The Moon Base Mirage

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Over at The Atlantic, I write about the looming, phenomenally stupid pivot by NASA away from Mars and toward the moon. A snippet:

American moon partisans owe a debt to Europe, which has tended the lunar flame during the ascent of Mars. Perhaps the most prominent moon advocate on Earth is Jan Woerner, the director general of the European Space Agency. Since assuming the post, he has argued persuasively that a “lunar village” is the natural successor to the aging International Space Station. It would be, in his view, a celestial point of harmony for a terrestrial species in discord. There is a problem, however: the Europeans have committed virtually no money to a moon village, and Russia, ESA’s would-be partner in the venture, has no money to commit. They have already been forced to downsize their presence on the ISS due to costs, and have delayed plans for robotic exploration of the moon. (The head of the Russian space agency admits that Russia “does not have financial capabilities for advanced space projects.”) Lacking unity among member states, to say nothing of technology development and financial resources, what ESA really needs is for the United States to fund and spearhead such an effort. NASA’s sights, however, are firmly fixed on Mars. With the presidential transition, however, and a new NASA director still to be appointed, lunar champions at home and abroad see an opportunity to abandon the Journey to Mars program and set sights a little closer to the Earth.

To that end, ESA is on a moon base public-relations offensive, from the light and easy (magazine spreads and aspirational illustrations) to bare-knuckled politics (publicly pressing the NASA administrator on the issue.) The overt message from Paris, where ESA is headquartered, is: We’re doing this. The subtext is: While NASA plans a fantasy mission to Mars that will never happen, the rest of the world will be driving moon buggies and mining helium-3. But ESA’s campaign is powered by handwavium, and for all the illustrations of lunar domes and our great big blue marble over the horizon, progress on the moon base ends at Photoshop. If the U.S. doesn’t build the base, it won’t get built.

You can read the rest here.

Rogue One

 

 

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Rogue One is infinitely better than Episode VII, and here are some brief and scattered thoughts as to why. Where the latter asked Hey what can we replicate?, Rogue One again and again and again seems to ask What can we do differently? Where can we take chances? As a result, Rogue One—which tells a story whose ending we’ve known since 1977 and whose general outline we’ve considered for just as long—surprises from the first minute. Episode VII, on the other hand—a film about which we knew nothing—indeed, a film whose writers loudly disclaimed and invalidated the entire “expanded universe” of hundreds of novels so as to have a free hand in storytelling—somehow managed to be derivative and styrofoam-ish, a shiny new sports car whose owners resolutely drove under the speed limit.

By the time I saw the original Star Wars, things like the Death Star and and Darth Vader were fixtures in popular culture. I’m not sure that they were ever scary, exactly. One was something that was always going to be destroyed, no question, and the other was always Luke Skywalker’s father and destined for redemption. Accordingly, their presences in the films were less existential threat and more challenges for heroes to overcome. The story was never, “Will our heroes succeed?” Instead, it was: “How will they succeed?” This does not diminish the original trilogy in the slightest because the storytelling is superb, the universe inventive, and the characters and their arcs absolutely nailed.

The same should apply to Rogue One. That is to say, the question from the first frame should have been “how,” because we know with absolute metaphysical certainty that the Death Star plans will be stolen, and the battle station eventually destroyed. And yet I never felt comfortable during this movie. I never felt that sense of: “Ahhhh! OK, that’s great. That makes sense. Very good! That explains that!” Instead, I spent its duration wondering if they were going to pull it off. If they were going to survive. If this thing—this rebel alliance—would ever get its act together. There was never a sense of inevitability. The writers never tried to be clever or convince me of their cleverness. They simply wrote a damn good story that was thrilling and scary and wrenching. They didn’t lean on expectations; they launched from them.

A lot of this has to do with the style and tone of the film. If A New Hope is Patton, Rogue One is Saving Private Ryan. People die. Good people sometimes act with cruelty and callousness. When someone gets shot, they feel it and you feel it. Even the Stormtroopers—bodies through which our heroes wade in every other entry in the series—earn the sympathy of the audience. Our heroes gun down a squad of white-armored baddies, and you sometimes flinch. Those guys didn’t ask for this. They weren’t torturing puppies and snatching babies from cribs. They were probably drafted, sure as hell didn’t want to be at whatever meaningless posting they were given, and basically just wanted this whole rebellion to go away so the galaxy could have a little peace.

And the Death Star! My god, that thing is terrifying, a looming, hulking presence whose power is so well known and yet when used even sparingly wrenches the viewer. When it appears on the screen, you start to worry. You feel its danger and terrible possibility. And you feel the reasoning behind its construction. If you live in the Star Wars universe circa. Episode IV, you’ve been at war all your life. You’re tired. There has never been a moment of peace, and dammit you’ve earned respite. If it takes building a giant weapon to stop this “destructive conflict,” so be it. It’s worth it! It’s a simple solution to a messy problem.

And messy it is. Our heroes in this movie do bad things and suffer terrible losses. They pay dearly to steal the plans to the Death Star, and I’m not sure I can ever see the original again without thinking about that. That’s good storytelling.

Contrast all of this with Episode VII. It feels silly to type this about fictional characters in a fairy tale universe, but having seen the sacrifices that went into building and destroying the Death Star, it’s insulting to audiences and heroes alike that the writers of The Force Awakens lazily said, “Well let’s just give the bad guys a Super Death Star that can destroy an entire solar system. How do the good guys stop it? Let’s just have Han say some technical handwavium about flying lightspeed into the shield, and they all just shoot at it until it blows up. Who’s up for lunch?”

Rogue One made Episode IV better because both are superbly crafted. They strengthen one another. Rogue One shames Episode VII because Episode VII is lumbering and stupid. It highlights all of that film’s weaknesses. It reveals how ordinary VII is, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. For all the scorn they’ve unfairly received, the prequel trilogy is never ordinary. It is never lazy. It is never derivative. And just as Rogue One makes the original film better, the Clone Wars series and Rebels improve the prequels, and vice versa. What a playground George Lucas has crafted over 40 years! What a latticework on which epics can be hung!

A final thought that bears noting. Rogue One makes very apparent something unexpected in the Star Wars universe: that the Jedi are holding storytellers back. If you’re a writer and you have in your sandbox invincible, magic heroes, then there’s no problem that can’t be solved through invincibility and magic. It’s deus ex machina stretched over two hour intervals, and a magic arms race is the only solution. How do you stop magic, invincible heroes? By creating magic-er, invincible-r villains! How do you stop them? More magic! More invincibility! After a while, the audience is driven to the brink of total exhaustion and nothing matters because everyone can do everything. (Marvel films have the same problem.)

Rogue One (and the original trilogy) work precisely because nobody has superpowers, or because there’s such a tremendous imbalance in said power that it’s nullified, more useful skill than anything else.

Episode VIII has finished shooting, so if there is a halo effect to Rogue One, it won’t be felt in that film, and whatever story has been set up in the sequel trilogy will have no choice but to play out as designed. Because Disney will drown us in Star Wars until the crack of doom, there is hope, however, for films in the far future. I lament that the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie is squandered, though.

 

The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx

Earlier this year, I covered the rocket launch of OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft that will visit an asteroid, study it, collect a sample, and return to Earth. My account of the launch has been published by The Week. I really do think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I hope you enjoy. Here is a little snippet:

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It’s not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It’s like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It’s not the flamethrower’s discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn’t billow. It’s all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It’s a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

You can read the whole story here.

An Automated Year

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This year robots took over my life. It’s not just my book project, which is centered around robots that explore the universe, but also in my home. We got a Roomba, a couple of Nest thermostats, and an Amazon Echo and a few Dots for different rooms. Each of these devices has had a significant, positive effect in ways I never expected. Moreover, they’ve become weirdly anthropomorphized and are all but members of the family now, or at least, really interesting houseguests that refuse to leave.

I knew I’d love the Roomba from the very first time I learned they existed, so maybe my expectations were simply set that I’d like it no matter what. We call her—it—Margaret, after my beloved dog who died a couple of years ago. Margaret was always—always—at my feet, and the Roomba, for whatever reason, always seems to start her vacuum cycle in the kitchen, where I’m usually to be found standing around. In other words, she would bump into my feet as if to get my attention.

The joy of the machine, though, is the way she—it—I’m just going to stick with she—can be either programmed for specific times, or activated manually when I’m away from home. It’s hard to describe the Marie-Kondo-like Zen that overtakes you when you come home to very clean floors. Previously, I’d vacuum regularly, but it’s never enough when you have kids and a cat. (I’m allergic to cat hair.) Our beloved Margaret, though, is always on the job, and dirt and dust and dander never has a chance to settle before being sucked away. This means that while it lacks the out-and-out power of an upright, it keeps the floors clean through sheer attrition.

Not that it isn’t powerful. This model (a Roomba 990, I think) is surprisingly heavy and its suction apparently very, very robust. Moreover, its storage canister is quite large, meaning it can easily vacuum most of the first floor of the house with little difficulty. Its design is ingenious. I particularly like the propellor-like sweeping brush that reaches every little cranny of the house, along baseboards and beneath cabinets, the feet of chairs and table legs, and so on. Uprights don’t do that, and uprights can’t vacuum beneath the furniture. Margaret can. She gets stuck on occasion. Our sofa is high enough from the ground in front that she can get under there and do the job, but the back of the sofa is a shade too low, and angled such that she can sometimes get wedged in there. I’ve since blocked this danger zone with a heavy marble beam that I had lying around from a remodel. It’s hidden from view, and the Roomba touches it and turns around. Problem solved.

There’s not quite as much to say about the Nest thermostats. I mean, they’re thermostats—let’s not get crazy. Of note however is how effectively they urge the user (my household in this case) to conserve electricity. When nobody is home, the air conditioners switch into eco-mode, which basically means they do not run. When people are home, because they are so responsive and easy to manipulate with smart phones (more on this below) and even the Apple Watch, it’s so convenient to just say, “Ah, no one is upstairs. I will set the air conditioner to 80, or heater to 50.” I particularly like the monthly emails that not only give you an “eco rating,” but compare your household with others in the area.

The thing that has most changed our lives this year is the Amazon Echo, and Alexa, the artificial intelligence within. Alexa is wonderful. Alexa is everything that Siri promised to deliver, but never did. (Number of times I accidentally trigger Siri on a given day: 5,000. Number of times I want to trigger Siri: maybe 1, previously: “Siri, set a timer for 5 minutes”—a task supplanted by Alexa.) The problem with Siri is that she’s just not really good at anything. Sports scores, I guess? Apple seems really proud of Siri’s ability to tell you the score of the big game. “Siri, what is the score of the Saints game?” but if I have to take my phone out anyway, I’ll just call that up on an app and get all sorts of great contextual information as well. Siri in a perfect world would be able to replace the announcers at sporting events. At present? She’s just a slower way of getting staid information.

Alexa is most powerful when she is ubiquitous. We started with an Echo in the living room / kitchen. (It’s an open floor plan.) You just say out loud, though not loud, really—you can whisper to her—”Alexa set a timer,” and she sets a timer. (We do set a lot of timers, I guess. Cooking, homework, etc.) And you say things like “Alexa play NPR” or “Alexa play Frank Sinatra,” and the whole thing is just so convenient, so good, so transparent that you find yourself talking to her like she’s some really smart and plucky servant. “Alexa, how do I spell Cincinnati?” Or, “Alexa, play some study music.” I’ve written previously about my love of Christmas music, and Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora in particular. Guess what? “Alexa, play Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora.” And she does, and it’s wonderful. And she can control that too. “Alexa, I don’t like this song” or “Alexa, turn up the volume.”

She also controls the Nest thermostat. “Alexa, set the hallway thermostat to 75.”

Alexa, what’s on my calendar today? Alexa what’s the high? Alexa, play Jeopardy! (really).

The real power of Alexa is the way she can interface with other applications or devices. There’s the Nest thermostat, but also things like Wunderlist (which I live out of)—”Alexa, add ‘Write a blog post’ to my to-do list,” and there it appears—or with my car’s computer system. “Alexa, lock my car.”

One thing I never thought I’d use, ever, ever!, but find myself using quite often is the Alexa’s shopping capability on Amazon. We always run out of coffee. Now when it’s low, however: “Alexa, order more vanilla biscotti flavored coffee.” / “Your order history says you previously ordered Folgers Gourmet Selections Vanilla Biscotti Flavored Ground Coffee, 10 Ounce. It costs $4.73. Would you like me to order it?” / “Yes!” And she does. Two days later it’s waiting for me, courtesy of Amazon Prime and FedEx.

Eventually Alexa proliferated across our home. This works really well with Amazon Music Unlimited, which I feared would only allow a single stream at time, but seems to have no limit. People in different rooms can listen to whatever they want.

Does it do everything I want? Not yet. There are some pretty obvious things that I wish would be implemented soon. “Alexa, play Christmas music on all of my Echoes.” That doesn’t work. The devices, as best I can tell, have no knowledge of the existence of each other, even when they’re on the same wifi network.

“Alexa, find a Christmas movie and send it to my Fire TV*.” She doesn’t do that, either, again, because she has no knowledge of other Amazon devices.

“Alexa, set the alarm on my daughter’s Dot for 6:15 a.m.” Again, no dice, because she has no idea that other devices exist.

The only other shortcoming I can think of is that she’s not very good at carrying on a conversation. Once you issue a command or ask her to do something that she cannot, she’s done. And you have to start over. “Alexa,…”, “Alexa,…”, “Alexa,…” It’s a little too much like talking to a distracted child. It forces you to be a little too condescending. The beauty of Alexa is that she’s more like a friend or a companion. When you have to keep demanding her attention, the balance of the “relationship” is thrown a bit off.

I expect these oversights will be solved eventually. I’d also love to be able to use them as a kind of intercom system—”Alexa, call my daughter’s Dot.” But features are added every month, and other companies seem pretty good about writing apps for Alexa, so I suspect the wait will not be long for these abilities and others that I’ve not yet considered.

In total, these things have had a really positive effect on our home. The Roomba was expensive, there’s no getting around that, as were the Nest thermostats, though all of their prices seem to have plummeted during the Thanksgiving shopping holiday. The Echo was $179 when I bought it, which turned out to be an absolute steal not only for the features, but because the speaker on that thing is Bose-like. Just extraordinary sound quality. The Dots were $39 over the holiday, and we picked up a couple. I intend to get more when prices fall again.

Are there privacy implications for all of this? Yes, with an asterisk. The devices do not open connections with Amazon until you say, “Alexa.” And as mentioned previously, she’s a little too quick to stop listening. Could she be hacked? Could be be recruited by the NSA to learn the intimate details of my life? Probably. But considering the number of computers, smart phones, video game systems, tablets—even my cable box!—that have “always listen” capabilities, the truth is if They, however you define They, want to listen, they already can and already are. Amazon has a really good track record with security, and I’m going to place my trust in them until they give me a reason to do otherwise.

* Regarding the Fire TV: One thing the awesome convenience and utility of Alexa has done is brought us firmly into the Amazon ecosystem. We long ago gave up on the hokey Apple TV. There were too many apps that we wanted to try, such as Sling TV, Amazon Video, or FeelIn, that were denied on the Apple TV because the system was closed. (It has since opened up, though we’re too far gone to look back.) We switched to Roku—we got one for free from Sling TV for giving it a try (we didn’t stay with it because it lacked a couple of the very few channels we actually watch). Roku is wonderful! But Fire TV does everything it does, and also interfaces nicely with Amazon Music Unlimited, and Photos. So we invested in one. So far I’m pleased. I’m not a big TV person in general, but the device (the Fire TV, not television in general) hasn’t yet offended me, and is smooth and light compared, again, with the clunky Apple TV (version 3, the last we tried).

[image credit: Six Colors]

 

A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow?

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Three things struck me recently at Magic Kingdom while riding the Carousel of Progress. 1. The crowd. 2. The crowd’s enthusiasm. 3. The state of the ride. My family and I had a single day budgeted to attend Walt Disney World while in Florida recently, and rather than choose a park (an impossible task), attempted instead a modified “four parks challenge,” in which we did the things that matter (ride the “mountain” rides at each park, see a live show, watch the fireworks, eat too much food, etc.) while disregarding the things that would detract from the fun (e.g. “Participate in five Kidcot activities”—my daughter is a year or two too old to enjoy them anymore, and a decade or two too young to enjoy them again).

My two favorite rides are the world famous Jungle Cruise and the Carousel of Progress. Don’t ask me to choose a favorite. But while the Jungle Cruise feels safe (a millennium from now, guests will still hear the same jokes, e.g.”Please exit the ride the same way you got on—pushing and shoving”)—the Carousel of Progress, inexplicably, does not. Of all the rides at Disney that should have absolutely been preserved post-9/11—we needed this ride! We still do!—it was the Carousel of Progress that was shuttered, apparently in the wake of declining park attendance. It later reopened as a “seasonal” ride, though today seems again to be  year-round. Thank goodness.

I know why I like the Carousel. The boundless optimism. The magnificent, unforgettable theme song. The humor. The artistry and craftsmanship. The history—not only represented, but also of the attraction itself. There’s something distinct about a Walt Disney attraction—a ride touched by the man himself—that cannot be replicated. I’m not even talking about abominations like Stitch’s Great Escape or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, both of which would have killed Walt Disney were he not already dead, but even great attractions like Soarin’ or Mickey’s PhilharMagic. They’re just missing…something. (The closest you’ll get to Walt-Disney-the-man-level magic is Animal Kingdom park, which is just an astoundingly triumph down the line. I fear that Avatar Land will diminish the near perfection of that park, but I fear change in general.)

So when we conceived our own Four Parks Challenge, Carousel was of course on the list no matter what. I feared, however, that it wouldn’t even be open first thing at Magic Kingdom (we started the day at the rope drop) and that we would have to circle back later in the day. My fears were for nothing, however. Not only was it open at 9:45 a.m., but it was packed! That just made my morning. And not just old people already tired of standing. All ages, races, nationalities. The ride still has it! And before it begins, the old black-and-white television broadcast of Walt Disney describing it, and singing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” with the Sherman Brothers. Well, there’s something so distinctly Disney about the whole thing. It positively brims with magic.

So our turn came up, and the crowd filled the Carousel. The lights lowered. The narrator introduced the ride. And the Carousel began. AND THE CROWD—this massive, diverse crowd of normal human beings—SANG THE SONG! The whole thing. We all knew the words! Everyone of course knows the lyrics by the ride’s end—but from the start? Well it’s like the ghost of Walt decided to find a way to make the morning even better.

And then the ride broke. OK, it didn’t break. It jammed? After 1900, it stayed at… 1900. So I wasn’t exactly upset about this turn of events, or lack thereof. But the cast member running it kept having to interrupt the second viewing to say, “Please stay seated,” which, look, after the first time, everybody got the message. Anyway, 1900 repeated, and then all was back to normal. The carousel continued. And if that had been it, it wouldn’t have beared mentioning. No ride is perfect. Not even perfect rides.

But then we got to the “present.” Now, look, I’ve done this ride a lot of times over the years. I know what it’s supposed to look like. So when I say that Father looked… dejected? defeated? malfunctioning?… I know what I’m saying. He stood there, said the words, sang the song, but he was somehow slumped over the stove. His mouth moved. His eyes twinkled. He still prodded at whatever it is he’s supposed to be cooking. But it’s like he needed a few bolts tightened so that he could stand upright. His head needed a little adjustment so that he would look at the audience rather than the footlights. It just looked… sad? Maybe it is a sly commentary on masculinity today. After all, Father in 1900 was The Man of the House, and in “today,” he’s cooking slaving in the kitchen while Grandma fights an interstellar war. But I don’t think it’s supposed to be commentary. (God I hope it’s not.) What it looked like, during that brief interval, was an old, unmaintained ride. That worries me.

Thankfully, everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the crowd left the Carousel singing. But I get the feeling that someone at Magic Kingdom is slacking on the job. The Carousel of Progress is not just any ride. It’s the only ride in Orlando actually, physically touched by Walt Disney himself. (It was previously a Disneyland attraction, installed while Walt was still alive. It was transferred to Magic Kingdom in 1975.) It’s like the T-Rex in a natural history museum—the most important attraction, even if it isn’t technically the most important attraction. It must be maintained, preserved, protected. The Carousel of Progress embodies the Disney spirit. The Sherman Brothers described “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” as Walt’s theme. I like that. I hope it was. It certainly represents everything I like about Disney Parks in general. It’s the heart of Tomorrowland and the exemplar of the plaque above the entrance archway of the park: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”

Domain shuffle

I’m shifting my web stuff around, and while this is happening, sites will go up and down and links/pages/etc. will break. I’m unlikely to fix any anything that breaks, so don’t hit reload frantically or rage at the heavens like King Lear, asking when I’m going to get my electronic act together. The answer is never. If you’re interested in this sort of thing (why?), my domain now points to about.me, and my blog to wordpress.com. I’ve done this for simplicity; I spent a day editing an .htaccess file on a self-hosted WordPress server, and after failing in my task, dropped a clenched fist onto my desk and vowed never again. And I will keep that vow until I find myself on a monster deadline and want to procrastinate.

The Day After Tomorrow

The city of Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas have just endured the meteorologic equivalent of a zombie movie. The flood, it seemed, came from nowhere, in all directions, patiently overtaking everyone and everything. There was no hurricane, no Weather Channel Special Event. No “Megastorm Rudolph” or whatever. It was a rainy day, and then tens of thousands of people became homeless and lost everything they owned. The floods seemed to have no logic behind them—places flooded that haven’t flooded in centuries, if ever—places where it was not just improbable that flooding would occur, but laughable—impossible.

It was like The Day After Tomorrow, the awful movie in which one day there is sudden global freezing, or something, due to climate change. I don’t doubt climate change or its human accelerant, but when it does come, I doubt I’ll go to bed in a humid Louisiana summer and wake up to find Antarctica in the backyard. But the flood was exactly like that. People went to bed and woke up to a foot of water in their house, and they weren’t even the least fortunate of the victims.

But a zombie movie, that’s what I’ve thought about this week. Because the flooding just seemed to happen, and in places that, to a layman, seems to have been in random places with no concern for elevation or location—here, not there, here and here and here but not one road over. It’s like Poseidon was throwing darts. It didn’t seem even to be related to the intensity of rain. So there’s been a general feeling of: It’s coming. They’re coming to get you Barbara! This threat, inexplicable. You cannot outrun it. You can’t prepare for it. Stack all the sandbags you’d like—the water will not relent.

In most zombie movies you see How It All Started. Some scientist playing God, or whatever, and then doomsday. But for most characters in such a movie, that’s not how it happens. For them, they’re eating breakfast and down the road come the zombies, lumbering along, hungry for brains. What do you do? Where do you go? That’s the flood. And like any good thriller, the first thing you have to do is get rid of cell phones, because isolation is key to scaring someone. In Baton Rouge, AT&T was able to oblige, its wireless service collapsing immediately after the flood began. No calls in or out. You’re alone and whether or not your family is flooded or trapped or dead is a terrifying mystery.

My house was not flooded, though it was just dumb luck that it didn’t. Our number wasn’t called. But I keep thinking of the people who lost everything. Very, very few of these people had flood insurance because they didn’t live in flood areas. It would have been like having blizzard insurance, The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding. And so they’ve lost everything they own, have no house, still have mortgages, and will get little to none of their money back from insurance companies. How do you recover from that? It’s inconceivable. And yet for thousands of people, that’s their life now. But it’s so much worse than that, because businesses were flooded too, and aren’t likely to open tomorrow, if ever. Now you’re homeless, destitute, deeply in debt, and you don’t have a job or income.

In truth, I’ve not paid much attention to the national news because when actual news is happening the national media is at its worst, the industry having long pivoted to a tawdry form of entertainment. Had reporters parachuted in, they would have sewn only the seeds of chaos, like foreign spies inciting Third World riots. But I was mortified to find a day after the city was submerged—residents desperately working to rescue neighbors, friends, family—that no major paper condescended even to mention on its front page the tragedy, the catastrophe, the liquid apocalypse that had befallen Louisiana. It was a clarifying event. Here is how little you matter. In truth, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities—obliterated Denham Springs, 80% of its residents submerged!—probably don’t matter much to the rotation of the Earth. But simply as fellow countrymen, one would expect a tip of the hat. An empty gesture. No speech by the president. Nothing from the Dorito-hued con man running for president. A single tweet from Hillary Clinton, presumably the next president. Less than 140 characters of text. We didn’t even rate a Very Special Edition of her propaganda podcast. Thanks Hillary. Baton Rouge citizens who are #withher know now that it’s a one way #with.

But there again, it’s been amazing?—I hate to use that word, but here we are—how meaningless the national spotlight has been. It’s been a deliverance to avoid the stampede of politicians posing for photographs in shelters, their best Very Concerned faces plastered on. Will this look good on my website? This is the front of my reelection brochure. They’re not here, and nobody misses them, exactly. It’s just a principal thing. And to see the response of the community—you hear “everyone came together” and you roll your eyes, but here, that’s exactly what happened. The moment the flood started, the Celtic movie studio opened one of its massive sound stages and started a shelter. Local fishermen raced their boats into subdivisions and down highways, going house to house, rescuing strangers. The Cajun Navy. Not because they were somehow directed or coerced, but because it needed to be done, and who else was going to do it? People used Facebook to ask for help, or to ask for someone to check on a loved one (AT&T was down when it was needed most!) and strangers in their boats would see the request, and steer toward the houses in question. This improvised emergency response—a bunch of guys in fishing boats, a film studio with an empty building, shared status updates on Facebook—was exponentially better than any “managed” disaster response I’ve seen in my lifetime. Please don’t help us—we don’t want another Katrina! Donation centers have sprung up everywhere—donation centers alone could have pushed the flood water away. My daughter and I went to Walmart to buy items to donate, and it was like the whole store was doing the same. People just pushing shelves of toiletries and baby items and foodstuffs into grocery carts to give away. So many people have volunteered that volunteers have been turned back. Those same volunteers took to social media to learn where help was needed, and went there instead. Roving bands of mercy facing down the zombie menace, the overnight Antarctica.

I don’t know what happens next. Nobody does. School is back in session, which is good. But even in the letter from my daughter’s school announcing the reopening, a sad aside: school is reopening in part so that parents can begin recovery efforts without also having to attend to the kids. The community will survive this, but it will take so many years. At least there is some clarity as to where we rate on the national scene, and the knowledge that whatever comes next, we can handle it.

An Ode to the Livescribe Echo Smartpen

The Livescribe Echo Smartpen is a best friend to both journalists and students, and is one of the few devices in my arsenal that have made a measurable, positive impact on my career. I bought my pen in 2010, making it quite old in tech years, and while it is beginning to show its age (the digital screen no long lights sufficiently that I can read it), it has proven to be a workhorse and a staple of my satchel. When conducting an interview, I generally bring my pen, a spiral-bound Livescribe notebook, and also a small, Philips digital audio recorder, for redundancy. (I’ve yet to lose a single minute from either device due to technical problems, though we buy insurance not for what has happened, but for what might happen. And as an added benefit, on occasion one mic can clarify audio that is muddled on the other.)

The way the Echo pen works is this. I take notes by hand in my Livescribe notebook. The pen records both the audio being spoken, but also the pen strokes as I write them in the notebook. When I later download a note-taking session to my computer, I can see my notes being written in real time as the audio plays. (This is super useful when drawing diagrams of things being explained.) But a computer isn’t even necessary for the process, at any step, ever (save backups, which can go directly to Evernote, where handwritten notes are then made searchable—one of many Evernote miracles). Sans computer, you can also take only your little spiral-bound notebook and pen, go off somewhere, plug headphones into the pen (or just use the pen’s speaker) and open the notebook. Tap the pen on any word of any note you’ve taken, and the pen will almost as if by magic begin playing the audio recorded at the exact moment you wrote said note. This is a game changer, and adds a level of prevision to notes and direct quotes that must surely be unparalleled in the history of notetaking.

Here is an Amazon link to the Livescribe 2 Echo. N.b. that I make no money on this link, as Louisiana is ineligible for affiliate linking.

Note further that I’ve said nothing about the much newer Livescribe 3, which I own, and despise, for the following reasons:

1. It is not self contained. If I want to use a Livescribe 3 pen, I have to have my phone present (which is not always possible depending on the security policies of institutions at which I conduct interviews), and more unnerving, I have to trust that Livescribe’s general execrable software will not crash on my phone, midway through an interview, leaving me missing key parts of interviews. More importantly, such mission-critical failures force me to disrupt the flow of an interview in order to reload the app and fiddle with the pen to get things reconnected. This is simply a deal-breaker. Audio recorders can sometimes be ever-present warnings to interview subjects that You-Are-Being-Recorded-So-Hedge-Everything-You-Say-on-Penalty-of-Career-Suicide. (Not that I generally, if ever, ask such loaded questions, but when you’re being recorded, every question can feel that way.) This risks leading to stilted, toothless, mealy answers. But not generally. Once an interview begins, I start the recorder, aim it, and within 10 minutes or so, it is usually forgotten because we are used to being surrounded by technology. Moreover, people generally focus only on a single thing or thought. During an interview, that single thing is the question at hand. The recorder thus melts into the table and is soon forgotten. But start fiddling with your fat pen and iPhone, and suddenly the recorder returns to the forefront, this time glowing in phosphorescence.

2. I am left-handed. The designers of the Livescribe 3 (smartly) rejected the weird Livescribe 2 cap in favor of a twist-to-extend-pentip model. So far, so good. But they positioned the twist-to-extend band in the dead center of the pen. If you’re right handed, that’s no problem. As you write, the downward pressure of the pen against your hand acts as a kind of locking mechanism keeping the pen extended. (The pen extends by twisting the band counterclockwise.) But if you are left handed, the downward pressure of the pen against you hand constantly twists the band clockwise, thus unlocking the pen and retracting it. The upshot is that every few paragraphs during furious note taking, the pen suddenly retracts and thus powers down and generally loses connection to the app, disrupting everything. (See point 1.)

3. It is a missed opportunity. The downside of the Livescribe Echo is its bulk. It’s like writing with a fat Crayola marker. This is because it has to pack audio recording equipment within its shell. By outsourcing the audio stuff to the phone for the Livescribe 3, though, the new pen should have shrunken considerably, to something more in line with a Sharpie marker. Instead, and inexplicably, they went the opposite direction, making the Livescribe 3 more like a Magic Marker. Whether this was a design choice (though I cannot imagine how) or poor internal engineering, the result is all of the bad with none of the good. You lose the self-contained pen while gaining a fat pen relying on Livescribe’s notoriously unreliable software.

I’ve not yet given up on the company, though, and hope that the Livescribe 4 addresses these issues by: 1. Returning the recording component of the device to the pen’s internals, while 2. Taking advantage on 7+ years of technological advancement to shrink the internals to give us a pen closer in size to a traditional pen, and 3. Move the pen-tip-twist-extension to the top side of the pen, when one’s handgrip does not result in inadvertent twists.

I will report back when the next pen is released.

On Mass Shootings, Baton Rouge, and the Sorry State of the World

After the tragic slaying of three police officers in Baton Rouge (following the tragic slaying of a black man by police officers) I was asked by The Atlantic to offer a view from the ground, and I did. I’m happy with the way the piece turned out, though the 1,000 words lost in the edit made less clear the thesis of the piece, which is: The civil strife in the city, which made national news, was actually very localized in Baton Rouge, and easily avoided. The assassination of police officers has made it a city-wide tragedy—a fresh wound felt by all and impossible for anyone to ignore. I received some pushback on Twitter from people suggesting that I was somehow justifying cop-killing, which is the exact opposite of what I wrote in the essay. (Those people likely did not read the piece, but rather, the headline, which I did not write.) The city is reeling, and is unlikely to recover for a very long time. The piece can be found here.

Over at The Week, I wrote about firearms and the terrorist attack in Orlando, and suggested that Alexander Hamilton was pretty clear in the Federalist Papers about what a “well regulated militia” means. My suggestion: rather than wait for gun confiscation, which will never happen, or the next mass shooting, which definitely will happen, why not follow the Second Amendment to the letter? If the right to keep and bear arms is to maintain a well regulated militia, why not mandate militia membership in order to own a firearm, and let local militias police themselves? Small groups are very good at identifying problem individuals in their ranks, and militias would have a vested interest in doing so. Moreover, in keeping with the Framers’ intentions, militias would have to meet once or twice a year; it would keep gun ownership a state issue; and it would confer civil obligations on gun owners. You want a rifle? That’s fine. But you need to be proficient with it, understand firearm safety, and be ready to be called upon to use your weapon in defense of the United States. That piece can be found here.

ONE INCH FROM EARTH Announced

It has been very difficult keeping this news a secret. Thankfully, it has now been reported in Publisher’s Marketplace, so here is the announcement:

Brown Gets Close to “Earth” at Custom House

For HarperCollins’s Custom House imprint, Geoff Shandler preempted world rights to David W. Brown’s One Inch from Earth. Brown is a contributor to the Atlantic and the book, which Dunow, Carlson & Lerner’s Stacia Decker represented, is about NASA’s Europa mission (established to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of Jupiter). Custom House said the book features “persevering scientists as its heroes, the planet Mars as the villain, and an unlikely savior in the form of a Tea Party congressman on a mission to find a second Garden of Eden on Jupiter’s moon.”

A lot of hard work went into this. The proposal took a full year to write—longer, in fact, than my last book—and involved more research, interviews, travel, and luck than I ever could have imagined. (There are no shortcuts when doing good work.) Of course, the hard part is yet to come.

My agent, Stacia Decker of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, is one of the most competent, sharp, and fabulous human beings I’ve ever had the good fortune of knowing, and she parlayed the proposal into an tremendous book deal with the most exciting imprint in publishing today. (At lot of adjectives in that previous sentence, and every one is accurate.) I am over the moon at the idea of working with Geoff Shandler, who previously edited some of my favorite books ever, including Into the Beautiful North, a masterpiece by Luis Urrea.

Finally, I am honored to write this book and to tell the story of men and women whose work will transform science, philosophy, religion—you name it. One day we will all know their names, and it’s a privilege to do my part in making that happen.

(I know this reads like an Oscars speech, but it’s a pretty big moment for me, and I intend to live up to expectations.)