Saturday, December 6, 2003

How about funding more HBO miniseries about outer space instead?

The International Herald-Tribune reports that the Bush administration has some ambitious ideas to revamp the space programme:

The Bush administration is developing a new strategy for the U.S. space program that would send American astronauts back to the moon for the first time in more than 30 years, according to administration and congressional officials who said the plan also included a manned mission to Mars.

A lunar mission - possibly establishing a permanent base there - is the focus of high-level White House discussions on how to reinvigorate the space program following the space shuttle Columbia accident this year, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity....

While officials stressed that the White House had yet to sign off on a specific plan, they said President George W. Bush was expected soon to unveil a strategy that would include manned missions to the moon and to Mars.

The idea is to motivate NASA engineers and researchers by aiming to explore deeper reaches of space than the current shuttle fleet is capable of visiting.

Sounds great -- exactly the kind of soaring vision that led to Neil Armstrong broadcasting from Tranquility Base.

However, I have some nagging questions:

  • Is there any evidence that NASA has learned its management lessons from the Columbia disaster? The IHT story suggests that one motivation behind the the proposed plan is to boost NASA morale. Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? Shouldn't NASA get its act together before getting this big a treat?

  • Given the fact that the current administration is racking up domestic spending obligations faster than Britney Spears racks up magazine covers, there is the minor question of cost. Let's go to Gregg Easterbrook's back-of-the-envelope calculations here:

    A rudimentary, stripped-down Moon base and supplies might weigh 200 tons. (The winged "orbiter" part of the space shuttle weighs 90 tons unfueled, and it's cramped with food, oxygen, water, and power sufficient only for about two weeks.) Placing 200 tons on the Moon might require 400 tons of fuel and vehicle in low-Earth orbit, so that's 600 tons that need to be launched just for the cargo part of the Moon base. Currently, using the space shuttle it costs about $25 million to place a ton into low-Earth orbit. Thus means the bulk weight alone for a Moon base might cost $15 billion to launch: building the base, staffing it, and getting the staff there and back would be extra. Fifteen billion dollars is roughly equivalent to NASA's entire annual budget. Using existing expendable rockets might bring down the cargo-launch price, but add the base itself, the astronauts, their transit vehicles, and thousands of support staff on Earth and a ten-year Moon base program would easily exceed $100 billion. Wait, that's the cost of the space station, which is considerably closer. Okay, maybe $200 billion.

    NASA enthusiasts suggest that the cost of reconstituting a moon shot might be even greater than that. According to the IHT:

    "I think the idea is fine," James Lovell, whose 1970 Apollo mission to the moon encountered mechanical problems and nearly ended in catastrophe, said in a telephone interview.

    "A challenge to go back to the moon and reinvigorate the space flight program would be welcomed by the public," he said. "But the technology that we had in the 1960's and 1970's, such as the Saturn V heavy booster rocket, is no longer available. The actual people, the planning, the tooling, are gone. It would cost us. We'd be starting from scratch."

  • There are two "big idea" rationales given for this kind of proposal. The economic one rests on the innovations that would result from such a program. However, there are other, more cost-effective ways to do this instead going to Mars -- hell, just doubling government funds for basic research would probably achieve greater gains at lower costs.

    The other rationale is the human desire to explore -- which as a Star Trek geek I'll confess to having in spades. If this Washington Post story is true, then the Bush administration is fully cognizant of this attraction to the big idea -- in fact they're counting on it:

    One person consulted by the White House said some aides appear to relish the idea of a "Kennedy moment" for Bush, referring to the 1962 call by President John F. Kennedy for the nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

    A senior administration official said that "a lot of simultaneous efforts have been launched" in a quest for such an idea, and that the efforts have been underway since at least late summer. The official said the planning was born of an effort to follow up Bush's emergency plan for AIDS relief in this year's State of the Union address, which called for spending $15 billion over five years to help African and Caribbean countries fight the pandemic.

    This official said Bush's closest aides are promoting big initiatives on the theory that they contribute to Bush's image as a decisive leader even if people disagree with some of the specifics. "Iraq was big. AIDS is big," the official said. "Big works. Big grabs attention."

    You know, follow-through is big, too. Trying to convert the Middle East into an area where democracy and capitalism is pretty damn ambitious as well. Hey, curing AIDS is pretty big, and the rewards much more tangible.

  • I'd like to see a mission to Mars. I'd just like to see a lot of other things happen first. In sum, I'm with Easterbrook on this one:

    NASA doesn't need a grand ambition, it needs a cheap, reliable means of getting back and forth to low-Earth orbit. Here's a twenty-first century vision for NASA: Cancel the shuttle, mothball the does-nothing space station, and use all the budget money the two would have consumed to develop an affordable means of space flight. Then we can talk about the Moon and Mars.


    UPDATE: Patrick Belton links to this Buzz Aldrin op-ed in the New York Times. Aldrin's proposal:

    A much more practical destination than the moon or the space station is a region of space called L 1, which is more than two-thirds of the way to the moon and is where the gravity fields between the Earth and Moon are in balance. Setting up a space port there would offer a highly stable platform from which spacecraft could head toward near-Earth asteroids, the lunar surface, the moons of Mars and wherever else mankind decides to travel.

    Unlike the Moon and the International Space Station, which is in low-earth orbit, L 1 is not the site of strong gravitational pulls, meaning that spacecraft can leave there without using much energy. Thus L 1 would be the most sensible position for a base that would function as a test area and way-point for robotic flights as well as a support station and safe haven for human exploration of the solar system.

    posted by Dan at 05:56 PM | Comments (28) | Trackbacks (3)

    Friday, December 5, 2003

    Your holiday book recommendations

    New month -- time to update the book recommendations.

    In response to the feedback on this post about Opus and Bloom County, the "general interest" book is The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book by Bill Watterson. Of all the Calvin and Hobbes collections to have, this is the best one, since Watterson comments on the strip itself as well as his campaign to have more autonomy in his Sunday cartoons, many of which are reprinted here. There were a lot of great comic strips in the late eighties/early nineties -- Bloom Country, Doonesbury, Dilbert, Foxtrot -- but Watterson's creation stands out. If it's true that much of culture is confined to one's generation, surely Calvin and Hobbes deserves to be an exception to that rule.

    The "international relations" book is Christina Davis' Food Fights over Free Trade. Davis points out that contrary to the conventional wisdom, compared to 1950 there has been significant agricultural liberalization among the developed countries. The explanation? International institutions, specifically the GATT/WTO regime. Through the promulgation of hard law and the ability to link agricultural issues to liberalization in other sectors, the United States has been able to pry open protected markets in Japan and Europe. A brief description of the book:

    This detailed account of the politics of opening agricultural markets explains how the institutional context of international negotiations alters the balance of interests at the domestic level to favor trade liberalization despite opposition from powerful farm groups. Historically, agriculture stands out as a sector in which countries stubbornly defend domestic programs, and agricultural issues have been the most frequent source of trade disputes in the postwar trading system. While much protection remains, agricultural trade negotiations have resulted in substantial concessions as well as negotiation collapses. Food Fights over Free Trade shows that the liberalization that has occurred has been due to the role of international institutions.

    Christina Davis examines the past thirty years of U.S. agricultural trade negotiations with Japan and Europe based on statistical analysis of an original dataset, case studies, and in-depth interviews with over one hundred negotiators and politicians. She shows how the use of issue linkage and international law in the negotiation structure transforms narrow interest group politics into a more broad-based decision process that considers the larger stakes of the negotiation. Even when U.S. threats and the spiraling budget costs of agricultural protection have failed to bring policy change, the agenda, rules, and procedures of trade negotiations have often provided the necessary leverage to open Japanese and European markets.

    Chinese, Brazilian, Indian, and South African trade negotiators would serve themselves well by reading this book in order to devise a strategy to restart Cancun.

    posted by Dan at 03:48 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

    A (modest) step up from the Grammys

    2003 Weblog Awards

    Polling for the 2003 Weblog Awards has started over at Wizbang. Remember, if you don't go over and vote.... er.... well, nothing happens, exactly, except that you can't complain about who wins.

    I'd been informed that I was actually nominated for something, so I clicked over to check out the myriad categories.

    One question -- logically, how is it possible for Virginia Postrel to be nominated for Best Overall Blog, but not for Best Female Authored Blog? [What business is it of yours?--ed. Check out thethis map! I'm just sticking up for my country.]

    posted by Dan at 03:11 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

    This is a great idea. Not!

    Disturbing developments are afoot in Internet governance, according to the Washington Post:

    Leaders from almost 200 countries will convene next week in Geneva to discuss whether an international body such as the United Nations should be in charge of running the Internet, which would be a dramatic departure from the current system, managed largely by U.S. interests.

    The representatives, including the heads of state of France, Germany and more than 50 other countries, are expected to attend the World Summit on the Information Society, which also is to analyze the way that Web site and e-mail addresses are doled out, how online disputes are resolved and the thorny question of how to tax Internet-based transactions.

    Many developing nations complain that the world's most visible Internet governance body -- the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- does not adequately represent their interests and should be scrapped in favor of a group allied with the United Nations.

    A U.N. agency being put in charge of regulating the Internet. Who wants this? According to this site, the key backers are China, Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, and South Africa. This story provides some additional background. [UPDATE: Marc Scribner links to this Reuters story says that China and Cuba will be among the strongest supporters of transfering power to the ITU.]

    This makes me feel much better about this initiative.

    In this interview, Milton Mueller, a longtime and vocal ICANN critic, voices a fair amount of displeasure at the WSIS conference:

    In WSIS I see a danger that cyber activism gets linked to an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization movement, which I see as both reactionary and a certain dead-end. We need to create new forms of democratic and liberal institutions at the global level, and tying that agenda to old-style protectionism, statism and discredited neo-Marxist ideologies will take all the energy surrounding that project and flush it down the toilet....

    The issue is the distribution of power, not nationality. An Internet governance system dominated by the EU or China or Brazil might make Europeans, Chinese or Brazilians happier (or would it?) but it would hardly be more just.

    Still, maybe I'm being too harsh. Maybe a U.N.-centric system of governance can properly address concerns about the global digital divide. Oh, wait.

    This kind of multilateralism I could do without.

    UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds has more, and links to The Daily Summit, which plans to blog the WSIS. Henry Farrell provides some added detail in the history between the US, EU, and the International Telecommunications Union on this issue, about which I have some familiarity.

    posted by Dan at 12:15 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (3)

    Thursday, December 4, 2003

    How will this play in Pittsburgh?

    The President does the right thing and lifts the steel tariffs:

    Facing the threat of a trade war, President Bush on Thursday lifted 20-month-old tariffs on foreign steel, a move that will hurt steelmakers in states critical in next year's election.

    To soften the blow, the administration announced a beefed-up monitoring program to guard against a sudden flood of foreign steel coming into the country.

    Bush said the tariffs had been imposed to give the domestic industry critical time to modernize and to protect jobs.

    "These safeguard measures have now achieved their purpose, and as a result of changed economic circumstances, it is time to lift them," Bush said in a statement.

    This will not go over well in Pennsylvania -- but it may give the President a boost in Michigan.

    UPDATE: For how it's playing in Pittsburgh, click here (Thanks to alert reader P.S.!).

    posted by Dan at 02:27 PM | Comments (38) | Trackbacks (3)

    The productivity debate

    The good news, according to the New York Times:

    Productivity of U.S. companies rocketed at a 9.4 percent annual rate in the third quarter, the best showing in 20 years, offering an encouraging sign that the economic resurgence will be lasting.

    The increase in productivity -- the amount an employee produces per hour of work -- reported by the Labor Department on Wednesday was even stronger than the 8.1 percent pace initially estimated for the July-to-September quarter a month ago and was up from a 7 percent growth rate posted in the second quarter of this year.

    The third-quarter's productivity gain, based on more complete data, was better than the 9.2 percent growth rate economists were forecasting and marked the strongest performance since the second quarter of 1983, when productivity grew at a blistering 9.7 percent rate.

    The report raised new hopes that businesses may be more confident than before that the economic rebound is genuine.

    The bad news, according to Stephen S. Roach writing in last Sunday's New York Times -- the way productivity is being measured leads to a likely overestimation of that figure:

    productivity measurement is more art than science — especially in America's vast services sector, which employs fully 80 percent of the nation's private work force, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Productivity is calculated as the ratio of output per unit of work time. How do we measure value added in the amorphous services sector?

    Very poorly, is the answer. The numerator of the productivity equation, output, is hopelessly vague for services. For many years, government statisticians have used worker compensation to approximate output in many service industries, which makes little or no intuitive sense. The denominator of the productivity equation — units of work time — is even more spurious. Government data on work schedules are woefully out of touch with reality — especially in America's largest occupational group, the professional and managerial segments, which together account for 35 percent of the total work force.

    For example, in financial services, the Labor Department tells us that the average workweek has been unchanged, at 35.5 hours, since 1988. That's patently absurd. Courtesy of a profusion of portable information appliances (laptops, cell phones, personal digital assistants, etc.), along with near ubiquitous connectivity (hard-wired and now increasingly wireless), most information workers can toil around the clock. The official data don't come close to capturing this cultural shift.

    As a result, we are woefully underestimating the time actually spent on the job. It follows, therefore, that we are equally guilty of overestimating white-collar productivity. Productivity is not about working longer. It's about getting more value from each unit of work time. The official productivity numbers are, in effect, mistaking work time for leisure time.

    A quick perusal of Roach's writings reveal him to have replaced Henry Kaufman as the Dr. Doom of the U.S. economy. That said, he's raising a fair point about measurement issues here.

    UPDATE: On the other hand, Tyler Cowen has a post suggesting that productivity gains have been underestimated.

    posted by Dan at 12:27 PM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (1)

    I'm back. I'm swamped.

    Good to be back in Chicago. Not so good to have hundreds of e-mail piled up in one's inbox. While I'm sorting through these, two new blogs to check out. For those interested in Republicans like me, check out The Bully Pulpit. The e-mail sent to me claimed that the blog has, "the brains of a Volokh and the wit of a Drezner!" Reads at your own risk.

    For lighter fare, among the interesting web sites I've found -- this history of the pregnancy test kit, wittily entitled The Thin Blue Line.


    posted by Dan at 10:41 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003

    A first for me

    On the flight to Philadelphia, I experienced a first -- I read an article in an "airline" magazine that I actually thought was interesting -- "Who Knows" by Bruce Anderson, in US Airways Attaché magazine. The essay is about the "transiense of generational knowledge." The opening paragraphs:

    What was I to make of the half-dozen editors and interns sitting around a conference table saying that they had never heard of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees”? Should I have considered them lucky or illiterate? These folks, about half my staff, were all smart, well-traveled, and college-educated. Tellingly, they were also all under 35.

    The travel magazine that I edit was developing a photo essay on famous Western trees. The sparse text that accompanied the piece began, perhaps too predictably, with a nod to Kilmer’s 12-line paean, a poem once so familiar to so many. The tree-huggers and arboriphobes on my staff divided exactly by age, as though Kilmer’s poetic chestnut had been a birthright accorded only to those born before, say, 1968.

    It turns out that the year you were born may be a more important factor in what you know than the schools you attended or which side of the tracks you were born on. The generation gap is less about attitude and more about cultural points of reference, less about how long you like your hair or how short your skirts and more about whether you identify the Kennedy tragedy as something to do with the president or with his son.

    Twenty-five years ago, this concept of generational knowledge was distilled down to a joke about a kid who is sifting through the bins at Tower Records and announces, “I didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings.” Today, that story just raises the question of why they call your favorite music store Tower Records.

    I don't agree with Anderson's conclusions, but it's still worth a look -- and how many times can you say that about an airline magazine?

    posted by Dan at 05:03 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, December 1, 2003

    On the road again

    I'm giving a talk tomorrow at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Political Science. Blogging may or may not occur between now and when I return on Wednesday evening.

    posted by Dan at 12:43 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

    The comparative advantage of loyal fans

    The rise of salary caps, luxury taxes and the like in professional sports has forced even comparatively wealthy franchises to lure marquee players with different kinds of incentives. The first one to crop up was location. In basketball, for example, Orlando is considered a nice place to play because so many players have off-season homes nearby. In baseball, St. Louis is considered to be a great baseball town, leading to a lot of free agent signings for the Cardinals.

    The trade of Curt Schilling from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Boston Red Sox could mark a new kind of lure -- passionate fans. A lot of reports suggest that one tipping factor in Schilling's decision to approve the trade was his late-night interaction with the Red Sox nation on a fan web site, the Sons of Sam Horn. According to

    Schilling's messages -- coupled with his chats on the Sons of Sam Horn (SOSH) site -- further demonstrate the powerful community the Internet has provided and what may yet lie ahead.

    "I don't know what role it played, but it left a huge impression on me," Schilling said of the fan interaction when asked about it during his news conference announcing the trade. "I was overwhelmed at their passion, at their incredible desire for this to work out. They all had their own ideas, most of them being to screw the Yankees. But I was overwhelmed. I was in awe of their intensity in November when the Patriots are playing and the Celtics are playing and they're having good years, and the Bruins. It was pretty awesome.

    "I had a chance to be in a private chat room (at SOSH) with 24 Red Sox fans last night and talking baseball. Once we got past the first two minutes of them calling me a liar and telling me I wasn't who I was, we got to talking about the situation. It was fun. It's what I do when I'm in the clubhouse or when I'm hanging out. We were talking baseball. It was a pretty neat thing."

    Of course, the fact that the Florida Marlins won the World Series this year with a pretty apathetic fan base suggests the possible limits to this trend. And God help Schilling if the Red Sox Nation ever turns on him. Still, it will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a larger trend of players sounding out fans before deciding where to sign. [Hey, you could combine this trend with sabremetrics and argue that whichever group of fans embraces the right stats the quickest will have the best team!--ed. I'll leave that to David Pinto].

    And, as a Sox fan, I'm much obliged to the Sons of Sam Horn!

    UPDATE: In Slate, Seth Stevenson points out that Schilling's online habits also have a negative effect on sports reporters via disintermediation.

    posted by Dan at 12:34 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (2)

    Your TV critic reports on The Reagans

    So I was all set to go to bed last night, when I started flipping channels, and I stumbled across "The Reagans," the miniseries that was planned to air on CBS but was put on its sister network Showtime in response to activist pressure. Curious, I watched it.

    Critical reviews have been mixed. The New York Times says that the movie "turned out to be milder and more balanced than both its critics and its supporters had suggested." The Salt Lake Tribune says it "truly is offensive, grotesque, unfair and ultimately trivial." The Los Angeles Times has the most trenchant observation:

    The political fuss and bother that nudged this film from network sweeps to Sunday night pay TV is in some ways more engaging than the film itself, at least to anyone acquainted with the real-time Reagan saga.

    My own take:

    1) Is the film a biased look at Reagan? Hell, yes. Any movie on Reagan's presidency that devotes ten minutes to the Bitburg screw-up and a half-hour to the Iran-Contra affair but passes over the Challenger speech and deals with the waning of the Cold War with a 20 second scene is dealing from a stacked deck [What about the line about AIDS that was the source of much of the controversy?--ed. Ironically, that's not in the final version -- indeed, the final version of that scene is one of the more effective critiques of Reagan's policies in the movie, as it has Reagan remaining silent in responce to Nancy's entreaties, a deft symbol of Reagan's AIDS policy (though see Andrew Sullivan for a dissent on this point)].

    2) Of course, even-handedness is an imperfect standard to judge biopics -- by that score, you'd probably have to ding every Kennedy movie ever made for being too hagiographic or too critical. Films can be both partisan and good drama (think Reds). The question is, does the move grip you?

    The answer for this one is no. The Reagans is just shapeless. In part, this may be because it was based on Carl Sferazza Anthony's First Ladies, Volume II, which Amazon describes as containing "minibiographies" of the relevant women. That ain't a strong foundation for a three-hour movie.

    Watching it, I was never certain if the focus was Reagan's political career, the relationship between Ron and Nancy, the entire Reagan family, or what. There was no narrative structure, no theme, no pacing. It boils down to a biased highlights clip. Of course, it was originally intended as a miniseries, and I haven't seen a good one since Shogun.

    I do know this -- if I were Patti Davis, I'd put a pox on the filmmakers. I haven't seen such an unflattering, malignant portrayal of a presidential offspring since... well, I never saw it, but I bet the JFK Jr. biopic wasn't particularly nice to John John. By far, she gets the worst treatment in this biopic. So, in closing, I'll turn over the microphone to Davis herself, who had this to say in Time last month about the brouhaha:

    They [producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron] have exhibited astounding carelessness and cruelty in their depiction of my father and my entire family. They never consulted any family member, nor did they speak to anyone who has known us throughout the years. In the New York Times on October 21st, one of the writers admitted that the line about AIDS victims was completely fabricated. In that same article, Jim Rutenberg reported that the producers claimed no major event was depicted without two confirming sources....

    Reading the script actually made me feel better in some ways. It is, quite simply, idiotic. Everyone is a caricature, manufactured and inauthentic. My father is depicted as some demented evangelist, going on about Armageddon every chance he gets. My mother is cast as a female Attila the Hun, and I and my siblings are unrecognizable to me....

    But the idiocy of the script can’t dilute the cruelty behind it. To deliberately and calculatingly depict public people as shallow, intolerant, cold and inept, with no truths or facts to back up the portrayals, is nothing short of malevolent....

    My father would probably say, “This too shall pass.” And it will. We will continue to come to his bedside, knowing that death waits in the doorway and will one day reach for him. We will continue to cherish the fact that we walked away from our old battlegrounds and discovered how much better peace feels. We will look at each other through the clear glass of the present, not the mud-spatter of the past. What a pity the producers missed out on that part of the story.

    posted by Dan at 09:52 AM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (3)