Friday
Jul082011

Twilight of Common Dreams

STS-135, the Shuttle Atlantis, screamed into orbit today. That's it for the Shuttle programme. Here's a column I wrote for Maclean's two summers ago, about the how our dreams of space travel were always embedded in History.

****

 

The news media reported last week that NASA’s robot rover Spirit, stuck in the Martian equivalent of a ditch, is still spinning its wheels in the deep powder like some suburban doofus trying to free his SUV from a snowbank.

NASA scientists have been working hard trying to figure out some way of rocking the space buggy free, and they hope to give this a shot in a few weeks. But in the meantime, the trapped robot explorer serves as a perfect metaphor for humanity’s entire extraterrestrial ambitions.

For space keeners, this should be a week of at least mild celebration. After six tries, the space shuttle Endeavour finally made it into orbit, on its mission to complete the construction of a Japanese-designed veranda that will house science experiments outside the pressurized space station. There are more humans in orbit than ever before, including two Canadians. Encouraging, no?

No. The mission comes framed against the attention given to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that saw humans bounce around for the first time on another world. And in light of what Armstrong and Aldrin accomplished, and the era of great exploration that everyone expected would follow, the baker’s dozen of astronauts spinning around in low orbit, still caught in the clutches of the earth’s gravitational pull, looks pretty pathetic. As Tom Wolfe, the prose-poet of America’s quest for the stars, put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity.”

But here we are, four decades gone, and the spacefaring dreams of humanity are dead and buried. Not only have there been no manned missions to Mars and no permanent moon bases, no human has so much as ventured out of orbit since 1972. It’s as if humanity, having learned to swim by being tossed right into the deep end, opted to spend the rest of the time by the pool clutching the edge.

For decades now, the “space program” has amounted to little more than strapping some humans to a tube, sending them roaring thuggishly up through the atmosphere, and—once finally free of the cloying wetness of air—stopping dead, only to whirl about the earth in the name of science. Imagine if Columbus, having brought the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria safely back from the new world, spent the rest of his career tacking back and forth in the harbour at Palos, studying seasickness or testing chronometers.

Of course there are loads of excuses for why we’ve spent the last four decades doing space doughnuts. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It’s slow. It’s cold. There’s no air. No gravity. And when they aren’t crashing, getting lost, forgetting to return phone calls, or getting stuck in space dust, robots can do whatever sciencey things we need done up there.

But we all know the real reason we abandoned space exploration: Communism failed, the Americans won, and history ended. John F. Kennedy did a good enough job wrapping the moon mission in a lot of “for all mankind” hokey-pokey, but that’s not the UN flag stuck in the dirt in the Sea of Tranquility. As the Lyndon Johnson character in The Right Stuff put it, “I for one do not go to bed at night by the light of a Communist moon.”

The space race, and all the hopes and fantasies it inspired, was always a creature of the Cold War, an exercise in superpower one-upmanship. That doesn’t mean the ideals it inspired were false or not worth pursuing, only that it is on this field of striving, the prideful struggle for recognition, that courage, honour, and daring find their home.

There is nothing noble or honourable about our ambitions in space these days, no serious pride to be taken in what we’re accomplishing. Putting together the space station is dangerous work, but big deal. So is working on an oil rig, and we don’t build monuments or sing hymns to oil rig workers.

It would be nice if the Chinese got more aggressive in space, especially if they were to make a serious go at Mars. Perhaps the fear of the red planet becoming a Red planet would help shake the Americans out of their orbital slumber. But it is not America that is the real problem here, nor is it about “the West.” It is the honour of all humanity that is on the line.

Because the odds are that some day, eventually, we’re going to be visited by an alien civilization. It may be next week, it may be in the year 12009, but over the near-eternity of time this galaxy is surely going to fill up with a buzzing curiosity of life. Intelligent races will rise who will look to the spiral arms of the Milky Way, wonder what’s around the next bend, and set out to take a look.

When they get here, what will they find? An intelligent but distracted species fussing with Facebooks and iPods and Xboxes while a great game unfolds over their heads. Indeed we may have missed our window of opportunity to leave earth; with all the developments in information technology, the appeal of moving in outer space fades in comparison to the easy amusements of virtual space.

But the shame of it all. On their way here the aliens will see the Spirit rover, stuck for millennia in the Martian mud. They will look around and see our footprint on the moon, no bigger than a baseball field. And they’ll point at us, galactic laughingstocks, the species that looked briefly to the stars and said, “no thanks.”



Friday
Jun242011

Banning the bulb harder than it looks

I wrote a piece last week that riffed off Virginia Postrel's excellent rant against California's attempt at legislating incandescent bulbs out of existence. Five years ago, the government of Ontario and the Canadian federal government both set forth a plan to similiarly ban incandescents. 

It turns out that replacing inandescents with compact fluorescent bulbs is not as simple as waving a legislative wand. Part of it is consumer resistance -- nobody likes CFLs. But a deeper issue is environmental: CFLs contain mercury, and many of the governments that jumped at getting incandescents out of the stores made no plans for disposing of CFLs. 

Quelle surprise, then, to find that the Canadian government has not exactly met its five-year target. As Rachel Mendleson of Canadian Business reports today, Ottawa has very quietly delayed the implementation of the ban until 2014:

As a department spokeswoman told Canadian Business: "The delay is required in order to consider the concerns expressed about availability of compliant technologies and perceived health and mercury issues, including safe disposal for compact fluorescent lamps." 

Meanwhile, technology and good sense has a way of teaming up to defeat misguided social engineering. Mendleson reports that Sears has decided to replace all of the incandescents in its stores with not CFLs, but LED lighting -- and even they had to try out a number of brands before finding a bulb that was reliable. 

 

Friday
Jun242011

Authenticity Watch: The narcissism of indifference

(Picture courtesy of Ryan Davey)

 

1. A very good Q&A about reason and skepticism with philosopher Stephen Law, author of "A Field Guide to Bullshit"

2. New York performance artist Tania Bruguera is spending a year as a poor immigrant, living amongst illegal immigrants in Queen's. Her new-found neighbours aren't sure what to make of her, and Bruguera herself is having trouble fitting in: "After finding her apartment and roommates in January through a flier on the street, she was surprised that the local gym did not offer yoga."

3. The latest in authentic tourism: An outfit in Turkey will let you come and be "Muslim for a month".

4. The narcissism of indifference: The New York Times finds a couple of hyperlocal fanatics who are actually smug about how their ecolunacy is completely pointless and apolitical.

5. China's assualt on our preconceptions about authenticity continues with Hengdian World Studios, aka "Chinawood," which contains, among other things, a full-scale replica of the Forbidden City.

Hengdian has plenty to offer beyond the Forbidden City. There is the Qin dynasty imperial palace that was the backdrop for the movie "Hero." There are 100 authentic Ming dynasty riverside houses shipped in from southern China, and the largest indoor Buddha in China.

6. And then there is this lovely Austrian town, a UNESCO heritage site, that the Chinese are secretly making a complete copy of. Tyler Cowen gets its exactly right: "It’s funny how a town gets insulted when outsiders start taking its kitsch seriously as proper kitsch."

 

 

Monday
Jun202011

Afghanistan and Appropriate Technology

Excellent piece by Patricia McCardle in the NYT today on localism in Afghanistan.

One of the biggest disappointments of the way environmentalism has evolved over the past few decades is the way the Schumacher's fundamental insight about appropriate technology got rolled into an all-ecompassing rejection of modernization. It led to a polarization of the debate, where AT advocates got swallowed by the most radical anti-development activists, while any one opposed to anything except a "consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy" is dismissed as a granola-munching flake.

And then there's Afghanistan, a country that is economically and technologically backwards in any number of ways. But it also possesses domestic technologies and practices that are cheaper, safer, more effective, and - yes - more appropriate to Afghan society than what the Americans and their allies (including Canadians) are trying to force upon the country. And as McCardle points out, there is far more at stake here than you might think:

If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.

And long after American forces have departed, it will be these rural farmers, not Afghanistan’s small urban population, who will decide whether to support or reject future insurgencies.

Friday
Jun172011

Risk, Social Media, Modern Life, and Anthony Weiner's Junk

I was on TVO's The Agenda last night, talking about social media, narcissism, addiction, and risk. And Anthony Weiner's junk. I thought the panel was a good mix: the always-interesting Jordan Peterson, Diana Pacom from Ottawa U, my old Trent colleague Alison Hearn (now at Western), and me. I'm the one who looks like a talking baked potato.

Tuesday
Jun142011

That light bulb ban? "Of such deals are Tea Parties born"

In Bloomberg this week, Virginia Postrel serves up a typically smart column about the idiocy of what amounts to an effective ban on incadescent lightbulbs in the United States. Her argument is two-pronged: First, she outlines the way a bizarre alliance of green activists and big bulb producers joined forces to convince Congress to ban incandescents:

It was an inside job. Neither ordinary consumers nor even organized interior designers had a say. Lawmakers buried the ban in the 300-plus pages of the 2007 energy bill, and very few talked about it in public. It was crony capitalism with a touch of green.

The result? Consumers got screwed. They are now stuck with a technology, compact fluorescent, that gives inferior light at a higher price, but which has a failure rate not noticeably different from incandescent. But most stupidly, it doesn't even succeed at its intended goal, which is to reduce electricity use in order to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. How could it? As she points out, the ban provides no incentive at all to reduce these emissions:

A well-designed policy would allow different people to make different tradeoffs among different uses to produce the most happiness (“utility” in econ-speak) for a given amount of power. Maybe I want to burn a lot of incandescent bulbs but dry my clothes outdoors and keep the air conditioner off. Maybe I want to read by warm golden light instead of watching a giant plasma TV.

What matters, from a public policy perspective, isn’t any given choice but the total amount of electricity I use (which is itself only a proxy for the total emissions caused by generating that electricity). If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.

(My emphasis)

I couldn't agree more. In fact, I did agree entirely, in a column I wrote over four years ago (cripes, has it been that long?) for Maclean's. Like Postrel, I argued that the key is to simply get the price of electricity right, because then it means that what I do with the electricity I purchase is my business alone. If I want to bask in the hothouse glow of incandescent bulbs -- or if I choose to install compact fluorescents but spend the savings on a central air conditioner that I use to keep the house at 15C in the middle of summer -- so what?

If a government believes it is entitled to micromanage the preferences of its citizens with respect to electricity consumption, there is no reason to stop at light bulbs. Why not ban sales of 72-inch plasma screen televisions, or outlaw central air conditioning? Why not legislate limits on the number of hours a day I can spend surfing the Internet, or playing video games? The problem with using state power to implement moral distinctions is not that it's annoying; it is that it's authoritarian, with no obvious non-arbitrary stopping point.

It is hardly surprising that it was Cuba that first introduced such a ban a few years ago; it sent teams of youth into people's homes to switch out the old bulbs for energy-saving ones. As Postrel puts it, "of such deals are Tea Parties born."

 

 

Sunday
Jun052011

Dept. of perverse consequences: US Aid to Pakistan

Catching up on my reading, I'm getting through the New Yorker's excellent issue on the killing of Osama bin Laden. All the big guns are in the magazine -- an excellent lead essay by David Remnick, a piece about bin Laden as a social-media innovator by Steve Coll -- but what really brought me up short was Lawrence Wright's look at the perverse consequences of US aid to Pakistan. Check this part out:

In a country of a hundred and eighty million people, fewer than two million citizens pay taxes, and Pakistan’s leaders are doing little to change the situation. In Karachi, the financial capital, the government recently inaugurated a program to appoint eunuchs as tax collectors. Eunuchs are considered relentless scolds in South Asia, and the threat of being hounded by one is somehow supposed to take the place of audits.

Read the rest here

Sunday
Jun052011

Everything sounds better in Italian...

... including my writing:

La frutta che mangiate è tutta biologica? Pensate che la vita sia troppo breve per sorseggiare vini che non siano doc? E per le vacanze alle porte, vi terrete alla larga dalle destinazioni più commerciali, optando per un antico borgo o una fattorialontano da turisti e venditori ambulanti? Se sì, allora benvenuti nel mondo danaroso e competitivo dell’autenticità ostentata, che in molte parti del mondo ormai rappresenta la forma più aggiornata della cara, vecchia corsa all’accaparramento di status symbol esclusivi...

That's from my contribution to the new issue of ITALIC magazine. My deepest thanks to Gaetano Prisciantelli (Twitter @myrthus) for inviting me to contribute. (Attn Italian publishers; Lots more where that came from). 

Wednesday
Jun012011

Fawzia Koofi in Toronto

It's my pleasure and privilege to be the emcee for the Toronto launch tonight of Fawzia Koofi's book, Letters to My Daughters. It is hosted by the Toronto Chapter of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee in conjunction with the Consulate of Afghanistan (Toronto) and Canadians in Support of Afghan Women, and takes place at the Taj Banquet Hall 4611-4619 Steeles Avenue. Yes, it's very far; things will get cooking around 6:30 or so. 

Here's an excerpt from the book. Here is Chris Cobb's review.

Hope to see you there.

 



Saturday
May282011

Measles in Massachusetts: The hatred of the present and our medieval future

Megan McArdle picks up on a report of a measles outbreak in Massachusetts. Officials don't know where it came from, though it may have spread from the French consulate: "France reported 10,000 cases — and six deaths — during the first four months of the year, most likely due to low vaccination rates."

This has been in the making for years. British health officials were warning over a decade ago that immunization rates were dropping dangerously low and that the "herd immunity" was going to disappear. It is tempting to blame it all on the criminal Andrew Wakefield, but his sort of panic-mongering only gets traction in a public that is already widely disposed to despise the present, and fear the future. 

Indeed, as McCardle points out, "It's hard to believe, but we're sliding backwards on two of the three public health achievements of the 20th century: vaccination, antibiotics, and clean water." And she doesn't mention that while our water might be clean (well, for most of us anyway, unless you happen to live on a native reserve in Canada), some of our largest cities have decided that another great public health achievement -- control of tooth decay through water fluoridation -- is some black-helicopter plot. 

We are on what is looking like an inexorable slide into magical thinking, turning our backs on the technologies, the medicines, and the markets that are the basis of our civilization. McCardle suggests that we make a guy like Wakefield "spend the rest of his life explaining himself to the parents of children who have died from diseases that could have been prevented through timely vaccination" but that misses the essence of the madness. Wakefield's victims will go to their graves singing his praises. 

(Via Tyler Cowen)

Thursday
May262011

Goodbye Oprah, and good riddance

Rousseau’s most successful contemporary heir is Oprah Winfrey. Her entire brand is built around a cult of authenticity through therapeutic self-disclosure and promiscuous emotionality.

That's from a column I wrote for Mediaite last year when Kitty Kelly's memoir about Oprah came out. I didn't like Oprah then, I like her less today, and I'm glad she's gone. She's basically a cult-leader who  has had a horrible impact on the publishing industry, helping transform literature into a form of talk therapy while becoming so influential the entire book business is terrified of her. She celebrates "personal authenticity" while serving as an exemplar of the worst forms of ultra-conspicuous shop therapy.  Perhaps worst of all, she went into business with Playboy Bunny-turned anti-vaccine lunatic Jenny McCarthy.

If there is a person who has made more money and become more famous peddling a more perverse ideology to Americans than Oprah, I can't think of who it might be.

Wednesday
May252011

Authenticities

 

1. Chinawood:  A five-hour drive southwest of Shanghai, in the hills near a manufacturing hub, something like a mirage appears among the smokestacks: a full-scale replica of Beijing's Forbidden City.

2. Hyper, local parenting:

While there’s nothing ambiguous about Storm’s genitalia, they aren’t telling anyone whether their third child is a boy or a girl.

The only people who know are Storm’s brothers, Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2, a close family friend and the two midwives who helped deliver the baby in a birthing pool at their Toronto home on New Year’s Day.

3. Accidental Chinese Hipsters

4. Why the "Adele is Authentic" debate is stupid:

I post this in a way as a warning; we're probably going to see stories setting Adele up as the Next Great Hope For Realness percolate on this side of the pond soon, since some critics over here never saw an authenticity fight they couldn't avoid.

5. Electricity is inauthentic in baseball

 

Tuesday
May242011

Where Shock Art is Still Dangerous

One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is our inability to be shocked by art...

That's the opening to my column in last week's Maclean's magazine, which is largely about the clampdown on artists in China. One thing I wanted to work in was an anecdote about Wham!'s famous tour of China in 1985, when they became the first Western pop act to tour the Middle Kingdom. I'll never forget reading in the papers stories about security guards beating kids who were trying to dance at the concerts. At the time, it seemed to fit in with my teenaged Footloose worldview -- that The Man was the same everywhere.

But the crucial lesson is that, while the countercultural rebellion pretty much is Western culture, there are parts of the world where anti-conformist iconoclasm is seen as a genuine threat. China is one such society, and it is disheartening to see that the Canadian government has no apparent views on the kidnapping of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities. 

 

Tuesday
May242011

East meets West, and PMH meets Das Racist

The purveyors of post-ironic South Asian swag  at Pardon My Hindi have re-launched with a new store, a new site, and are celebrating with a new T-Shirt in collaboration with the perpetually-touring Brooklyn rap group Das Racist.

Sunday
May222011

How Jay-Z became the black Warren Buffett

Street-cred authenticity and mass-market success are natural antagonists in the corporate world, and very few hip-hop artists could survive wholesale embrace by white suburban adolescents and keep their image intact. But then again, very few hip-hop artists are Jay-Z.

That's the hook to my review of Zack Greenburg's Empire State of Mind, a book about Jay-Z's business philosophy. 
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