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Friday, June 15, 2007

Mission Control MissionControl.png
My daughter has a contraption that I call "mission control." It's a variation on a common type of neglectomatic popular for parents to buy for children nowadays. I can put Elle in it and she will entertain herself for quite some time. She can really work herself into a state of high energy and excitement pulling on toys that make varying sounds. She can really work up quite a frenzy.

But what is she learning? That pulling on a toy makes a looney toon sound and tells her "blue," "triangle," or "great job." She certainly likes this, but is it a useful skill at this age to learn that pulling a cord makes a sound totally unrelated to the act itself? Is her "mission control" neglectomatic teaching her something about the real world, or is it teaching her randomness, arbitrariness, and whimsey?

I'm happy when she's smiling, for any reason, but I like even more to observe her when she's looking intently at something real and learning basic concepts. I think she learns more, and is more stimulated intellectually, when I simply put her on the floor and let her crawl around. Then she learns real cause and effect. She sees things, crawls to them, holds them, tastes them, tries to understand what they are.

If you watch footage of the men in the real mission control that put men on the moon, you see a seriousness that they know what they are doing. There are lights and knobs and bells, and whistles, each having a specific meaning and purpose. Unlike my daughter, they know why pulling on a switch causes a certain action. They understand, all of them, the physics behind every detail of what they are doing.

Modern mission control doesn't give me that impression. It seems a bit more like my daughter's mission control.
If you watch old footage of NASA, you see serious professionals. The focus of their effort was to achieve a tangible objective. Modern mission control is of course like this in many respects, but I can't help but feel that the intelligence and professionalism of the modern engineers and controllers is influenced by an additional motivation.

When we sent men to the moon, the purpose was to put a man on the moon, to be an explorer, a human being to crawl around the moon and discover in the tradition of eons of human explorers. There was an element of politics, but that element was mostly the political desire to be first, to beat our adversaries, the Soviets. Also, we were learning technology to use rockets and demonstrate our power to our enemy.

More recently, if you go to NASA publications, documentaries, and websites, the focus is entirely different. Almost invariably, the focus is on children. They let children name the Mars rovers. They put school teachers (I will never understand why) in the space shuttle. When they interview the engineers, they seem very intelligent, but they appear to be playing, not applying science toward an important human goal. They have failed to find a real purpose for their work. The need for the science does not match the amount of money spent, or else private companies would be doing some of it. NASA's begging for money hinges on two things, getting politicians elected and getting money to politicians from companies profiting from NASA programs. A few years ago, the space shuttle debris was still falling to Earth and a Texas senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was already on the television insisting that we must give NASA more money.

It comes down to this. NASA is rudderless, as an institution it is pulling on cords and getting funny sounds that make it laugh and get all excited, but with little reason. Almost every NASA program is justified as searching for life on other planets as though this were in some way important and not necessary to explain.

I won't stop putting Elle in her mission control. It makes her happy. But it is only for play. Serious learning of fundamentals must occur elsewhere, and will. NASA should not stop its mission control, but stop using it for play. NASA needs to stop being "cute" and deliver serious science and exploration to all of us.

Friday, June 01, 2007

People are Backwards on the Death Penalty
The death penalty is unfair. Recent scientific evidence has proven that people who were executed or still on death row were and are innocent of the crimes they're accused of.

So say those opposed to the death penalty. Not being a geneticist or expert in DNA, I will accept such claims of evidence on their face. I have no way to refute them.

But the conclusion that the death penalty is unfair is incorrect.
The correct conclusion is that the death penalty was unfair, but because of science and geneticists, it cannot any longer be thought to be unfair when it is applied. Now we can know with certainty, no longer simply "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the guilty party is indeed guilty.

I have no remorse for those guilty of capital crimes.

Another argument against the death penalty is that it is inhumane or immoral. This is not a very good argument at all, it is an emotion. When a person commits a capital crime by taking another's life, or otherwise as defined by the legislature, then no civilized person should have pity for them. This is also an emotional answer, but that is all that such arguments deserve.

The only remaining argument in opposition to the death penalty is that it is unfairly applied to mostly the poor or minorities. The correct solution to this issue, whether real or perceived, is to apply the death penalty more liberally when genetic evidence removes all doubt of guilt.

The popular refrain that the death penalty is outmoded flies in the face of facts and modern science. We the people can punish murderers and other criminals by removing them from the ranks of the living with clearer consciences than ever before.