Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Top Two Jaw-Dropping Lists

Internet news sites are chock-full of two things: the kind of cheap sensational ads that used to appear in the back of cheap sensational magazines, and lists.  There's at least one such site that features nothing but lists.  They've "contributed" a new word: "listicule" or an article that is structured as a list (or more accurately perhaps, a list that is structured as an article.)

But the form has yielded some gems.  I'm noting two of them, for different reasons.

The first is not really a list per se, but an aggregation.  The New York Times published Donald Trump's Twitter Insults: the Complete List (So Far.)  Since it was last updated on Monday, such categories as "Ted Cruz" have swollen somewhat, but the immense range of targets--plus the repetitive insults--feeds the Trump Response (amused disgust) at first, but winds up in true Trump territory: demagogue scarytown.

The second is the New York Magazine Culture Vulture's The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy.  It turns out to be not really a list of jokes but of comic moments, complete with film and TV clips.  I've gotten only part way through it because it is so thorough, and the clips are too tempting to pass over.  Most such lists are click bait, but this one is bookmark bait.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


There have so far been three fatal disasters in the US space program, and though separated by decades, they each happened within five days of each other on the calendar year, in late January and early February.

They also represent three of the four parts of a space voyage.  Apollo 1 was running a pre-launch test on January 27, 1967. when fire ignited, killing astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee.  The Challenger space shuttle exploded moments after lift-off (pictured above) on January 28, 1986, killing its seven crew members.  And on February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entering Earth's atmosphere after a successful voyage, killing its crew of seven.  There has yet to be a major disaster in the main part of the voyage, in space.

The anniversaries are naturally noted at this time of the year.  This year the media focused on Challenger, since it was the 30th anniversary.  For a few moments on that morning in 1986, the Challenger crew and I were in the air at the same time.  I was a thousand or so miles north, flying into Portland, Maine.  When I disembarked for a speaking engagement, the people who met me had ashen faces.  When they told me the shuttle had exploded, at first I thought they meant the New York to Washington shuttle.  I hadn't known that Challenger was going to be launched that day (it had been delayed before). Aboard Challenger was Christa McAuliffe, a teacher in neighboring New Hampshire.  Lots of children watched the launch, and the shuttle disappearing in smoke a minute or so later.

Gus Grissom, one of the astronauts on Apollo 1, was the second American in space, a major contributor to the Gemini program, and slated to be the first human to set foot on the moon.

 I was in high school when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, the next Mercury mission after Grissom.  I was editor of my high school newspaper, and from a magazine I copped a photo of the seven astronauts with Alan Shepard (the first American in space), Grissom and Glenn together at the end,  clipped everybody off except those three, and printed it with a brief celebratory story.  I sent copies of the story to all three.  All three replied in some fashion.  Grissom sent a letter and enclosed the clipping I'd sent.  At first I was taken aback, until I noticed that under each figure in the photo was a signature.  He not only signed it himself, but got Shepard and Glenn to sign it as well.

Each of these disasters had causes both mundane and mysterious.  Apollo 1 had a number of fairly outrageous design flaws that combined to seal the fate of the astronauts, but the actual source of the fire itself was never found.  Columbia's fate was sealed by what current astronaut Mark Kelly describes in his memorial this week as "a pizza box-sized piece of insulating foam" that had flaked off the spacecraft, dooming its re-entry.

The Challenger disaster, attributed to tiny O rings that failed because of the cold during launch (although that's been disputed since), had the most protracted and public evaluation.  I followed it and wrote about it at the time, but until I read this article last week I was unaware that politics may have played a part--President Reagan reputedly wanted to refer to the teacher in space during his State of the Union address, so Challenger was launched despite the engineers who pleaded for a postponement because of the cold.

If there is anything in common in the causes of these disasters, it might be the flaws in communication and decision-making at least as much as technical flaws.  Each catastrophe resulted in better spacecraft and procedures.  But all three were avoidable, and so even as we remember the fine people who were lost, these disasters should haunt the process as it continues.  With the necessary audacity, we need humility.


The Iowa caucuses gave some definition to the GOPer field, though in fact it doesn't much matter which candidate emerges--they're all frightening bigots, blowhards and incompetents.  But Trump unexpectedly lost--he very nearly slipped to third place--and although no one else is saying it yet, I believe his failure to debate played a role.  Update: Actually, now Trump is saying it.

Ted Cruz won on organizing Evangelicals, but he is likely to come in no better than third in New Hampshire, and who knows from there. The reaction today is to wonder if the Trump is all trumpery, an image inflated by entertainment value, that may deflate like (in Frank Rich's phrase) a big fat balloon. But it's likely that there are now three viable GOPer candidates and though the order may change (in New Hampshire my guess is Trump, Rubio, Cruz--although a fourth could sneak in somewhere there, i.e. Kasich is popular) that's likely to be the race.

Hillary Clinton escaped Iowa with a very close win, while Bernie Sanders demonstrated both the weaknesses in her candidacy and the future of the Dems, as Eric Levitz argues persuasively in New York magazine online.  This bodes well for those who believe that corporate capitalism as it is currently constructed is unable to effect the changes necessary longterm to address the climate crisis.  As well as Sanders actual key issue, the increasingly debilitating gap between the rich few and the many left behind.

Yet that future is not now, and Hillary is the electable present, the alternative to GOPer apocalypse with one of these dangerous idiots in the White House together with a GOPer House and Senate.  The spectre of Sanders as Nader is too scary to dismiss, though there are a lot of primaries to go.

The scariest possibility broached so far is quoted in the Frank Rich piece, in which her email situation leads to an indictment or special prosecutor, after the Dem convention in the summer.  If there's anything the electorate wants to avoid, it's another Clinton pursued by another special prosecutor.  In which case, welcome to the American apocalypse.