Thursday, February 23, 2017

Other worlds are beyond our rreach

For all the folks excited about the discovery of planets orbiting stars other than our sun, or those folks who are hoping to live long enough to join the crew of the Starship Enterprise, please curb your enthusiasm. Getting to exoplanets is a lot more difficult than just calling out, "Warp speed!"

Take the latest discovery, touted by NASA in a press release complete with artist renderings of the surface of these planets that have not been actually seen by the human eye but only surmised because of the planets' darkening of their star's light. Before you buy your tickets to travel to these new worlds, know that this solar system is 40 light years away. That's 235 trillion miles! It takes light from that star 40 years to reach Earth. Given that accepted science contends that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and current space vehicles travel just a few thousand miles an hour, sending a space capsule to these new planets could take longer than modern man has existed on this planet. Even supposing that great advances will be made in interplanetary speeds, a capsule traveling at half the speed of light would take 80 years to arrive in the solar system and another 80 years to return. Anyone want to volunteer for that assignment?

Some science fiction dreamers suggest that we are wearing out good ol' Earth, and we should find us another place to homestead for the survival of the species. But even sending a manned craft to Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, risks killing all crew members from exposure to interplanetary radiation. That's a problem that hasn't been solved even for "short" trips in the neighborhood. If astronauts can't survive a two- or three-year trip to Mars, how would they survive an 80-year trip to exoplanets?

These "astronomical" distances even present a problem for the highly touted efforts to contact extra-terrestrial life in other solar systems. Any speed-of-light communications we might receive and reply to would require a response time of many years, even centuries. Would civilization and technology last that long?

Rather than focus on the fascinating but rather pointless search for exoplanets and intelligent life beyond our solar system, humanity would be better served concentrating on repairing the damage being wrought on Earth, the only place in the universe we know is capable of supporting human life — if we don't destroy it. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Facts and truth are at issue, not leaks

President Trump and his defenders, clobbered by news reports showing dishonesty and infighting in the White House and the firing of the president's national security advisor, are attempting to change the subject. To hear Trump tell it, the secret (and lied about) conversations between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, as well as other contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign and transition teams, are nothing. What's important, Trump claims, is the fact that the actions he and his minions have been trying to cover up were leaked to the press and broadcast to the public.

What could be worse than a fully informed electorate? 

In a rambling press conference Thursday, Trump attacked the news media with his usual accusations of dishonesty and "fake" news. Nowhere did Trump explain or excuse the contacts with the Russians.

Trump defenders have claimed that Flynn's discussions with the Russian ambassador were not only legal but routine. If that's the case, why did Flynn find it necessary to lie to the vice president about his conversation? After Flynn was fired, the New York Times reported the discovery of frequent contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Trump has branded those reports as "fake news" but has not addressed the issues involved.

Many Americans, and especially elected officials and foreign policy specialists, are uncomfortable with the Trump administration's cozying up to Vladimir Putin's Russia. To have Russian contacts shrouded in secrecy and lied about only raises the level of discomfort.

Soon enough, Trump will find that he can rant all he wants about the "dishonest media" and "fake news," but, as Ronald Reagan once said, "facts are stubborn things," and in a free marketplace of ideas, truth will eventually win.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump's presidential action: playing golf

It was a quiet weekend, relatively speaking. It was a weekend when President Trump acted more presidential than he had the past three weeks of his presidency. What did he do that was so presidential? He played golf with Japanese premier Shinso Abe.

The guest at Trump's golf resort in Florida said he and the president spent time getting to know each other and discussing worldly matters on the luxurious lawns of the golf course. Trump refrained from attacking anyone on Twitter while he kept a golf club in his hand instead of a smart phone. That made him seem presidential.

Ever since President Eisenhower played golf at every opportunity, hitting the links with golfing greats such as Arnold Palmer and with members of Congress or foreign visitors, forging those bonds that are needed in Washington and in the diplomatic world, presidents have played golf with people they needed to schmooze or ask favors of. News reporters were kept at a distance, far out of hearing distance from the golfers but still breathlessly reported the president's day on the links.

A president did not have to be as accomplished as Eisenhower to engage in golf diplomacy. John F. Kennedy explained why he didn't release his golf scores, as Eisenhower sometimes did; he said, unlike him, Eisenhower had never beaned a Secret Service agent with a tee shot. Richard Nixon was too intense to relax on the golf course, but he played anyway. Bill Clinton played often and invited celebrities to join him. George W. Bush played but preferred running or biking. Barack Obama loved to play golf and managed to work in outings for business or pleasure.

Donald Trump used to complain that Obama spent too much time playing golf, but now he's discovered that golf can have a presidential purpose. He flew hundreds of miles to reach a course of his choosing with his Japanese guest and spent the weekend on a golf vacation. It was the most presidential thing he's done so far.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Betsy DeVos confirmation educates voters

Opponents of the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education can take one benefit from Tuesday's vote: It taught us what really counts in the U.S. Senate.

It is not the opinion or desires of constituents exercising their right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." Nor is it the outrage of so many American voters who are astounded that a woman with no experience in public schools — as a student, parent, employee, administrator, elected school board official or any other direct contact with public schools — would be nominated to lead public education in America. Switchboards on Capitol Hill were overloaded with phone calls from upset constituents telling their elected representatives not to confirm DeVos. Voice mail systems in congressional offices, both in Washington and in district offices, were overloaded with pleas from voters opposed to DeVos. Complaints about DeVos' nomination jammed email systems in congressional offices. Constituents who could get to their representatives' offices expressed in person their opposition to someone who denigrates public education and seems intent on destroying public schools by whatever means necessary.

No, none of that counts. All that matters in this information age, when it is so relatively easy to send a message or make a phone call to an elected representative, is not the voters' petitioning of elected officials; it is the money that the ultra-rich can bestow on political candidates. DeVos' one great qualification for her office is the millions of dollars she and her family have donated to (mostly Republican) candidates and elected officials. In North Carolina, where grassroots voters stormed the phones, email systems and mailboxes of their senators, DeVos had already made up the minds of Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis with more than $100,000 in recent campaign contributions. A siege of the senators' offices, which is nearly what happened, would have made no difference. DeVos had those two votes paid for and locked down.

The First Amendment guarantees the right "to petition the government," but when the government is bought and paid for by wealthy donors, petitions are not worth the paper or the email application or the recorded voice mail they're written on.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Books are made for reading

I have difficulty understanding or even conceiving of someone who doesn't read books. Our house is filled with books, books in every room, some neatly decorating bookshelves, some stacked in baskets beside comfortable seats, some lying patiently on bedside tables — books ready to be picked up and read. I read every day, and almost every day from books. On days when I don't read a book, I read magazines, which are also prevalent around our house.

So when the president of the United States says boastfully that he doesn't read, my mind is flummoxed. It's inconceivable. I'll admit that I'm not a great reader. I can't check out 10 books from the library and return them all in a week or two, fully consumed, as some people I have known can. I am a slow reader, perhaps in part because of the years I spent editing newspapers, parsing each word and punctuation mark for misuse or error. And my reading tends to be at night, an effective sleeping pill that allows me to put aside the tensions and worries of the day and relax until my eyelids fall closed and I lose my grip on the book I've been reading. Many nights I've awakened, the lamp still on, my book in the floor, my stopping place a mystery. The next night, I hunt for my stopping place and pick up the narrative again.

I also tend to feel obligated once I've begun a book to stay with it to the end, whether it is a novel with a beginning, a plot (or two) and an ending, or nonfiction that may only be a series of facts or arguments. I recently finished a book that I found engulfing. I could not get William Kent Krueger's "Ordinary Grace" off my mind and kept the novel close by my side to snatch a few minutes to dive back into the immersing plot.

But now I'm reading a novel (I won't mention any names) that I find a bit plodding and confusing. There are time shifts and new characters and plot shifts that fail to keep me interested. But I've devoted the time to get more than 100 pages into the book, and I won't give up yet. Still, that non-fiction book that is next on my bedside table keeps enticing me. Surely it's better than this bland and skip-about novel.

Even when I hit the inevitable bumps in the literary road, I cherish my books and my time to read. Even not-so-good books are better than not reading. With all due respect, you should try it, Mr. President.