Monday, July 20, 2009

to the moon(s)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the first human steps on the giant orb that lights our skies at night and captivates our collective imagination. And of course, in this instant news age of Twitter and blog reporting (ahem), it's no surprise that pretty much every media outlet is covering the event—and that businesses are using any angle they can to cash in.

But what was surprising to me about the day in question, July 20, 1969 (N.B. it was already July 21st in the U.K. and points east when Neil Armstrong put his boot down), was that the only way people could really follow along was via radio. I'd heard stories of people watching the news on television that night and of feeling glued to the set as the reports came in. Yet until yesterday, when, prompted by the death of newscaster Walter Cronkite I watched the CBS broadcast (see below) for the first time, I had never realized just how in-the-dark the country and the world really was about what was happening. And frankly, it starts to make sense why all these conspiracy theorists might have been so skeptical!

As you can see for yourself, the broadcast included a crude animation of what was supposedly happening as the Eagle landed. And that was it, folks! The only other clue people had that this was actually taking place was the rather anticlimactic radio broadcast between the Eagle astronauts and NASA's Houston command center. Today, of course, we take for granted that it's standard operating procedure for space agencies to provide live video feeds from high-resolution cameras flanking rockets and other spacecraft as they're flung through the atmosphere, into space, and onto the surfaces of other worlds. So it really makes me appreciate just how far we've come since then.

As for our future on the moon, much has been discussed about the next couple of decades of human spaceflight, and I'm somewhat ambivalent about our current direction. Certainly I'd love to see humans achieve ever-more impressive feats and conquer the cosmos one planet at a time. But I'm not sure that setting up a base on the moon is going to be our best way to make that happen. I would definitely want to make sure that programs like Cassini and New Horizons, which are doing advanced scouting to help us figure out which are really the most interesting and worthwhile places to send humans, get properly funded before we start sending people to hang out on the rather dull and relatively uninteresting moon. (Sorry, moon; nothing personal.) Either way, the leaders at NASA and the other space agencies will have a lot of hard questions to answer in the coming years, and I don't envy their difficult task.

For today, though, I think we can all agree that taking a look back at what we've achieved so far makes a lot of sense, especially when old-school science fiction is so much fun! Among other things, this little media frenzy might very well be a career-changing inspiration to a future planetary scientist or astronaut-in-waiting. And who knows? Perhaps that young girl watching a moon special on TV this evening will grow up to be the first person to walk on Enceladus or Titan or Europa—all moons with a lot more promise of life than our cold, yet ever-enchanting, Luna.

Monday, July 13, 2009

the myth of the unbiased judge

The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor began today, and by all accounts, plenty of senators are ready to dig their heels in and start grilling when the questioning session begins in earnest tomorrow morning. I suppose this is to be expected nowadays, and I'm not particularly concerned that Sotomayor will have any trouble getting confirmed. But I wanted to take a moment to discuss what many believe is going to be a central argument in these proceedings: namely, that a Supreme Court justice (or any court judge for that matter) is supposed to be completely unbiased when deciding his or her rulings.

To this I say: Nonsense.

Justices of the Supreme Court—and indeed of any trial court in the United States—are charged with applying the rule of law as written in the Constitution and the web of Congressional laws passed in the 200-odd years since our country began. As discussed in some detail in yesterday's New York Times, some, including Chief Justice Roberts in his own confirmation hearings, have likened Supreme Court justices to baseball umpires; the idea is that they simply enforce the laws, they don't make them. But everyone knows that judges' decisions are but interpretations of the law. Laws aren't always black or white; if they were, we wouldn't need judges. Indeed, the word "judge" implicitly suggests using one's experiences and understanding of the law to make a conclusion about a given case.

So how do judges make legal decisions? Well, they hear arguments from both sides and look to current laws and judicial precedents to guide them whenever possible. But when precedent is lacking, or when society has changed such that precedents must be rethought, it is personal point of view that necessarily impacts how a judge views the facts of a case. This is indisputable; there would be no "conservative" judges or "liberal" judges otherwise—there would simply be judges. And there wouldn't be any need to question Supreme Court appointees quite so fiercely; everyone would be in agreement about what's right and what's wrong.

Ergo, to complain about a judge drawing on her background to help interpret laws and predict how decisions may play out in the real world is kind of crazy. I guarantee you that every Supreme Court justice has drawn from his or her experiences at one time or another during his or her career. That legal verdicts are also called "opinions" is another etymological clue to the fact that even the Founding Fathers realized that judges would draw from their lives to make decisions.

From everything that's been said so far about Sonia Sotomayor, it seems clear that she's a superb judge who has been as objective as realistically possible in her decisions. Indeed, out of some 400 cases she's decided as an Appellate Court judge, only three were overturned by the Supreme Court—and of those, two were narrow decisions. Sotomayor may be wishing right now that she had refrained from her "wise Latina" comment, but most people forget that immediately before it, Sotomayor declared that "there can never be a universal definition of wise." This was, perhaps, the wisest remark of all.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

summer sounds

Well, it's officially summer again, and that means it's time for me to start thinking about making a summer mix! While I ponder the particulars, I thought I'd share a few of the songs I've been obsessing over for the past couple of months. &infin

My Delirium (Ladyhawke): To my mind, Kiwi lass Pip Brown, who goes by the name Ladyhawke, comes off as a hipster, techie version of Stevie Nicks (her voice isn't nearly as witchy, but she does pull off the husky alto rather well). There was a span of two or three days where I think I listened to this song oh, maybe 30 times. And the video is fun...a cross between "Take On Me" and Thelma and Louise.

The Girl and the Robot (Röyksopp feat. Robyn): Maybe it's because I work for a company whose mascot is a robot, but I love the idea of Robyn falling for a real automaton in this collaboration with fellow Scandinavians Röyksopp. The song is addictive, and the video (which happens to share the woman-waiting-in-bedroom theme from "My Delirium") is fantastic.

Gimme Sympathy (Metric): I recently saw Metric in concert, and they were off-the-wall fun. This particular video is rather pedestrian (empty stage, band playing, colorful lights, yadda yadda), but the song is fresh, and I love it. I dare you to blast it into your earbuds or car stero and not start bopping your head.

Graveyard Girl (M83): I've written of my adoration of M83 on these pages before, but it definitely bears repeating! This song is a holdover from last year, but it simply does not get old. It's the perfect addition to any summer mix.