Thursday, August 30, 2007



It's been 50 year's since the first tentative steps into space. Within 10 years, we were almost on the moon. And in the 40 since then, we've... put some millionaires into space. And former members of boy bands! Truly, the Space Age has delivered on all of it's promise. A very cool anniversary, but bittersweet considering how much progress has slowed.

Though perhaps that assessment is unfair. There was widespread knowledge of the Americas in Europe by the late 15th century, but settlement did not begin in earnest until more than 100 years later. And space is quite a bit more inhospitable than, say, Massachusetts. But the degree to which progress has plateaued is disappointing. In fact, there seems to have been regression in the field of human exploration. Any return to the moon and points beyond will entail a lot of rework, as we redevelop capabilities that were allowed to wither away.

There has been great progress via telepresence, robotic probes and the like. The two Mars rovers are doing fantastic work, inspiring as well as meaningful scientifically. And if the point of exploring space is to just gather data, then that is enough. But my feelings hew closer to the old doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Albeit without the sinister overtones of conquest. It's just, moving off of Earth is what comes next. It's a gut feeling more than a reasoned position.

Looking back at Sputnik, how it was almost an afterthought to the development of ICBMs, you are struck at how small ideas, a cheap transmitter beeping in orbit for 3 weeks, can galvanize the whole world. I like that - there are so few truly iconic, world changing moments in history, and today marks the anniversary of one of the big ones.


My company requires that every employee completes a Self-Evaluation just prior to Personnel Reviews at the end of the year. They are usually due at the end of the fiscal year, and are passed up the chain as you are reviewed for bonuses, promotions, reassignment, etc. I did mine earlier this week. I truly detest this process. Mostly because my real self evaluation is pretty low. I wish it wasn't, but it is. And while I long for more challenging work, and responsibility, when I honestly assess myself, I'm not sure I would be equal to it.

This is not the place for me to explain my shortcomings, or to complain when in fact I've gotten some fairly good breaks. Maybe we are all intensely aware of our own flaws, and suffer from that knowledge. So I write this more to organize my own thoughts; how do you unbias yourself, and look in the mirror clearly? And finding your weaknesses, how do you then correct them? What if you weakness is such that it prevents you from figuring how to improve yourself? My solution is "find someone who is smart, and have them solve it for you." The problem is, who do you trust with something like that? Who is both close enough so they would take that burden, and have the intelligence and expertise to craft a solution?

This is where my train of thought derails, each year. So it cannot be surprising that I dislike evaluation season.

Lawn Boy

What is the stereotypical disease that affects all suburban home owners? You see it in movies and poorly plotted sitcoms all the time. It's superficial and tedious, and oh-so-much about Keeping Up with the Joneses. Oh yes, it's lawn care.

I had been rolling along quite comfortably with an ugly lawn. My crappy reel mower (old fashioned, Leave it to Beaver style manual cylinder of curved blades) was not particularly effective, especially if the grass got a little long. It was completely unable to deal with the very large patches of crabgrass I had cultivated. I often joked that my yard made it look like a witch lived there.

Finally, I cracked. I bought an electric extension cord mower. I sprayed some foul chemicals on the crabgrass. I attacked the fenceline with my weedwhacker. And now... it looks slightly better. Respectable, but I should have realized that only a huge capital outlay, with professional intervention, would really improve things.

I do feel my lawn no occupies a fitting place in the spectrum of yards in my neighborhood. Across the street, the loveliest house on the block sits on a perfectly manicured lawn. Next door, the entire property is a riot of plant growth and lawn gnomes. In every way, my yard is right in between. I think I can live with that.


I find myself very intrigued by the recent protests in Myanmar (FKA Burma), where Buddhist monks are leading what may be the beginnings of a revolution against the ruling military oligarchy. This is interesting on a number of levels. First, because of the secretive nature of the regime in Myanmar, in recent years there hasn't been much news out of the country, period. Second, my friend Vanessa worked for a few years for the non-profit EarthRights International, which sued Unocal regarding their Myanmar pipeline using the Alien Tort Act of 1789. The case was settled out of court, but Vanessa spent some time in Myanmar, and worked very closely with some of the people who I think would be involved with these protests. And lastly, revolutions and how they play out is inherently interesting.

Historically, revolutions are unique in the high degree of social dynamism. New ideas and systems, good and bad, come out of revolutions. We cannot disregard the often high human cost of these conflicts, but without them, we would not have modern representative democracy. Though all too often, the lofty ideals are corrupted, at least for a time. Rid yourself of a corrupt aristocracy - damn, you're dealing with Robespierre and the Terror. Do it again - oops, now you're living in early Soviet Russia. Revolutions, no matter what their origin or how justified they are, can be a roll of the dice.

On the face of it, the protests in Myanmar could be the seed of a reformed and open society. They current government is a corrupt oligarchy of military leaders, who have proven themselves only too willing to sell out their country and citizens for a few measly bucks. Almost anything would be an improvement. It suggests the question, if we are dedicated to spreading democracy and deposing authoritarian governments, what can we do to help promote that in Myanmar, given current events?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I noticed what I thought was an interesting parallel in the news the other day. However, I hesitate to write about it, since it doing so may be a violation of Godwin's Law. It touches lightly on Nazi's, and that is extreme and inflammatory. But the I think this particular news item contains valid echoes of historical events.

I'm speaking here of President Bush's recent remarks at the VFW Convention, where he seemed to say that the U.S. should not have left Vietnam. In fact, the speech seems to say the only reason the U.S. withdrew it's forces was domestic pressure.

The point here is not the legitimacy or accuracy of the President's analogies. Whether there are particular parallels between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam is not the question that interested me. It was the argument that Vietnam was lost at home. This is not a new position, obviously, but seems to have gained renewed credibility recently, at least with the President. I find it troubling because it parallels the "stabbed in the back" theory of World War I.

After the surrender of Germany and the punitive Treaty of Versailles, many Germans resented the loss of national prestige, the poverty only amplified by the Depression, and the decline of a once great state. A theory that won great credence was that the Great War was not lost on the battlefield, but at home. That a lack of domestic will and strength stabbed the German Army in the back. Most historians agree that this theory doesn't hold water, just as most dismiss the notion that Vietnam was a winnable war for the United States.

Historically, this argument is used to give cover to jingoism, arms buildups, power grabs, and authoritarianism. I'm not enough of a radical to suggest that the present case is so extreme. However, given the administration's track record of pushing for increased Executive power, the parallel is interesting. But parallels are useful only so far as they can be used for extrapolation. It isn't "Bush is a fascist" or anything so extreme. Perhaps it is only that when great powers face defeat (or merely lack of victory), blame is inevitably cast on a faceless opposition at home.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


I'm a big fan of the Slate editor Dahlia Lithwick; I find all of her articles to be edifying and well-written. I particularly enjoyed yesterday's, partly because it includes a quote from The Simpsons.

The substance of the article was also highlighted for me, as I am still reading the excellent Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ms. Lithwick points to the absurdity and danger of isolating the governors from the governed, excluding dissenting views. Removing dissenters from the room doesn't eliminate dissent. In fact it may increase it. This is a remarkable contrast to Dr. Goodwin's depiction of Abraham Lincoln. She presents him as a leader confident enough to bring dissent into his closest circle of advisers. Additionally, she repeatedly makes the point that the proper role of a national leader is not to follow public opinion, or ignore it, but to help shape it through well-reasoned ideas. If the president feels a policy is correct, let him stand forward and make his case. Perhaps reading this article and this book at the same time made the difference particularly notable to me.

In the book I am well into the Civil War. Please, no spoilers in the comments - I want to see how it ends for myself.

In news of more immediate but no less significant note, a happy birthday to Sarah yesterday. There was homemade ice cream cake from sister-in-law OtherSarah, and it was awesome.

Friday, August 17, 2007


A number of birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and dates of import lately. Megan, Aaron, and Sarah are all celebrating birthdays (making them Christmas babies, of a sort); Matt & Kate, Katie & Aaron, and Tyson & Michelle had their anniversaries. Great reasons for celebration, all around.

I enjoy trying to make the most of birthdays and the like. I think it belies a sentimental streak. The day doesn't mean much - fairly arbitrary, nothing special in of itself happens. It is only an observance that on the same date, once upon a time, something special did happen. And my observances often take an aspect of reflection. What's changed in a year, or since the celebrated event, why the person or couple being fĂȘted is worthy of praise and festivities. It's a time to get into why your friends and family are so fantastic, and showing them how important they are.

There are other times that demand critique. Anti-versaries, that ask you to reflect back on your errors and your failures. It is not a positive experience, but if you can, there are lessons to learn. A yearly reminder not to make the same mistakes again, or a refresher on certain flaws or weakness in your character that must be kept in check. Examining these facts is not positive, but the outcome can be. We can try to become better, so when the birthdays and anniversaries arrive, we can be worthy of them.

'Tis not in mortals to command success
But we'll do more... we'll deserve it.
Cato: A Tragedy Act I, Scene II, by Joseph Addison

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I don't need instructions on how to Rock

I was invited to go with Abby, Sarah & Paul, and some of Abby's friends to an Alison Krauss and Union Station concert last night up at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. I had never been there before, and I was very impressed. It was a great place to see a show, and we lucked out and the weather cooled off to comfortable conditions.

Beyond the general excellence of the show and the very easy manner of the band, fun and relaxed, there were three elements of the evening that deserve special mention. Least significantly but still intriguing, on the drive home we saw a DeLorean on the beltway. This was of particular interest to me, since I just read that a small company in Texas acquired the rights to begin very limited production on new DeLoreans. And that should make anyone who grew up watching Back to the Future very happy. Gigawatts!

Secondly, [story not suitable for minors or the easily offended], there was the drive up to the show. The sights were not nearly so welcome. On the Beltway, along the side of the road, there was a car pulled over. Next to the car was an unfortunate individual. This person was completely naked, and in the process of relieving themselves. Not even in the woods - out in the open, with a not insignificant number of people driving by. I am certain that something went catastrophically wrong to bring this about. But it was still one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen on the highway.

Lastly, I spent a goodly portion of the night sharing some of my trademarked worthless trivia. Most apropos was "Did you know that Alison Krauss is married to Elvis Costello?" And no one did. And there is a reason no one knew this: it is not true. I was confused, since Krauss and Costello worked together on the Cold Mountain soundtrack, and Costello is married to jazz pianist Diana Krall. So my powers failed me, I am embarrassed to say.

For all that, the show was the complete highlight, and I recommend both the Merriweather Post Pavilion and Alison Krauss if you have the opportunity.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I just got back from a long weekend in Portland with the Eling clan. Nothing too newsworthy - we had a picnic at Two Lights State Park, saw a movie, went to museums and out for bike rides. It was a lot of fun, though. It has been a while since I've been able to get together with the whole family, so that fact alone made it an excellent vacation.

While he is "on hiatus" and "between projects," Ryan put together a little something as a gift. We all got t-shirts:

So, that's awesome. For comparison:

Make your own humorous caricatures at I'm working up more here.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Upper Deck

I went to the Reds-Nationals game last night at RFK. It's always good to go to a game, and especially so when I can see the Reds. But Washington, which is a pretty weak club this year, embarrassed the Reds, scoring 7 runs in first two innings, and not allowing Cincinnati any runs until the 6th. And even then it was only two. So it was a hard game for a Reds fan, but a night at the ballpark goes a long way.

We did get to see one rare and wonderful play. In the top of the fourth, Brandon Phillips reached on a single, and was followed by Adam Dunn. "Donkey" is a left-handed pull hitter, so the Nationals put on the shift, with both the second baseman and shortstop on the right hand side of the diamond, and the third baseman covering where the second baseman usually is. Phillips takes a big lead at first, and takes off with the pitch. No hit, no swing, but Phillips got such a good jump and is so speedy, catcher Brian Schneider did not even attempt a throw. So, a pretty normal stolen base. But here is where it gets good: Phillips keeps going. While Schneider holds the ball, Phillips sprints past third baseman Zimmerman, heading for third where no one is even covering. I'm not sure, because things happened pretty fast, but I think Schneider had flipped the ball back to the pitcher Lannan, who then ran towards third, flipping the ball to Zimmerman who was trying to catch up with Phillips. To no avail - safe at third. Unfortunately, Dunn flew out on the next pitch. Still, very cool.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


It has been a challenging week. Mostly because of many simultaneous changes, new arrangements and relationships. Including, but not limited to Steph moving to San Francisco, Aaron temporarily crashing at my house, and my return to the Home Office after 10 months at the DC site. Things have changed personally, professionally, geographically. And historically, I do not deal well with change.

On the plus side, it is great to be working at King Street. The projects are more interesting, and I get to see Sarah and Zina every day, which is a pleasure. And while Aaron is my first roommate in many years, it is working out extremely well.

The challenges come from what's gone. Steph was my best friend, and now she is 3000 miles away. I didn't care for the work in the DC office, but I got to ride to work every day, which felt great. The Home Office doesn't have the facilities for that right now. And while the new work is interesting, it is always frustrating for me to come into projects midstream. I always feel like I'm behind, which is something I hate almost more than anything. It makes me feel dumb.

However, this too shall pass, as the saying goes. I'm visiting my folks in Maine this weekend, seeing the new house and whatnot. There is some potential for some new programs at work that I would get in on the ground floor with, and they have potential for some travel. And tonight I'm going out and seeing the Reds play the Nationals. Tomorrow I might even have time after work for a bike ride...