Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Showtime at the Apollo

I recently got a great book. A monograph by Robert Seamans, the Assistant Adminstrator of NASA during the 1960s, titled Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions. It's mostly concerned with the administration of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Policy memos are quoted, with some discussion of technical decisions and program direction. The actual missions merit the occasional paragraph, with Apollo 11 getting a somewhat lengthier passage. It sounds pretty dry, I know. But I tore through it, and ended up cross-referencing it with my 3-volume illustrated A Man on the Moon by Chaikin. Just about every aspect of the moon landings fascinates me.

Part of the fascination, of course, is because I'm an engineer and Apollo still towers above almost every other engineering feat in history. But really, almost everything about Apollo was the most or best - the farthest, the fastest, the ultimate exploration to date. The level of personal bravery of the astronauts, the technical excellence of the engineers, the sheer size of the program - it's staggering. I firmly believe that the United States will be remembered for the rest of history for three things: the invention of popular representative democracy, the atomic bomb, and the moon landings. Pretty amazing.

However, the story of space race has always been bittersweet for me, because it ends. I've often spoken with my parents, who grew up during those years, and they communicate so clearly how the presumption was we would keep going. It's been almost 40 years since we landed on the moon - and we're essentially no closer to meeting the great vision of becoming a true spacefaring nation. In fact, now that the plan is to go back to the moon, it will take us more than a decade to repeat the achievement. There's a real possibility that none of the 12 men who have walked on the moon will still be alive by the time there is a 13th.

At least the work has begun to get going again. Many engineers on the program to return to the moon, Project Constellation, call it "Apollo 2.0" because the of the great deal of technological overlap. I don't much care how they do it - they can cannablize old Redstone rockets from the Mercury days for all I care. So much else will eventually crumble into dust, swept away by history. In a generation or two, I think even the great effort of WWII will begin to fade to the rank of the Napoleonic Wars or (eventually) the 100 Years War. But a permanent presence on the Moon, or colonizing Mars... that's up in the high country, akin to Magellan's circumnavigation or Gutenberg inventing the printing press.

It takes a lot of patience, and treasure, to pull this off. The returns can be minimal - not every space program spits out velcro or teflon. But it is an effort worthy of a great nation. So support your local astronaut.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


I read a brief mention of a movie today, called The Flying Scotsman. It was written up by one of the local biking sites, TheWashCycle. It is about a Scot, Grame Obree, who set the Hour Record in 1993 and 1994, on bikes he designed and built himself. He went 52.173 km (32.75 miles).

I had never heard of Obree before, or seen his bike designs. They are brilliant in their simplicity. But I think they would be extraordinarily difficult to ride. I'm not sure I would ever want a bike like that... but I'd love to try one out for a ride or two.

Speaking of bikes, though, May 18th is Bike to Work Day. Many areas will have events including free breakfasts and bike convoys. I wouldn't suggest joining a commuter peloton on a bike like Obree's, but maybe your beat up beach cruiser will do.


On a whim, I decided to make bread. I have never even tried to make bread before, so I had to bring in a consultant, AKA my Mom. She sent me the recipe for anadama bread, which she used to make often when I was little. Ryan used to carve off inch-thick slices, spread butter on them, and have just that and a drink for lunch. It is delicious bread. I have fond memories of the smell of it baking, too.

I am very pleased with how it turned out. Admittedly, the picture shows how the loaves are slightly malformed. And I think I should have let it rise more before baking, since it is a little dense, and very chewy at the heels. But it tastes just like I remember. I'll keep one loaf for myself, and the other is going to Sarah and Paul, since Sarah gave me the molasses required by the recipe.

Having never made bread myself before, I didn't know how enjoyable it was. A satisfyingly tactile experience, kneading the dough and forming the loaves. The same reason I like doing the crossword in the paper instead of online - the physical presence of the thing, and working with it. In that same vein, I've started doing a little work on Pegasus, getting her ready to get back on the water. Soon, I'll be bobbing on the Potomac, eating my homemade bread and doing The Onion crossword.

Anadama Bread:
Put in a large mixing bowl:

2 Cups boiling water
1/2 cup corn meal

Stir thoroughly and let stand for 1 hour. Add:

1/2 Cup molasses
2 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon butter
1/4 cup maple syrup

In a small bowl put:
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1package yeast

Stir to dissolve and ad to the cornmeal mixture.

Stir in 4 1/2 cups flour. Beat thoroughly, adding more flour if
necessary. Let rise, covered in a warm area until doubled. On a
floured surface add just enough flour to make dough firm enough to
knead. Knead for 5 minutes or so until dough will spring back when
poked. Shape into 2 loaves and put in greased loaf pans. Cover and
let rise in warm area until almost double in size. Bake about 50
minutes at 350 degrees Cool on sides on a wire rack.

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Friday, April 13, 2007


I am not telling you anything new; you have heard of The Onion and appreciate its excellence. Recently, The Washington Post announced it was partnering with The Onion to present a local DC edition.

I was very happy to hear this, and not just for the humor. The AV Club section online and in print does an excellent job on movie, book, and music reviews. They have a good crossword each week. But best of all, I've always heard that the local print editions do a good job of covering local events. Theater, museums, all kinds of music shows, etc. And the print edition is free! To Hell with the express and The Examiner. Too bad it only comes out once a week.

The only problem was tracking down my copy. The DC edition launched the first week in April. Word on the street was it would be available near other free paper boxes. But I saw none at my metro stations on either of the past two Thursdays, when it comes out. I was understandably disappointed and looking for answers. I even wrote in to the WP online chat about the new offering, asking "Where is it?" Nothing doing, last I checked.

Imagine my surprise and happiness, when I found a stack of copies at The Dairy Godmother. I love her frozen custard - and now she has my Paper of Choice on hand for free. And it makes complete sense, since she is from Wisconsin and The Onion started in Madison. All good things are in harmony.

Monday, April 09, 2007

L'esprit de l'escalier

I had never heard the term until recently. Sarah taught it to me; it's the phenomena where you think of the great retort; the witty, cutting rejoinder; the perfectly pithy phrase... as you walk out the door and down the steps on your way home. I've had it happen countless times, so it's an unexpected pleasure to learn such an elegant phrase for it.

[A quick aside - I love how so many French phrases have a kind of "drawing-room" air to them, "fait accompli" or "coup de grĂ¢ce," while so many in German sound so bizarre and threatening, heavier somehow. "Schadenfreude" or "bremsstrahlung." It is cliche, and old comic trope, but two languages in such proximity, one light and airy, the other consonant and guttural - it amuses and amazes. In this case, the German equivalent of l'esprit de l'escalier is treppenwitz.]

I seem to be experiencing l'esprit de l'escalier more often, lately. What usually happens is I have an urge to say something rash at work. I stifle the urge, since in the moment the best I could come up with would be expletives. Of course, everyone has experienced this: the words come to me later, when they are no longer any use.

One recent occasion, though, I came through in the clutch. I had recently harangued some of my coworkers to be more professional. They were talking and joking together in the office, and I was acting diffident, actively paying them no attention, if you follow me. One said, "What's your problem, man? You're always pretending like you're better than us."

"Oh, I don't have to pretend."

Maybe it was a little too mean. I guess I have a little buyer's remorse - the perfect phrase was too cutting, perhaps. I'm sure there is a phrase for this regret - but I'd wager dollars to donuts that phrase would be in German.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Opening Day

I remember a few years back, Sports Illustrated or ESPN had a list of the Best Baseball Cities. They ranked St. Louis the best. And it is a good baseball town - lots of fan support, and everybody dresses in Cardinal red at home games. But I remember being somewhat offended on behalf of Cincinnati and my Reds. Opening Day is essentially a city holiday in Cincinnati. Businesses close. I've heard school is let out. There is a parade right through downtown. Nobody does Opening Day better than Cincinnati. And I think that is a measure of how much Cincinnati loves the Reds.

This year, the Reds defeated the Cubs in convincing fashion, winning 5-1. The general consensus is that this will be a rough year for the Reds. It's been a rough few years for the Reds, actually. And I concede, this probably won't be much different. Sportswriters often comment on the Hope of Opening Day - every team is still undefeated, still in the race, this could be The Year. I don't hold out a lot of hope for this season - but I am excited because I love baseball, and my team is on the field. That is enough. Go Reds!


We had a meeting today at work. This should come as no surprise - unless you're one of the folks who actually makes something for a living, you probably spend a lot of time at work in meetings, too. And, like most meeting attendees, I hate meetings. Most meetings aren't really that productive, or get monopolized by a few people that waste everyone else's time, or worse still just spawn more meetings. The meeting spawn are the worst. We say "let's take that issue offline" and then hold a "splinter session." Splinter - it always makes me think of sailing ship battles, where the cannonballs would smash the wooden bulkheads, and the splinters would fly like shrapnel, causing more harm than the ball itself.

But as I said, I am already predisposed to dislike meetings. I once was selected and directed for special training in Meeting Facilitation, and it was great. Basically, they said

  • Have an Agenda
  • Control who is talking
  • Keep it under 30 minutes

That right there will put you a long way towards having a good meeting. On the program I'm working right now we break all those rules, all the time.

This particular meeting was interesting, because it highlights something I always enjoy. The perversion of language. That is to say, when we play games with language to avoid unpleasant consequences or get what we want. Bear with me while I explain what happened.

The meeting, which was scheduled some time ago, was a "90% Milestone Review." This means it was a session to review technical issues when a particular portion of the project was 90% complete. This particular portion or zone was unusual, in that we are only having one milestone review - most zones have 3, at 50%, 70%, and 90%. This is because this particular zone is very plain, with very little to design and review.

When we (the Government and it's representatives) received the design, we began our review and quickly concluded the design was not 90% complete. The exact phrase is it did "not meet the 90% Entrance Criteria." Fair enough. But, because of bureaucratic momentum, we still held the "90% Milestone Review," even though ALL parties, Government, designer, contractor, etc., agree that it is not 90% ready. This is where the language issue comes up.

If we call the meeting a "90% Zone Design Review" and review this design we have in our hands, we have to fail the design. That gets reported up to the Big Boss, and is a Bad Metric. Bad Metrics eventually get projects canceled. So, we're in a bind - we've got too much momentum to cancel the meeting, but if we hold the meeting it hurts the program. The solution? We rename the meeting. The 90% Milestone Review became a Government Comment Review Session. That way there's no report, no bad metrics, just a schedule slip as the "real" 90% meeting "slips to the right" to a date to be determined. That is a bad metric, too, but it is easier to hide in the recent tide of schedule slips.

This is just my personal example of the perversions of language. "Tax increase" vs. "expiring tax cuts" and "estate tax" vs. "death tax" are two famous examples. My friend Chris in Japan told me another, more grisly euphemism, "human accident" for suicide-by-subway in Tokyo. Euphemisms, misdirection, obfuscation... all just games with language. Kind of fun, if you can step back from it. I'm still too close, I think - I still have to set up and run the "real" meeting in a few weeks, probably. It will be funnier after that.