Empire Strikes Back, which I think is what everyone wanted and likely the go-to film for most Star Wars fans when they need a fix of the originals. Instead, it's its own thing, and while the acting isn't great, the direction is a hell of a lot better than George Lucas is given credit for, and the story is a solid enough foundation for the films to come. I was surprised by how well the special effects have held up. Somehow over the years, I'd come to remember the CGI characters as cartoony and ridiculous, but they really aren't. Even the Gungan/battledroid scene at the end looks great. A lot of craftsmanship went into the film.

Now, look, there are things I didn't like. (Midichlorians, primarily.) And in my own fantasy world, the prequel-era Jedi Order was entirely different than what we got. I would have much preferred them to be kind of do-gooder knights, fighting battles that they decided were worth fighting—whether or not they were asked to help. In other words, they would have joined the Clone Wars because it was being fought, and they got caught up in the frenzy, and hey, let's go kill those clones! (I'm imagining that scene in Gone with the Wind where all the Southerners run off in excitement to fight the War of Northern Aggression, or whatever.) I would have liked the Jedi to get involved in things in which they have no business. Local disputes, high crime places, wars, and so on. Sometimes government officials put them on the payroll to help (as in the Clone Wars) and sometimes government officials just kind of roll their eyes—there go the Jedi, meddling again.

In other words, I would have had them as highly militarized Jesuits or Freemasons. The Jedi would have seen themselves as the "guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy," but few others would have. Their secrecy and mysteriousness would have explained the ease of their later persecution. Palpatine comes to power and says, "Look, the galaxy is in a real bind because these Jedi people keep causing problems. We need to stop them."

I suspect this is what George Lucas originally intended in the seventies. It explains why Uncle Owen called Obi-Wan Kenobi a "crazy old wizard," and suggested that Anakin was inveigled into some "damned fool idealistic crusade." (Crusade is the key word here.) It explains why Obi-Wan lied so often. (It's just what Jedi do—they're delusional and rationalize anything that gets them into the fight.) It explains why Obi-Wan was so eager to get involved in a rebellion he otherwise had no business joining. (Leia basically wanted him to mail a file to her father. Instead, he's hiring smugglers, recruiting a team, getting into bar fights and, once he finds himself on the Death Star, running off to handle Jedi business.)

I mean, look, Uncle Owen wanted Luke to stay away from Obi-Wan because Obi-Wan might cajole Luke into fighting a hopeless war. Then Luke and Obi-Wan meet, and what's the first thing the old man does? Cajoles Luke into fighting a hopeless war! "I need your help, Luke. She needs your help!" No he didn't and no she didn't. She needed a file to be carried from point A to point B. Had Alderaan not been destroyed, the two of them (plus Han and Chewie and an invoice for 10,000 credits) would have delivered the file, and Leia's father would have said, "Great, thank you Obi-Wan. It was great seeing you again. So do you and Luke need a ride back to Tattooine, or...?"

Indeed, the whole reason Obi-Wan was recruited for the epic challenge of delivering mail was because he lived on Tattooine, and that's the planet Leia happened to be near when she was captured. Had she been captured near Naboo, she'd have sent it to Ric Ollie, who served her mother in the Clone Wars and who would have then been her "only hope."

The Jedi as delusional, meddling knights would also have explained why only Jedi carry lightsabers (it's an ancient, insanely dangerous weapon for an ancient, insanely dangerous group of people). It would have explained why Darth Vader carried a lightsaber (he was a former Jedi) and explained why Emperor Palpatine was so amused by Luke's own lightsaber and condescending about the whole thing. ("Ah yes, a Jedi's weapon." As in: very cute. You've joined the crazies, too.)

None of this would have contradicted the original trilogy. But here's the thing: if George Lucas had gone this route, the fans would have strung him from a tree. By the time Episode I went into production, the Jedi had become Magic Super Priests in popular culture. The ultimate good fighting the ultimate evil. Had Lucas undermined this by making them a crazed, stateless French Foreign Legion, he would have all but gone to war with popular (though groundless) myth. It would have been like trying to rewrite Greek mythology.

And so he was basically forced (ha ha!) to figure out how to make a group of Super Good Guys remain super good, while somehow still writing a compelling drama. It was an impossible task. Consider how he handles Obi-Wan and Yoda in the prequels. Qui-Gon Jinn should have, by every measure, been Obi-Wan Kenobi. Reckless. Heedless of the orders of the Jedi Council. Fast to do a Jedi Mind Trick. That's the Obi-Wan of the original film! But that would have made Obi-Wan a problematic character in Magic Super Priest terms. By 1999, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Christ figure! You can't have Jesus going around lying, deceiving, stealing, and pulling lightsabers at the first sign of trouble. So Lucas had to push Obi-Wan across the chessboard of his story without ever allowing Obi-Wan to make a mistake.

The same goes for Yoda. We remember Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back as a saint and an oracle, but he's neither of those things. The first thing he does when he meets Luke is lie to him and act crazy. Then he seduces Luke into joining the Jedi Order by building it up (talking to the dead!) and denying Luke access (you always want what you can't have). After suggesting to Luke that he's the only hope against Vader, the first thing Yoda says after Luke leaves is: "No, there is another." (This even suggests that Yoda had been lying to Obi-Wan!) In Return of the Jedi, Yoda's parting wisdom to Luke is... be a good person? Love your neighbor as yourself? Nope! It's "Go kill your father." Go handle old Jedi business, in other words. He even tells Luke that there is another Skywalker. As in: "Go recruit a team to do the job if you need to."

But by 1999, Yoda was a magical green Dali Lama. In the prequels, therefore, Lucas couldn't go the more natural direction of having a half-crazy goblin priest encouraging his followers to go fight the Clone Wars. Instead, he was forced to write a character who has to be totally mistaken about everything (i.e. Palpatine) without allowing him to ever actually make a mistake. Think about Yoda's dialogue. Aside from not wanting Anakin to be trained, he basically says things like "Blind we are!" and "Down a dangerous path this leads." Yoda never actually says anything helpful to anyone, and never uses a neuron of wisdom, because in either case, it would have revealed a tremendous fallibility that culture would not accept.

I actually find it offensive that the only Yoda we see today is the one swinging a lightsaber. What happened to "Great warrior? Wars not make one great." But that's because I'm as much a part of the culture as anyone. In fact, Fightin' Yoda is far more honest to the character than the Space Ghandi I remember.

It's impossible to appreciate the burden George Lucas carried into the writing room. If for no other reason, I admire the hell out of the prequel galaxy he created. It's diverse, brooding, and interesting. The Clone Wars computer animated series bears this out. Using the canvas Lucas created, the series was able to tell an rich, extraordinary story on an epic scale.

While I enjoyed Episode VII, I confess that it leaves me feeling a little empty. It's a really good film, but it takes no chances. George Lucas has long been accused of simply being in the business of selling toys, when in reality I think he's been in the business of solidifying a mythology that will be remembered forever. The toys just paid for it. By foregoing an original story, the latest Star Wars film suggests that it's borrowing carefully from a mythology for the sole purpose of—you guessed it—selling toys. The mythology will be footing the bill.

"It's too late, Peter."

"Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they're gone you can't tell where, or what the devil you did with them." (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Today I turned 37 years old, which, by my reckoning, means that this year I will cross into middle age. Everyone who is dealt a reasonably playable hand, health-wise, seems to get 75 years on Earth. (After that, you're on bonus time and shouldn't really complain much.) If my math is correct, 75 ÷ 2 = 37.5, so here I am, a few steps from the summit of life and looking down on the other side of the mountain.

This will not be a soul-bearing post in which I share the things I've learned along the way (a lot), and lament the mistakes I've made (a lot). This isn't blogging-as-therapy; I'll leave that to the Tumblr people. The truth is I don't do well on birthdays in general. They do depress me, and I do take measure of my life and see where I've fallen short, and I do compare myself with my heroes when they were my age. I think everyone does this, to some extent, so I'm not special in that regard.

If there is one good quality about me, it is that I enjoy learning new things. One of my New Years resolutions was to learn, for fun, the C# programming language, and to that end I've re-immersed myself in a phenomenal course on Udemy called "Learn To Code by Making Games," which is taught by Ben Tristem. I've very familiar with coding of course; C is my "native language" from my computer science years. I've always been fascinated by video game development and thought that alone might motivate me to finish. (I'd started the course previously, but had to step away one-third of the way into it due to my publishing workload. I've started over this go-round because I really, really want to understand the subject, both in terms of language and the techniques necessary to complete a project.

Programming is nice in that it lights up a totally different part of my brain than my job, and I can roll into my real-life writing assignments without feeling mentally drained. (Just the opposite, in fact.) I mention all this in the context of my age because there's no hope of this turning into a career or side-job or whatever. The process of learning, here, is its own reward. I think often of a haunting scene at the end of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, in which Peter Keating, who in his youth longed to be an artist but ended up a parasitic, second-rate architect, returns to painting in middle age. He shows his work to Howard Roark, who studies the canvases, puts them away, and says, simply, "It's too late, Peter."

The process of aging, I've felt so far, is like the trimming of branches from some great tree. When you are born, anything is possible. I believe that. As you age, branches fall away based on your decisions and your circumstances. You chose not to study in high school, and all the good colleges (and the attendant opportunities) are cut away. You reach 35, and if you've never run for elected office, you'll never be president. That branch, gone. If you're 40 and going back for your MBA, you might get a promotion at your job, or a new one, but you'll never be the CEO of Microsoft. That branch fell away two decades earlier.

In other words, I will never be an astronaut.

This isn't an assertion that we lack free will, but just the opposite—it is one's free will fully expressed. If I devoted myself today to becoming a concert pianist, and spent the second half of my life doing nothing but practicing the piano, by 70 I might be one hell of a player, but I'll never play Carnegie Hall because of the other factors that go into such things: a lifetime of self-promotion, playing for symphonies across the country and around the world, networking with other musicians, etc. There's more to greatness than technical proficiency, and those branches were long severed from the tree.

Nor is this an assertion that life is futile and that (for example) if you're not published by 40, you never will be, and should give up the dream and just die already. Again, it depends on your actions and circumstances. If you've been writing for 20 years and just never quite got around to finding an editor, or never managed to snag an agent, you've still been writing for 20 years. It's not too late for you. The branch is there, and healthy. But if you first pick up a pen at 50, don't expect to become Stephen King in 5 years. It's possible, but it's one hell of a hard climb and beyond the abilities of most mortal men and women.

It is on some level a relief to cultivate my new little hobby of software development without that voice in the back of my mind saying, "You could make this your life's work! You could be famous! You could be the next John Carmack." When I was much younger, all of that might have been true. But there's simply not enough time left for that to happen, now, and I accept that. Thankfully, I didn't need Howard Roark to tell me that, but in a way, he did.

Some Nonfiction I Liked in 2015

There's a great anecdote about Stanley Kubrick's search during the 1970's for the perfect novel to use as the basis for a film. His process involved reading the first 50 pages or so of a book, and if he didn't like it, throwing it against his office wall. This went on for some time and his assistant was accustomed to the daily, ritual thumping of book-against-wall. When the thumping stopped, the assistant became alarmed, fearing Kubrick had died. She bolted for his office, only to find him enthusiastically reading The Shining. I feel a lot like that, minus the genius and the assistant.  There were a few books I read this year that I absolutely hated, and a lot of books that disappointed me for their awesome potential ruined in execution. There's no need to call out the worst of the offenders, but of the 50-ish nonfiction books I read in 2015, there were enough letdowns to leave a good-sized hole in my office wall.

Any favorites list is going to be biased toward the second half of the year because I'm human, writing this for free, and not thinking too hard about it. So I can't say for sure that The Wright Brothers by David McCullough was my favorite work of nonfiction, as I read it the last week of December, but it's certainly one I didn't expect to enjoy and finished it in a single sitting. The book is great, but feels so effortless that I have to wonder if there was any need for a second draft. It's the work of a master, obviously, which helps, and it's a wonderful American story that everyone knows, kind of, but really doesn't. Upon reflection, I'm not sure if I was ever even conscious of the words on the page. The book was more absorbed than read, as though the information existed as a mist. McCullough wrote without ego, not once imposing himself on the work. There were no rhetorical tricks at work, or literary artifice. It was simply a story perfectly told. God, what a book. What a writer!

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson was another unexpected pleasure. It's about treasure hunters who search for sunken pirate ships. It struck me as I was reading it: Wow, I am having a lot of fun reading this book. I love reading and enjoy reading, but I never have fun reading, exactly. "Fun" is video games or amusement parks. But this book was positively ebullient, like sitting across from the best conversationalist at a party, and being afraid to refill your wine glass lest you miss something she says.

I fully expected to love Church of Spies by Mark Riebling, and did. The pope's secret efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler? It's hard to go wrong with a subject like that, but I was astonished how gripping the whole thing was and in awe of how much excruciating work must have gone into researching the subject. How do you even begin? How forthcoming is the Vatican for such a project, and how do you convince its leaders that you're not secretly writing a hatchet job? How do you convince them that there's any need for a book right now? I mean, the Catholic Church operates on a millennial timescale. World War II is only 70 years behind us. That the book even exists seems like an accomplishment. That's it is excellent seems like more than we deserve.

On T-Mobile, Pandora, and Streaming the Holiday

A couple of months ago I switched from AT&T to T-Mobile because I hate AT&T. Anyone who has used AT&T will understand why I left. They consistently overprice and under-deliver. Their stores are so metaphysically awful that I suspect they were derived from some unpublished B.F. Skinner experiment. The thing that really got me, though, was their international service. I was up-sold on a plan that included an app for finding wi-fi hotspots internationally so that I could save on (massively overpriced) data. What a great idea! Except the app requires the use of international data to find said hotspots, which it never actually did, by the way. But like most consumers, I would probably have just taken it forever—the gouging, the extortion, the stores aspiring to be a joyful as the DMV—but T-Mobile announced an unlimited streaming plan that seemed (and seems, frankly) too good to be true. It works like this: streaming data does not count against your data plan. Netflix? YouTube? Apple Music? Go wild. Run it 24/7. Stream 730 hours of video a month, and you'll pay for 0 bytes of data. This is a Crazy Eddie type of deal, but it's real. I expected fine print or some sort of gotcha when I went to the T-Mobile store (the Siegen Lane location in Baton Rouge), which, incidentally, was clean, bright, and pleasant, and so overstaffed that at one point I had three people helping me at once. It was like I was slowing them down.

(This is the precise opposite of the AT&T experience. Life hack: the next time you have to visit an AT&T store, bring along all of last year's receipts and do your taxes while your wait for an employee to call your name. And not the 1040EZ, either, but the long form.)

T-Mobile paid-off my AT&T contract and bought my old phone. Here is how that worked. They asked me how much time was left on my contract. (14 months.) They asked me what new phone I wanted. (iPhone 6s.) They asked me to back up my phone (I already had) and they typed things into a computer. Twenty minutes later, I had a new phone, 6GB of (tether-able) data, unlimited streaming, and it cost me... nothing. Like, they handed me a bag with my activated phone and I had to ask them if they were sure it was OK if I left without giving them any money. Until then I had never left a mobile phone store without paying somebody something. In fact, not only did I not pay, but they paid me to leave. The value of my phone applied to the first two months of my cell phone bill. They told me when AT&T sent me a final bill, to bring it in and they would process it for a final refund. (Yesterday I did, and they did.)

The thing that struck me about the employees was their weird zeal for sticking it to the competitors. Like, I get it when the CEO of T-Mobile insults AT&T and Verizon. He's the CEO. He wants to make millions of dollars. But these guys at the T-Mobile store aren't getting stock options or use of the company jet. They just really seemed to like their jobs and hate the competition. They were excited to have a new member of their tribe. (It was almost cult-like in retrospect, but a really good cult, like those weirdos who've started an actual Jedi religion.)

It seems like I'm on the payroll here by writing all this (I'm not, though if you're reading T-Mobile, call me!), but the whole experience was so rewarding and free of frustration that I feel like I have to tell somebody lest I wake up from a really great, if boring, comparatively, dream.


All of this occurred during the holiday season. Christmas. Whatever. God I miss when you could just write "holiday season" without it being some sort of political statement. I just mean the winterish time when people suddenly remember that gingerbread is a valid cookie. See, I'm not a huge music fan (well, I am a great fan of music, but I'm not one of those people who calls it "my music" when referring to their album collection), but I love Christmas music. Not just any Christmas music, but the classics of the Bing Crosby and Burl Ives variety. If you are a Christmas song and were written or performed after 1950, you are suspect to me.

Because I now have unlimited streaming, I figured that I would try it out. (In truth, when I switched over I wasn't sure what it was I wanted to stream. It's not like I'm watching Netflix while driving.) I signed up for Pandora because it was free and required no thinking on my part. (For some reason, the signup for Spotify feels like buying a timeshare.) So I signed up for Pandora and searched for a radio station or channel or whatever they're calling it and found "Christmas Traditional Radio." (It might also be called "Holiday Classics"—I have no idea how Pandora works.)

Hmm, I wondered. Will it be actual holiday classics or will it attempt to foist upon me that horrible Paul McCartney "Wonderful Christmastime" atrocity that society seems hellbent on making a classic even though nobody likes it if they're honest with themselves. (Don't get me started on "Happy X-Mas (War is Over)," which actually makes me hope for total thermonuclear armageddon. If ever I'm a prisoner of war, you can pry off my fingernails and I won't talk, but play that godforsaken John Lennon abomination and I'll tell you everything you want to know. I'll become a spy for you. Anything. Just make it stop.)

Dear reader, this station was the real deal. Bing Crosby and I spent weeks together and it was glorious. Only once did Holiday Classics fail me, when it attempted to sneak "Merry Christmas, Baby" by the Beach Boys into the rotation. God. But mostly the algorithm (I'm assuming the station is automated) achieved near perfection. Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters. Mitch Miller. Frank Sinatra is hit and miss with his Christmas music. The problem is that it's nearly impossible to hear a Frank Sinatra song and not think, "Oh, that's Frank Sinatra," which destroys the immersion. Sinatra is simply bigger than Christmas music. But Bing Crosby? He is Christmas. (Sinatra isn't alone in this. The Rat Pack, collectively, fails miserably and almost embarrassingly at Christmastime.) Moreover, a lot of musicians are a little too fondly remembered for their Christmas music. Perry Como has about 2,000 songs of the holiday, and exactly two good ones: "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Home for the Holidays." Andy Williams isn't quite as good as he's remembered either.

It's worth noting that the Pandora stream never once buffered, which is a testament, I think, to both Pandora and T-Mobile. Indeed, I had zero outages driving from Baton Rouge to Orlando and back. I think that's pretty impressive, and it alleviated my greatest fear when switching to T-Mobile: that the network would be spotty. But I can say that streaming music had a measurable effect on my life over the last month: it's put me in the Christmas spirit.

Thoughts on the Jawbone UP3

Two months ago, I gave in to temptation and bought the Jawbone UP3 wristband. (Previously, I wore the Jawbone UP24, which was an extraordinarily comfortable and durable device with excellent customer service. My primary motivation for upgrading was to get the pulse feature. I'm an avid runner and updates on my heart rate just seemed like something that would be cool to know. Here are some brief thoughts on the device when compared with its predecessor. The app for the Jawbone UP3 is much, much better than that of the UP24, which almost never worked by the time I upgraded. (It basically required a daily phone reset in order to sync my device. This had the effect of training me not to bother checking the app but for once or twice a week, tops. More on this in a minute.) It now seems clear that Jawbone simply abandoned the old app in favor of the new, or at least, has its B-team working on that one. (The old devices and new apps are incompatible.) Regardless, the new app is fast and fun to use. It's functionally identical, but it actually works. It's almost worth the upgrade for that alone.

In terms of comfort, once you have the device strapped to your wrist, it's easy to forget about. It has a very low profile, and on the rare occasion that it catches on something, it's not a panic-inducing concern. I can't imagine how one might damage the rubber-like band, and the two-inch plastic "device" component of the band seems well-hardened and scratch resistant. Either way, it's not like you're going to damage the nonexistent screen, or a Jony Ive designed, multi-axis milled, cold-forged-alloy-and-diamond-carbon-coated case. If anything, the rubber-and-plastic band is more durable than the Apple Watch in daily use, as there's no high polish in need of constant cradling. It would be hard to spot a scratch on this thing.

(N.b. that this isn't really to compare the two devices, which serve entirely different purposes. The Apple Watch is a very attractive watch that happens to track activity. The Apple Watch wants to be seen. The Jawbone UP series tracks activity, and wants to stay hidden.)

The UP3 seems close in appearance and fit to those Livestrong bands. (I've never actually worn one, so I cannot comment on the similarity of comfort.) In practice, it takes a couple of weeks to really figure out your fit and learn how to strap on the device. It's not a watch clasp, exactly, but a weird overlap clipping mechanism that requires you to stretch the band with your non-dominant hand, align the clasps and clip them. The device was intended originally to be waterproof, and with that in mind the clasp makes perfect sense. Regardless of the headache that is its design, if you only have to remove it once a week, there are no worries. Unfortunately, the device is not waterproof, which means daily removal while you shower. (It is water resistant, however. I even cleaned my pool yesterday while wearing it. So technically you could wear it in the shower, I guess, but it seems like it would be a pain to rinse the soap away from underside.)

The battery life is much worse than the Jawbone UP24. Within six days, the device is dead, and I never realize it until it's too late. The previous model trained me to just forget about it. It was always there, always working, this immortal machine powered as if by plutonium. This one is like a really healthy octogenarian. There's no reason to worry, exactly, but you know the end could come at any moment. The charger, meanwhile, is a mess. Just this weird, terrible dongle-like thing whose magnetic contacts are impossible to properly align the first five or six times you go to charge the device. This is only like a minute of my week lost, but I'm glad my pulse isn't measured for that minute; my frustration with and bafflement of the design would throw off my average.

The pulse measurement is passive. That is to say, you can't push a button and get a reading. It happens when it happens and that'll just have to do. It measures both resting and passive heart rate. It doesn't give a whole lot of guidance for the information it collects, and I suspect that has something to do with federal regulations. Its advice is usually something to the effect of: "Your heart rate is slightly higher than last week. Try getting more sleep." I'm pleased to have the readings, though, and it really is a motivator to remain on top of my running. My RHR is generally in the high-40s and I'd like to keep it there, or even get it a bit lower. (Now that fitness is measured by how rarely one's heart has to beat to keep you alive.)

Lastly, the cost. I'm not sure of the price at which it premiered, but earlier this year it ran $179, which was a shade too much. $159 would have made it a real bargain. But the price has since dropped to $129, making it an absolute steal. Despite its minor frustrations, I heartily recommend the device. It does what it sets out to do, and does it well.

If Beijing Is Worried about Its Air Quality, Worry.

The front page of the New York Times today features an astonishing story about Beijing that begins: "Residents across this city awoke to an environmental state of emergency on Tuesday as poisonous air quality prompted the government to close schools, force motorists off the road and shut down factories." Abstractly, it is the kind of story you read, consider for a moment, and go about your day. "Smog," you think. "Just awful." Had I not visited Beijing last year, I'd have thought the same thing, and immediately forgotten about the problem. But having been there, I'm thunderstruck by how horrible things must actually be this week for the government to admit there's a problem, let alone close the city down.

Beijing is the kind of city where you're never more than ten minutes from a marvel of human history. The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, the Summer Palace—they all just seem so impossible, so immense, so stunning to behind and impossible, really, to comprehend. The city's parks are splendid, and the food and the vibe and the people—it's a terrible place to have to leave.

But the air pollution is scary. Not the way weepy environmentalists find everything not made of hemp to be scary, but scary in a humanity-cannot-survive-this sort of way. If you don't believe humans can be the cause of climate change, visit Beijing.

Nobody warned me about China's pollution problem in advance, and I'm not the sort of person who notices that kind of thing. When I close my eyes and visualize the word "pollution," I see a toxic waste dump (or what I imagine a toxic waste dump to look like), with barrels floating on a lake of sludge. Anything short of that tends to escape my attention. So upon arrival, I thought, "Wow, foggy day."

Within two days, my eyes were burning. It wasn't like seasonal allergies, where your brain acknowledges the discomfort, you complain a bit, and then go about your business. This was alarming on a visceral level. My eyes were burning simply because I was using them. And that deep part of your brain that knows when something is definitely Not Right was at red alert. Whatever was burning my eyes wasn't natural—wood on fire, say—but artificial and chemical, something that human beings did not evolve to handle.

It didn't ruin my trip, and I don't want to sound (too) apocalyptic about all of this, but it did give me a new appreciation for the urgency of addressing human environmental impact. At the top of this post is a photograph I took of the city that is representative of every photograph I took there. This is what Beijing looks like on a clear, sunny day, when nobody is particularly worried and the city government wants everyone to go about their business. I can only scarcely imagine how much worse things must be for them to panic.


iPads as Education Placebo

The Washington Post has a depressing op-ed written by a teacher whose third grade class was issued Apple iPads. I don't need to tell you that the ending is unhappy. As it turns out, if you give $500 gaming devices to children, they tune out and play games. Here's a heartbreaking passage:

One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.

The Internet didn't begin rolling out to schools in any meaningful way until my last years of high school, and I was spared the worst of the technology jihad mounted by people who were just certain that "a computer in every classroom" (that was the rally cry) would Change Everything, and that Our Children Need Computers, and so on.

(N.b. that now that computers have ruined schools across America, the new demand is for students to learn how to code, which, writing as someone with a B.S. in computer science, is about as hilarious and pointless an endeavor as anything ever attempted ever. Only a very tiny percentage of people will ever or should ever need to touch a compiler, and of them, only an infinitesimal number will be any good at it. The argument is that students need to learn coding because it's the "job of the future," but it really isn't. Plumbing, carpentry, auto repair—those are jobs of the future. Computer science is a field that's only existed since, oh yeah, 1822, but because someone with an education major and a clipboard doesn't know how to do it, it's new and critical and that somehow kids who were otherwise destined to work middle management at the local factory are going to be swept away in the magic of parsing algorithms and fixing buffer overflows. The mentality seems to be "Well if we only help one..." (which suggests right away that we're dealing with a religious cause an not an intellectual one), but the question is why you'd want to waste the time and energy of the other 99%. I get pushing STEM on students, and largely support the effort, which is why I'd be fine with a high school course like Practical Chemistry and Biology. (How to read a medicine bottle. Why that magic weight loss cure doesn't work. Why does hydrogen peroxide  disinfect an abrasion? Why does gasoline make your car run? Why do you need to change the oil?) But "coding" has limited value at best, and considering the quality of most high school "computer science" teachers, is a waste of time if not poison being poured into the STEM well. The best thing I can say about coding in schools is that casual observation suggests the only thing schools are really teaching is HTML, which, while a colossal waste of time, at least isn't actively harmful.)

The problem with iPads in every classroom is that they (i.e. the iPads) give the illusion of innovative learning without actually teaching students anything. In the writing world, there's this whole psychotic fascination among amateur writers with finding the perfect computer software. The thinking goes like this: I can't seem to write my book, but if I had [whatever], I would be a great writer! And so would-be writers buy new laptops, download programs like Scrivener and elaborate Word templates, and research the best brightness for their screens, and look for the best online dictionary and scour the Internet in search of productivity apps and sites, and maybe something that's cross-platform so they can work on their iPad, iPhone, AND computer, and they "build platforms" on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr—you get the idea. These people always buy Moleskine notebooks. Hundreds of hours go into these prodigies of activity, and these writers have the best literary command centers money can buy, and they go to their graves without having written a single word.

Writing is hard, just as teaching is hard and engaging students is hard. And this obsession with writing apps is a way to seem very productive—look at all I'm doing to make my career a success!—without actually doing the one thing guaranteed to make your writing a career a success: writing. Likewise, look at this wonderful tool I've given my classroom! Let's spend the next month learning how to use our iPads! Let's test new apps! Let's attempt cooperative noncompetitive group learning using digital [whatever]...

All this, when months, and by the time students graduate, years, could have been better spent practicing math with a pencil and reading a play by Shakespeare in a book.

What is perhaps most infuriating about the efforts by schools to infest their classrooms with iPads is that, on a very basic level, I think teachers, administrators, and students know that computers and tablets don't help, and oftentimes actually hinder, the learning process. But man, no ambitious school administrator's resume is complete without a bullet-point that says: "Wrote successful grant for 500 tablet computers."

The New York Times reported a few years ago on the habit of computer executives in Silicon Valley to send their children to technology-free schools. As one blog explained, "The tech-free teaching methods are designed to foster a lifelong love of learning and teach students how to concentrate deeply and master human interaction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills."

You'll find none of those benefits while smearing your finger on a glass screen. But everyone knows those benefits aren't really the point.

The Fascinating Scrabble AMA

There's a wonderful AMA with a North American Scrabble champion happening right now on Reddit. Here are a few favorite exchanges. On "hooks."

Q: You get to go first, your letters are: UUUTJNZ. What do you play?

A: JUN and JUT are the only words really worth playing, though I'm not happy about keeping two U's. JUN is better defensively

Q: Can you give me a brief explanation as to why it's better defensively? I'm not great at scrabble, but im always interested in high level game strategies.

A: Simply due to the "hooks", i.e., the letters you can add to the front or end of the word. JUT can hook an E or S to make JUTE or JUTS. Whereas JUN can only hook with a K to make JUNK. So by playing JUT, you're giving the opponent more options

The letter "Q."

Q: Would the fact that you have a U make it more worthwhile to hold on to the N so you have the UN prefix? I guess it might not in this case, since you probably won't be bingoing next turn with that leave anyway. It's decisions like this that separate great players like you from decent ones like me!

A:The U is a horrible letter. There is a disproportionately high number of them in Scrabble simply because of the Q. If you draw a U, you should try to play it off if possible.

On playing your rack.

Q: I've read that top scrabble players focus on bingos, whereas the average best-among-your-friends focuses on tile placement for multipliers. Any tips for transitioning from the latter to the former?

A: Improve your bingo-finding skills! First, learn how to look for them on your rack. Most bingos include a common prefix or suffix. If you have -ING, -ERS, -ABLE, or -IEST on your rack, that's a good place to start. It's a lot easier to find the 8-letter words in EEGINRST if you start with the common suffixes. Second, learn how to manage your leaves better. The "leave" is the leftover tiles when you make a play. We know that ERS is very powerful, so if we're not able to bingo this turn, it might be a good idea to make a play that saves those tiles for next turn. Third, learn more words. There's no way around this one. You'll play more bingos if you learn more words. One of the most common 7-letter words in Scrabble is ANEROID. You have to know it to be able to find it!

How to get rid of vowels.

Q: I still have problems coming up with words when I end up with so many vowels. What are some good tips or words to use when you end up with so many vowels and the board is already full ish?

A: The bag is inherently vowel-heavy, so it always takes some care to not end up with too many. Try not to unload as many vowels as you can each turn. Also, it helps to learn some of the less-common vowelly words. Words like AUREI, MIAOU, UNAI, or ILIA can clean up those ugly racks quickly.

On being a Scrabble player.

Q: How many of the less common words do you use in your daily lexicon?

A: Do you mean outside of Scrabble? None. I try to act like a normal person when I'm not at tournaments

I wrote about the fascinating Scrabble tournament subculture for Mental Floss a few months ago. This is also a good opportunity to throw rocks at Scrabble for blundering the move to apps, and at Words With Friends for allowing players to jumble their letters endlessly on the board, clicking "play" until one is accepted by the computer. In case you're wondering, the reason that Words With Friends isn't a flagrant violation of Hasbro's copyright is because a game's concept can't be copyrighted for a game—only the game's rules. Words With Friends places its bonus squares in different locations on its board, and its BINGO bonus is different. This feels wrong on a lot of levels, but if Hasbro couldn't bother to invest its billions in a good app, I can't be bothered to shed many tears for them.

(Image credit: Local Scrabble)

How Defense Officials Spent $150 Million in Afghanistan, When They Could Have Spent $0

My latest piece for The Week ran yesterday, in which I write about the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a Defense Department office that was created to "do capitalism" in war zones. I don't want to spoil the ending, but they didn't do well and are presently under investigation for myriad accusations of fraud, waste, and abuse. The piece can be found here.


As part of this little personal blog experiment, I thought I'd share a bit of my process for this type of story. Earlier this week, I received a heads up that the allegations were about to be made public, and I pitched a story on it to my editor at The Week. I chose The Week because I knew the story was a good fit, and because I've written several pieces for them about waste in Afghanistan. Also, I really enjoy working with Ben, my editor, who's a really smart guy and an all-around good human being. I also appreciate that he doesn't waste time with my pitches. The "yes" or "no" happens quickly. It's hard to overstate how rare this is for an editor, let alone one for a major publication.

N.b. that in general, I don't mind when someone rejects a pitch. There are times when I know I've got a good story, and that editors are mistaken in rejecting it, but I deserve a lot of the blame when that happens. It's easy to get lazy on a pitch—especially a "sure thing"—and I've done a lot of good stories a disservice by not selling them with proper care, and as a result, not selling them at all. I actually think I've gotten worse about this over the years, and I am actively trying to correct that.

But a simple "no" is fine with me. A writer can't curl up into a ball every time he or she receives a rejection. What I do hate is having a query ignored. When editors don't respond to a pitch, a freelance writer is dead in the water. Do you try with another publication? Do you wait a little longer? This is especially problematic with time-sensitive stories. I realize that some editors are fielding 100 pitches a day, but simply as a professional courtesy, a "no" should be sent. Professional writers (usually) don't need "nice" no's. We just need a "no" so that we can move on—we know it's not personal.

In this case, Ben gave the pitch a quick approval, and I added it to Trello, where I track my ongoing jobs.

The story wasn't exactly Benghazi, so there's nothing particularly interesting or exciting regarding the journalistic legwork involved. I did research, contacted the relevant parties, called the Department of Defense for their side of things, contacted SIGAR for photographs, etc. Pretty much everything I write involves some form of this. Sometimes it's exhilarating and you speak with cool people you've only read about. Sometimes there's confrontation. Sometimes the story is all a big misunderstanding and something new and exciting takes its place. You do your best with the resources you have. In this case, nobody was going to fly me to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things, and so the telephone was my best tool available. (Note to editors: I'm happy to fly to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things if you'll send me.)

I wrote the piece over a couple of hours at Starbucks. My writing process is messy. I probably wrote a dozen ledes, and wrote several passages that didn't work or quite gel. The process doesn't exactly make me feel nervous, exactly, though it does induce some level of concerned anticipation. Why aren't the words flowing? Why aren't they perfect? Where does this fit? Why did I go into the business? And so on. Once the first draft is written, I feel a lot better about life in general. I let the story sit for a bit, and returned to it with fresh eyes, strengthening the poetry of the piece; cutting away the needless prose; rewriting weak or inelegant phrases, sentences, or passages; and just generally crossing my t's and dotting my lowercase-j's.

I filed the piece, and received an edit a few hours later. Ben is a great editor, and his suggested changes were good ones. I again revised and filed, and the mysterious machine at The Week did the rest. I have no idea what happens between filing the final version and its publication the next day. Once the piece does go live, I beat the drum on social media. I know there's a kind of gaucheness to promoting your own work, but I feel like it's a necessary part of the job and do it anyway. I have a good Twitter following and there's not yet been a stampede to the exits, so I assume I'm doing OK.

And there you have it.

(Image credit: An unnamed whistleblower in Afghanistan)