Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Time to Scuttle the Shuttle

It may seem strange to those who were born after 1970, but during the early part of that decade going to the moon was fairly commonplace. Seeing men walk on the moon was so familiar, in fact, that people lost interest. And so did the president.

Pres. Richard Nixon, stung by the Watergate scandal and still mired in Vietnam, cut the budget for the Apollo moon program and cut the number of missions.

What had been a vibrant space program in the 1960s, culminating in man’s first visit to another celestial orb, withered and died at the hands of the domestic and foreign policy concerns of the 1970s. Left in its wake was a lackluster space program that lacked drive and ambition.

There was one more Apollo mission in 1976, but it wasn’t to the moon. It was a joint Apollo-Soyuz mission designed to show we could get along with the Soviets, at least in space.

The manned space program floundered after that. It was non-existent until the first space shuttle was launch in 1981.

The space shuttle project had been on the drawing board since the early 1970s. It was a monumental undertaking, originally meant to save on expendable rockets. The reusable shuttle seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t.

Using technology of the early 1980s the space shuttle was barely even possible. It was by far the most complex piece of machinery ever built. And from the very beginning it was marred in cost overruns and mechanical problems.

The heat shield tiles were one of the first problems. They kept falling off during tests. Without the tiles, astronauts returning to earth would vaporize.

The launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia, had to be postponed a number of times because of a recurring computer problem. It was a harbinger of things to come.

The total cost of the space shuttle program from its inception until now is estimated to have been about $150 billion, and still counting. And NASA doesn’t even know for sure when the next shuttle will launch.

Unlike any jumbo jet, the space shuttle can’t take off when the weather is not perfect. Even light cloud cover can postpone a launch. That’s not the type of space vehicle we should be basing our entire manned space program around.

I’ve said for years that the space shuttle program was ill-conceived and that it’s time to move on with another type of space vehicle. And now, the head of NASA has finally admitted just that.

Michael Griffin, NASA chief, said last week that the space shuttle program and the International Space Station were mistakes. After spending $150 billion on the shuttle, and losing 14 lives, NASA is finally ready to throw up its hands and admit the whole program was a mistake.

Well, it was a costly mistake. But it’s better late than never.

NASA is finally trying to give the manned space program a firm direction. It will retire the shuttle fleet in 2010 and set its sights back to the moon.

We now have a goal to put humans back on the moon by 2018. That seems like an extremely dilated time line, but at least it is a worthy goal.

When we finally get back to the moon, we should do what we should have done following Apollo. We should build a base there, mine it, settle it, and use it as a platform to send men and women farther into space.

That would be a solid goal and a good direction for the manned space program to take.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

My New HDTV Gets Thumbs Up

I finally took the plunge. I am now the proud owner of one of those new-fangled high definition TV sets, or HDTV.

Although I’m into gadgets of all kinds, as I recently wrote about, I am not one of the early adopters. I probably would be if I were rich, but I have little choice but to wait until the price drops.

I had been shopping around for an HDTV for a couple of years. I often dropped by one of the appliance stores in Greenwood to drool all over their giant flat panel HDTV systems, hoping the price of one of those big 52 inch models would eventually come down to, say, 400 dollars or so.

Ok, so I was dreaming. Even the projection models, which generally have a less than stellar picture quality when viewed at oblique angles, are still well above 1,000 bucks.

But I lucked out a couple of weeks ago when I was shopping around for a new washer. I not only found a floor model washer on clearance, I found my HDTV as well.

While in the store buying my new washer, I couldn’t help but stroll through the TV section. There on the shelf I saw a nice 34 inch HDTV with a price tag of 599 dollars. I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I called the salesman over to ask what the deal was.

He told me it was a floor model, sold without a manual or remote. He also told me that since I also had bought the washer, he would throw in the TV for only 500 dollars. I couldn’t pass it up.

I bought a universal HDTV remote control for 20 bucks and looked up the owner’s manual on the Internet. I had bought a 34 inch HDTV for a grand total of 520 dollars, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One of my brothers already had an HDTV and I don’t mind admitting I was a little jealous. But his is only a 32 inch with a square screen, whereas mine is a 34 inch oblong screen. Now it’s his turn to be jealous.

Unfortunately, not all regular TV programs are broadcast in the new high definition format yet. Most of the regular primetime filmed series are. Most of the programming on PBS is in HD. But, like the early adopters of color TV in the 1950s, we HDTV owners will have to wait a couple more years before everything is broadcast in digital.

Originally, the plan was to pull the plug on standard analog TV broadcasts by the end of 2007. But since less than 85 percent of the population will have access to digital broadcasts by then, Congress will push that date back.

I predict it will be late 2009 or so before all broadcasts will be digital. At that time, all the standard analog broadcasts will end and anyone still using a standard TV will have to either trash it and replace it with a new digital TV or buy a set-top converter box that will convert digital reception into the old analog format.

All HDTV signals are broadcast digitally, but all digital broadcasts are not necessarily HDTV. Digital is superior to analog, but HDTV offers twice the number of lines of resolution as standard TV. Many HDTV broadcasts also have CD quality 5.1 surround sound.

I may not have been the first person on my block to own an HDTV, but I have one now. And the high quality picture and superior sound is enough to make me consider becoming a couch potato.

Now, where did I put that remote?

Friday, September 16, 2005

After Katrina, Bush Has Got to Go

Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor Pres. Bush was responsible for Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans and Mississippi. Some of us wish we could blame them for it, but we can’t.

What we can blame the Bush administration for is what it did in the wake of the storm, and even hours before it struck.

Even three weeks after the monster storm sent flood waters spilling into the streets of New Orleans, even after Bush replaced the head of the agency responsible for helping the victims of natural disasters, FEMA is still under attack for being painfully sluggish in bringing aid to the hurricane-ravaged areas.

Acknowledging that the massive relief effort was enough to put a strain on FEMA and on local agencies, the fact remains that the federal government was, some claim, criminally negligent in its response.

It’s incredible how naïve the president was shortly after the levees gave way. He said he was taken by surprise that it happened and that nobody foresaw the possibility of the levees breaking.

Nobody could have seen it coming, unless you count the entire scientific community, the Army Corps of Engineers, and most of the local politicians and emergency planning agencies in Louisiana.

Bush initially praised Michael Brown, the head of FEMA when the storm struck. That was shortly before Bush decided to replace Brown after he received the brunt of criticism for the slow response.

Ben Morris, mayor of the town of Slidell outside New Orleans said as recently as last Friday that the town, which suffered major damage, had received no help from FEMA. He called the agency “useless.”

Radio stations in the ravaged area have taken calls from dozens of people complaining that they spend hours trying to get through to FEMA but with no luck. Some even say their pleas have been ignored.

Oh sure, a couple of weeks after the storm, Pres. Bush finally took the blame for the slow and unimpressive response of the federal government. That was the first and only thing he has done right throughout the entire relief effort. The rest of his time was spent paying lip service to what ought to have been measurable actions.

In the wake of 9-11, Bush pushed for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to combat terrorism. He merged FEMA with that department, making it much more bureaucratic. It was a dumb decision.

An emergency management agency, almost by definition, must be ready to act quickly, precisely, and efficiently. Emergencies don’t wait for bureaucrats.

This is just the latest of a long string of bad decisions by our Chief Executive. Even many of those who voted to give him a second term now believe they made a mistake in choosing Bush’s moral imperative over substantial leadership.

But that’s in the past. Bush still has three full years to go. And some wonder if our country can survive another three years of Bush’s incompetence.

On his watch, we have lost the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon has been attacked, we’re fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq, the economy is weak, the rich is getting richer at the expense of the poor, scientific research has been thwarted, and the City of New Orleans has been lost to a preventable disaster.

Our nation now must spend $100 billion or more to recover and rebuild a stretch of the Gulf Coast that could have been protected by modernized levees that would have cost less than one-tenth that amount.

The House of Representatives impeached Pres. Clinton for lying about having sex. Predictably, there is no talk of impeaching Bush, since both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.

But the president should do what he has always done best. He should quit and walk away. And he should take Cheney with him.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Cuba Wants to Help and We Should Let It

You know how sometimes next door neighbors just can’t seem to get along? Sometimes it’s a spat over a property line or because the dogs bark at night or maybe one neighbor’s tree sheds its leaves in the other one’s yard.

Sometimes a dispute can go on for years. Sometimes, like with the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the incident that started the feud isn’t even remembered.

It’s too bad, because a simple, unimportant incident that has blown up to large proportions might be preventing close neighbors from becoming best friends.

Well, it’s not only households that sometimes get into feuds over picayune matters. Occasionally, two governments embroil themselves in bitter disputes that never lead to war, but that prevent what could have been a mutually beneficial relationship.

The U.S. and Cuba are such quarrelsome neighbors and have been for decades. It started in the late 1950s when Fidel Castro took over as leader of the small Caribbean country and set up a Communist government with the former Soviet Union as a good friend.

The quarrel almost escalated into a world-wide nuclear holocaust in October, 1962 when Castro decided he would allow the Soviets to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t hear of it, so he set up a “quarantine” (read, blockade) of Cuba.

It was a week and a half of nail biting and white knuckles as Kennedy and Soviet lead Khrushchev played a dangerous game of brinkmanship. But the Soviets finally backed down.

Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, Kennedy and Castro began to engage in some back-door diplomacy that most likely would have led to normalized relationships between the two nations had Kennedy not been assassinated.

Unfortunately, Pres. Johnson chose not to pursue the diplomatic track with Cuba and the rest is history.

Today, Cuba and the U.S. remain uneasy neighbors. There’s no more saber rattling, but relationships are far from normal.

Last week, Castro offered to send 1,500 doctors to the region struck by Hurricane Katrina. The doctors have been brushing up on their English in anticipation of coming to the U.S. to help.

Unfortunately, Pres. Bush has chosen politics over humanity and has thus far refused Cuba’s offer of help. The administration said Castro might do better freeing his own country from its Communist form of government.

That might be true. Soviet-style Communism as a means of running a nation has failed worldwide, except for the three holdouts of North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. China is also Communist, but it also embraces capitalism.

This country has gone a long way to normalize relationships with former foe Vietnam. It is an active trading partner to China. Even when the Soviet Union was still in existence, Pres. Nixon pursued détente with the Soviets and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush became good friends with its former leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the late 1980s.

So why is it so tough to accept Castro’s ovations of friendship? He wanted to pursue warmer relations with us way back in the 1960s. We snubbed him then, and we’re still snubbing him.

Don’t get me wrong; Castro is a power-hungry dictator. We need to approach normalization with Cuba cautiously. But we should still pursue a good relationship. It’s in both countries’ best interests.

And we should start by accepting Castro’s offer to send doctors to help those who need it in New Orleans and Biloxi.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

No Cash? No Problem!

Back in the mid-1970s when I was just getting started on my journey into the “real world,” after graduating college, I was eager to open a bank account at one of the large Indianapolis banks that had bank machines. These were new-fangled gadgets at the time, and I wanted to make full use of them.

I moved to Indianapolis shortly after graduation, after landing a teaching job at a small school west of the city. And I opened an account at Merchant’s Bank which, like all the other banks of the time, no longer exists.

It was amazing. I could actually go to the bank in the middle of the night and deposit or withdraw money. What a great invention, the ATM.

Of course, you were even more limited then as to how much you could withdraw and in what denominations. Some banks, for example, sorted cash into envelopes of $25 or $50. That’s all you could withdraw at a time.

And most of the ATMs didn’t have a CRT monitor to give you instructions. They had rotating cylinders with words written on the edges. Each instruction would rotate into view as needed to let you know what to do next.

Also, if you had an account at Merchant’s then you could use only their ATMs. The same was true for any other bank. If you needed cash and there was an Indiana National Bank ATM right next to you, you couldn’t use it if you only had a Merchant’s Bank account.

ATM cards could only be used at ATM machines, not at gas stations or grocery stores. There were, of course, credit cards, but you certainly couldn’t buy a Big Mac with one. Basically, only gas stations, hotels, department stores, and full service restaurants accepted them.

Nobody thought of using them to purchase groceries or to buy fast food.

Today, of course, you can use not only your credit card, but your ATM or check card almost anywhere. It made the national news when the first McDonald’s restaurant started accepting credit cards. Now, there is a card scanner hanging on the outside of the drive-through window at White Castle.

Although a few small stores still require a minimum purchase to use a credit or debit card, most do not. In fact, I’ve gone online and purchased a single song from Wal-Mart’s music download site for 88 cents, charged to my debit card.

New technology is emerging that will allow you to simply tap your card on a pad at the checkout. A radio frequency transmitter chip is located in these cards, which sends all relevant information to the retailer. The magnetic stripe will soon be a thing of the past.

In a few years, I predict you will be able to use these computer-chip credit cards to buy a candy bar and soft drink from a vending machine.

You will also be able to carry out person-to-person transactions with credit or debit cards, because everyone will own a tiny, personal card scanner. So if you owe your friend 20 bucks, just tell him to whip out his card reader attached to his key chain, tap it with your credit card, and key in an amount. The funds will transfer from your bank to his instantly.

Just think, no more change to weigh down your pockets. No more waiting in line for little old ladies to fumble through their purses searching for exact change at the checkout. Just tap your card on the scanner and let the computer do the rest.

In fact, that technology might just signal the end of the ATM. Who needs to run out and get cash from an ATM when you can pay for everything by tapping your card?