Wednesday, December 31, 2014

This never-changing world of ours

Having added my 1,000th post on this blog this past Monday, what have I learned about the world? The inescapable truth that nothing changes in this world. To be sure, the nature and utility of the instruments that people use change from time to time, but human nature doesn’t change. Everything that I have written here has been a variation of certain themes and issues, repeated over and over again. Human nature may be forced to adapt in a different way from time to time because of laws and changing social mores, but as far as its prejudices are concerned, people essentially remain the same. 

Thus it is not hard to view oneself as a “cynic” when observing the world at work. The ancient Greek philosophy of Cynicism holds that what makes humans different from the mere beast of the field and jungle is not the acquisition of material wealth or popular appeal, but the life lived simple and free from the burden of greed, arrogance and hypocrisy. The Cynic is “free” to improve his mind and body, rather than to sate his animal wants and desires. Now, some people may believe that your typical vagrant can be defined as a “cynic” by this definition, but the average bum is motivated by pure and unadulterated indolence rather than by any coherent moral and ethical philosophy.

The most famous character who expounded this philosophy, Diogenes of Sinope, preached that the maintenance of mind and body was the most important aspect of existence, and to live in harmony with nature. But unlike a follower of the “transcendentalist” philosophy, like Henry David Thoreau, the Greek cynics did not believe in retreating from civilization and living a life of complete self-sufficiency. Oh no, the Cynic wanted to live his street life  in full view of the public to shame and embarrass the purveyors of cupidity and prejudice—even at the cost of being attacked and  ridiculed. You didn’t need to have to fame and wealth to “justify” your existence—just “live.” Of course, it is difficult to “live” in the modern world by the ancient definition, especially without money. These day, if you are caught practicing your philosophy too openly, you are likely to spend time mulling over your lack of freedom from inside a jail cell. 
My family might believe that I live the life according to the ancient ways, if they were of a philosophical bent; being right-wing, they would call it something else. It is fair to say that I was on the periphery of familial bonding, mainly because I was so “different” than my siblings—in both appearance, personality and achievement. While everyone else went on to a bright future, I was headed to the Army to “straighten” myself out. When I left the Army, I went right back to school; I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone back home that their parenting might have been the “problem.” After all, instead of being dead or in jail, I not only went to college, but graduated with honors. But that didn’t stop my mother from making a quizzical remark to me when I mentioned an incident that I regarded as racial in nature: “I wish I never let you be born.” I know that her meaning was that she felt my life was difficult; but it didn’t relieve the sting of the remark, or suggest a recognition of prejudice in herself.

But the fact is that back “home” they think my writing is a gigantic waste of time, although they might be more “sympathetic” and less discouraging if my political and social point of view was more closely aligned with theirs; it certainly would not make the Northern family look good in their eyes of their right-wing Southern friends if they knew there was a “crazed” socialist in the family (which I am not, really). For my part, any communication outside commonplace banalities has produced nothing but grief and anger. I am not engaging in “indolent” behavior, as they may believe; this has been hard work, taking-up practically all of my free time in thinking, reading and composing. it certainly would not make the “Yankee” family look good in their eyes of their right-wing Southern friends if  they had a “crazed” socialist in the family (which I am not, really)

However I live my life, I admit that my writing reflects the other, modern definition of “cynicism,” which Diogenes is also responsible for it. He is most famous—or infamous—for carrying that lamp in broad daylight looking for, and failing to find, the “honest man.” Thus comes what we now regard as the “philosophy” of cynicism: The belief that people in general are motivated solely by self-interest, more or less devoid of altruism or scruple. Of course, everything is relative, and some people are less devoid of such principles as others. But the reality is that even people who believe they are acting on “principle” are in fact doing so for selfish reasons—if only to make themselves “look good” before other people.

Now, to a point I can understand the right-wing “perspective,” about people taking responsibility for their own lives, living within one’s means, etc. But I don’t think that they really understand anything about the world we live in, especially in the negative ways they influence it. During the Roman Republic, citizen-farmers who also served in the military were the backbone of Roman society. But that changed over time; the Gracchus brothers tried to stem the tide of society being controlled by wealthy landowners who displaced the independent farming class, but they were murdered by mobs controlled by the patrician class. This was the forerunner of the virtual slave serf system that dominated life in Europe until the 16th century. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers ended up in urban centers like Rome looking for and not finding employment; in order to “control” them, Roman leaders supplied them free bread, corn and “games.” There was obviously plenty of money to waste—just not in providing employment opportunities. It’s no different in this country, where corporate paymasters prefer to compensate right-wing blowhards of hate like Rush Limbaugh the equivalent of 800 living wage jobs every year. 

Despite my cynical outlook, I looked at the backlog of topics to discuss that I had accumulated for the coming New Year, and in doing so I was suddenly struck by a feeling of ennui. After all, it occurred to me that I had discussed these very same issues before, multiple times in fact. Here is a rundown of pointlessly, hopelessly redundant recent events that I decided to shelve:

Gun violence

Another fatal shooting by police near Ferguson, MO. The victim supposedly had a gun, but did not fire it. “Where is the evidence” that he was threatening the officer, asked a black male indignantly watching the television screen as the story unfolded with demonstrators faced-off against police. While I am as disturbed as anyone by the spate of recent deadly firearm incidents involving both police and civilians, the fact must be faced that both sides are guilty and both share blame in the escalation of tensions leading to lethal confrontations. The credibility of self-styled victims and this this holier than thou attitude doesn’t work for me, save in the most egregious cases. I see a  lot of people using race as an excuse to exhibit rude or belligerent behavior, and it doesn't arouse any empathy in me.

Ever heard of the “content of character” part? I have always thought that right-wingers use the term “out of context,” and they have little themselves when it comes to acting as their Christian “savior” would. But I see very little evidence to justify the notion that the neighborhoods where these shootings have occurred do anything to foster an atmosphere of “peace” or civility—and it starts with parents and teachers, who have obviously fallen down on the job. Parents especially are as likely to be “adult” versions of a dysfunctional culture, and teachers just don’t care. On the other hand with law enforcement, this refusal to “police” the “bad apples” with itchy trigger fingers makes their pretense of sainthood a loathsome display of power and arrogance. 

An “alternative” to “big government”

When Washington state voters in 2012 approved by a slim margin the establishment of “charter schools,” the rationalization was that public schools had failed many students, and a “new” teaching environment was needed to reach low-performing or underserved students. I think some people may have voted for it because they were actually under the impression that these schools would be “privatized” versions of public schools, and thus run more “profitably.” More “productively” might have been a better goal. That certainly has not been the case in the first Seattle school of this nature, “First Class Scholars”—a feel good moniker if ever, intended by idealists to serve developmentally-disabled and otherwise under-performing students. One suspects that elsewhere certain parents who did not want their children to “mingle” with the “others” see this as an alternative to “home schooling.” I don’t know why this is “necessary”; after all, every time I see something about high school sports coverage, I am “amazed” at how little school integration has occurred since the 1950s—even in “liberal” Seattle.

Crime and punishment

Some people may recall the Jodi Arias murder trial, thanks to CNN’s insufferable Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell.  Arias was in fact convicted of first-degree, premeditated murder, but the jury deadlocked on the death sentence, and prosecutor Juan Martinez decided to opt for a sentencing “retrial” which began in October. The murder itself was clearly the act of a psychopath who believed she was “justified” in committing it, being a terribly “wronged woman.”  Arias has her share of supporters who believe her story that she only acted after enduring physical abuse, even though she had never intimated it before, and hadn’t seen Travis Alexander for months and their relationship apparently over. 

However, Arias wasn’t through with him; she “enticed” him to see her again with “suggestive” images of her in various sexual poses. While there was never any evidence introduced to back up her abuse claim at trial, Arias knew it was her only defense strategy after being caught despite careful planning to conceal her tracks. In her interviews and trial behavior it is clear that she has a very elevated opinion of herself and her as ability to manipulate the truth and people. But prosecutor Martinez exposed lie after lie—including that of the outrageous testimony of the gender victim advocate who was too partisan to see the truth even if it occurred right in front of her. Perhaps the  reality was that Arias was this arrogant, conceited Latina who was ashamed of her heritage and wanted to “elevate” herself socially by marrying an Anglo-Saxon male, and to convince him to do so she turned herself into an unashamed strumpet. When that didn’t ensnare him, all that was left for this psycho was bloody vengeance.

Racial divide

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a story on how minority and white female students received widely disparate punishments for similar school infractions. In one case, a black female and white female student were caught marking a restroom wall with graffiti. The white girl’s parents paid a fine and she walked away without further punishment; the black girl’s parents couldn’t pay the fine, so she was suspended from school. Isn’t that just the way the world works?

I overheard someone say that people who don't "make it" in this life should blame it on their own "decisions." That is certainly true to an extent, but are not people's lives also influenced by the decisions that other people make about them? Are not those the decisions that really count?

Gender politics

The Seattle Times, despite being reduced to a shoe-string budget, charges the outrageous sum of $1 for a daily edition that is maybe a half-dozen broadsheets at best, and still employs a crime reporter who I won’t name but has the initials SJG, who I can tell you from personal experience is one of those “gender advocacy” journalists with zero sense of objectivity. Recently SJG wrote a story about how police were focusing their anti-prostitution campaign on “johns,” because prostitutes were their “victims” in the world’s oldest “trade.” I emailed SJG, commenting on the many bald-faced partisan mendacities in the story, and her general lack of credibility as an “objective” journalist. SJG did have the good sense not to respond this time, because her obsessive misandry makes for informative—and perhaps “entertaining”—reading.  

The problem, of course, is that extreme gender partisans like SJG “inadvertently” reduce women to mindless morons—whining, moaning and complaining automatons. They exist for no other purpose but to serve the “feeling good about feeling bad” narrative of certain people. More recently the Times intrepid correspondent covered the “International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers,” which apparently was an undesired addition to satisfy outraged “victim” advocates at an event sponsored by the “adult industry” to “change the narrative” and “battle the stigma” associated with sex work by the media and the gender mythmakers. I suspect that many in the sex industry believe the “violence” against them is more likely to be the work of law enforcement and self-righteous media paladins, rather than their paying “customers.” Of course, SJG couldn’t help herself but to throw in a few zingers from fringe participants who claimed they were “forced” into sex work, and my overall impression was that it is easy being “objective” when you don’t believe in the narrative.

I saw this public service commercial on television, where several Law & Order actors from the "special victims" episodes did the method acting thing, crying silent tears, enjoining the viewer to "start the conversation" about domestic violence. The hypocrisy was just too much for me. Yes, we do need to start a conversation about domestic violence beyond the usual mythology; what needs to be in the "conversation" is women being made accountable for their actions in the perpetuation of intimate partner violence. On the local radio we hear that domestic violence “transcends” every segment of society—except, of course, gender. It is an advertisement for a “full service” victim shelter, in need of funding. Of course, if a male calls about abuse, he’ll just be sent back for more because he had the audacity to imply hypocrisy.

Yes, there are males who "naturally" seek to vent their frustrations out on an intimate partner and other men; but in the vast majority of the cases, women as much as men need to be held accountable for violent behavior--particularly in the instigation of it, as seen in the Ray Rice incident. Until then, any "conversation" will be a political fraud.

The irony is that while we are constantly bombarded with messages and images of women as equal (or better) than men, they still seemingly cannot function without a thriving “victim” industry. And the irony of that is the fact that the success of women in this society is as much a function of societal factors as it is for men. While women (or at least their “advocates” and the media) like to name call anyone who points out the hypocrisies in their myths, it is definitely my experience that white women have just as much capacity for bigotry and discrimination in order to maintain their “status” and “class” in the social structure—thus being victimizers as well as “victims.”

Deliberately “unsolved” crime?

Remember the disappearance of Sky Metalwala three years ago? Think that case has been solved yet?  Most observers believe that his mother, Julia Biryukova, knows exactly where he is—either with relatives back in Russia, or somewhere below the ground. She claimed that she left the two-year-old in a car after it supposedly ran of gas, and was walking to a gas station. She also claimed that she was taking him to a hospital because he was sick; she would leave a sick practically a toddler alone in a car for at least an hour? 

It turned out that Biryukova had just ended a contentious custody hearing with her ex-husband in which she reneged on a custody agreement. Police found that there was more than enough fuel in her car to reach a gas station a mile away, and it was also learned that the boy had not been seen by neighbors for weeks before the disappearance. It was also noted that while Biryukova displayed their daughter prominently on her social media accounts, there was very little indication that she had another child. It was also learned that she had a habit of leaving the boy alone in the house for hours at a time. The boy may have been frisked away by her Russian relations, but case remains open, and while Bellevue police have not ruled out the possibility of homicide—which is why Biryukova was not charged with child endangerment, because he may not have been in the car to begin with—neither have they shown much interest in solving the case, and Biryukova acts as if she isn’t worried at all.


There are just some things you are expected to do in order to maintain civility in everyday life. It should come “natural” to people in this country to walk on the right side of a pedestrian thoroughfare, so that people do not impede another’s way. But quite frequently you encounter those who are either thoughtless or are naturally rude. Of course, someone might say that no one “owns” the sidewalk, but it is just good manners. 

On the other hand, we live in an increasingly service-based economy, and the quality of that service is obviously diminishing. In some places, non-paying vagrants get better “service” than paying customers, apparently because they are not “bothering” the employees. You would think, of course, that although there is symbiotic relationship between seller and buyer, but the seller who is in competition with other sellers for the customer’s dollar sometimes acts as if one’s money isn’t as good as another’s. You can’t complain about rude service, of course, because you will be the one accused of being a “troublemaker.”

One can people be thinking? I was waiting for a Metro bus on a Saturday that was supposed to leave the Convention Center at 2:08 pm. The bus was parked in the area where it usually drops off people, except farther behind so that you could see the front of the bus from where we were standing at the stop location. At 2:10 the driver emerged from somewhere and re-entered the bus. Was he leaving now? No, the bus didn’t move at all. I suspected that driver was getting a kick out of watching the reactions of people wondering where the bus was. At 2:13 the bus started moving forward—now is it coming? Perhaps not—it’s moving forward because a Sound Transit bus was pulling up behind it. But wait, he moved up only about ten feet and stopped. But no, he has to move forward again because the ST bus is not pulling around him as expected. 

Perhaps he was hoping he could skip his scheduled route altogether for a longer break; Metro allows this? It must, because this is not uncommon—even during rush hour peak during the week. I watch the bus being forced to move forward by the other bus; is the driver going to make the turn or not? The bus moved forward uncertainly, as if the driver isn’t sure if he can park the bus and resume his extended break. But finally he feels he has no choice but to make the turn into the passenger pick-up lane. It is 2:15, seven minutes late. He doesn’t even stop at the designated stop point, making people walk back toward the bus. When we enter the bus he has this self-satisfied smirk on his face. And the media complains about how “tough” bus drivers have it. 

A society of superficial classifications

I’m asked what country I’m from by someone who obviously isn’t from this one. “Cleveland,” I say. Temporarily befuddled, I think he is surprised to learn that I was born in this country, even though I don’t speak or understand a foreign language. Someone who speaks poor English tells me something that sounds like “Put in tub,” when he actually means “Put on top,” and I’m the one who doesn’t “understand” English. People then ask me what “nationality” I am. I say “American.” They frown upon this, because whatever “you are” is what defines your “place” in society. 

But what does it matter what I say? I learned long ago that you are what people “see” you as—and if you are my presumed “ethnicity,” that usually means inspiring a negative response. I can see it the blue eyes of this person sitting next me on the bus, burning with hatred, his hands shaking with rage that someone like me has the nerve to sit next to him. I think he’d strangle me right on the spot if he thought he could get away with it. The reason why we have laws is because of people like this bigot. I don’t wonder what he is thinking, because I know. But I ask him anyways, telling him I want to write it down for the edification of the world; but he just threatens me with violence. Bullies don’t want to be exposed for the cowards they are. They just hogtie an inebriated man to their pick-up truck, and drag him along a road until he is decapitated. Such was the fate of a black man, James Byrd, by a couple of neo-Nazi types in Jasper, Texas.

World of illusion

Since I received a Safeway gift card for Christmas, I decided I might as well use it at the store located at the corner of Meeker and Washington in Kent. This is the store that I mentioned in a post where when I walked into the place, someone on the intercom said “Skittles Alert”—an obvious reference to the Trayvon Martin story. That clued me into the “politics” of the place. I saw white, black and Asian employees in place—but not one single Hispanic. It don’t know if this is a corporate decision to employ only “real” Americans, or the policy of this particular store. But one thing I do know is that what these people don’t seem to understand is that you only have to be racist against one group to be a racist. 

This past presidential election saw two-thirds of Hispanics vote for Barack Obama, while nearly two-thirds of whites voted for Mitt Romney. Yet I observe that many blacks cuddle with patronizing white people like they are best friends. That’s their business, save one for one thing: When push comes to shove, when that white man or women has to decide what side of the line they are going to stand on, how good a “friend” will they be? After all, even in this “progressive” state, they passed the anti-affirmative action I-200 by a landslide margin. Oh, it’s OK now for both sides to beat on Hispanics, because that is a desire they have in common, but that’s just a good way to add to add reinforcements to the enemy camp. And it does your “cause” no good either when one of your number sucker-shoots a Hispanic and Asian police officer sitting in their car when it is your white “friends” who are responsible for nearly all the shootings of minorities by police.

A material world run amok

I see so much of other people’s “junk” going through a recycle warehouse  every day, most of it stuff that Goodwill and other sellers of used items can’t sell and have to make room for the next haul. Much of it really is “junk” and of questionable utility, although quite a bit of it, especially clothing, are still of worth something to those without. A lot of this stuff is going to Third World locales, or so they say. I’d say 99 percent of the books are well past their expiration date; the most “represented” authors of junk books are Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts. However, Steele’s books actually look like they’ve been “read”; Roberts’ books tend to look like they’re in mint condition—including the back cover image of the author, always with a smug smirk and dressed in the same boring black pantsuit. What a bore. I don’t know if people who don’t speak or read English would find any “enlightenment” with owning these tomes (let alone reading them), but being made of paper, they are an excellent source of fuel for cooking and heating, which probably is the best use for most of them anyways. 

This crazy world

Russian president Vladimir Putin has officially declared the restart of the Cold War, claiming that NATO is Russia’s principle “enemy.” Putin has no one to blame for the distrust the West has for his motives but his own mega-maniacal self; rather than seeking to incorporate Russia into a pan-European conglomeration with common goals, he has set out to reconstitute the Soviet Empire, with himself as nothing less than supreme dictator (perhaps even “Czar”). This couldn’t be more evident than by his recent invitation to his fellow North Korea’s nutjob despot, who has allowed the march of time pass him by, too; perhaps “supreme leader” Kim Jong-Un imagines himself as Genghis Khan, or Attila the Hun. Any way, he is still a nut who apparently regards former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman as his “ideal” American. But then again, in this country Rodman is also regarded as something of a “nut.”

More political partisan BS on the horizon 

Those who voted in a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate probably have this ridiculous notion that things will "change" in Washington, DC. Republicans  are promising "action" on health care reform; well not "action" exactly, but more indication that these unethical and immoral morons are playing on the bigotry of their constituency who think that it is only "lazy" people who can't afford standard health insurance. Decent individual insurance--if you can get it--can cost $500 a month, and if your employer doesn't have a plan, then that could be half your take home pay if you're in the $10-$12-an-hour pay scale. Let's face it: The same thing that has happened since the Republicans took control of the House in 2010 is going to happen for the next two years from Congress--a lot of nothing. Paying them is the biggest waste of taxpayer money.

To hell in a hand basket

We are told by the media and right-wing politicians that the country is in a bad way, but since when hasn’t it? The “strength” of the late former president Richard Nixon was said to be foreign affairs, yet his domestic policy was “suspect” in retrospect. The principle foreign policy “triumph” of Nixon and his chief foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, has proved to be a very mixed “blessing” at best. The idea of opening up relations with China was for American businesses an opportunity to take advantage of its huge market. That market is even bigger now; the problem is that China’s market remains largely closed to U.S. businesses. In fact the opposite of what was intended has occurred: Rather than insuring American jobs, Chinese-made goods have flooded American markets, and have displaced many millions of domestic jobs (particularly manufacturing) in this country.

In 1974, a Canadian journalist named Gordon Sinclair wrote this editorial that was later a Top-40 hit in the U.S., a rare spoken-word “song” in front of a background of “patriotic” music:

The United States dollar took another pounding on German, French and British exchanges this morning, hitting the lowest point ever known in West Germany. It has declined there by forty-one percent since 1971. And this Canadian thinks it's time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people in all the Earth.

As long as sixty years ago when I first started to read newspapers I read of floods on the Yellow River and the Yangtze;  who rushed in with men and money to help? The Americans did.  They have helped control floods on the Nile, the Amazon, the Ganges and the Niger. Today the rich bottom land of the Mississippi is under water, and no foreign land has sent a dollar to help.

Germany, Japan and to a lesser extent Britain and Italy were lifted out of the debris of war by the Americans, who poured in billions of dollars and forgave other billions in debts. None of those countries is today paying even the interest on it's remaining debts to the United States. When the Franc was in danger of collapsing in 1956, it was the Americans who propped it up, and the reward was to be insulted and swindled on the streets of Paris. I was there, I saw it. 

When distant cities are hit by earthquake, it is the United States that hurries in to help. Managua, Nicaragua is one of the most recent examples.  So far this spring, fifty-nine American communities have been flattened by tornadoes, nobody has helped. The Marshall Plan, the Truman Policy all pumped billions upon billions of dollars into discouraged countries; now newspapers in those countries are writing about the decadent war mongering Americans.

I'd like to just see one of those countries that is gloating over the erosion of the United States dollar build it's own airplanes. Come on, let's hear it! Does any other country in the world have a plane to equal the Boeing jumbo jet? The Lockheed Tri-star or the Douglas-10?  If so, why don't they fly them? Why do all international lines except Russia, fly American planes?

Why does no other land on Earth even consider putting a man or a woman on the moon? You talk about Japanese technocracy, and you get radios. You talk about German technocracy, and you get automobiles. You talk about American technocracy, and you will find men on the moon. Not once, but several times, and safely home again.

You talk about scandals, and the Americans put theirs right in the store window for everybody to look at. Even the draft dodgers are not pursued and hounded. They are here on our streets, most of them—unless they are breaking Canadian laws—are getting American dollars from Ma and Pa at home to spend here.

When the Americans get out of this bind—as they will—who could blame them if they said “The  hell with the rest of the world. Let someone else buy the Israel bonds.  Let someone else build or repair foreign dams, or design foreign buildings that won't shake apart in earthquakes. When the railways of France, Germany and India were breaking down through age, it was the Americans who rebuilt them. When the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central went broke, nobody loaned them an old caboose; both are still broke.

I can name you five thousand times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble; can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble? I don't think there was outside help even during the San Francisco earthquake.  Our neighbors have faced it alone, and I'm one Canadian who's damned tired of hearing them kicked around.

They will come out of this thing with their flag high and when they do, they are entitled to thumb their nose at the lands that are gloating over their present troubles.  I hope Canada is not one of these, but there are many smug self-righteous Canadians. 

Hooray for America and national chauvinism; this country is never in short supply of that, and it didn’t take a Canadian to remind us. Obviously the particulars here are a bit out of date, but the sentiments are not. As you can see, nothing has “changed.” Republicans and right-wing extremists talk about the “end of America” and blame it on Barack Obama. It’s odd, but they still seem to talk about the “future” as if it is a given. But it is the same as it always has been. Perhaps the only difference is that we are too focused on the “wrong” problems now, political and social. Whatever the case, I have learned all I need to learn, and it is time to move on to other projects.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Whether up or down, forward movement is behind schedule

With all the troubles plaguing this planet, is there any hope of removing oneself to a distant universe that isn’t a product of one’s imagination? Back in 1969, we were supposed to be exploring the outer planets by 2001; it seems that we are a bit behind schedule, although back then it seemed as if after traveling to the moon and back it was just another “easy” step beyond. But Richard Nixon decided to cancel the Apollo program in 1973, despite the fact that future missions had already been paid for. An army of 100,000 engineers and aerospace workers eventually left NASA, leaving an undermanned and underbudgeted agency that was left with the Space Shuttle program,  which had significant design problems that led to two shuttle disasters in which all members of the crew were killed. 

Beyond that, the space program has revolved around the International Space Station, largely controlled by the Russians, since after the end of the Space Shuttle program it is the only country with the capacity to regularly resupply it. Nothing much happens up there anyways, except for make-work experiments that have no real application back on Earth, to justify its existence and expense. 

Nevertheless, we can still have our fantasies. In 2004, George Bush announced a grand vision for the future of NASA, called the “Constellation” program, which would include a new manned spacecraft called Orion, a return to the moon and an eventual manned mission to Mars. I thought at the time it was just an election year gimmick for a president who lacked that “vision” thing, except to waste lives in a needless war. Orion is little more than an update of Apollo (might as well go back to what worked), except with a different propulsion system. The original Saturn V rocket weighed 6.4 million pounds fully fueled, while the entire Orion craft powered by a Delta-IV rocket weighed 1.6 million pounds. The Apollo moon rocket was also 50 percent taller than Orion from base to the tip of the launch aborter. NASA plans on building a “megarocket” booster, the “Space Launch System” project, possibly appearing in test phase in 2018. Or maybe not.

I you are as old as I am, don’t hold your breath for the next big jump, a manned flight to Mars. The program is already six years behind schedule; in fact, the original ambitious “Constellation” program was cancelled in 2010 due to budgetary issues, and despite the recent successful test launch of Orion, the first manned flight is not scheduled until 2021. As of this time, the planned lunar surface module is off the board, even though there is an insistence that a lunar mission will “eventually” happen. This obviously indicates a lack of the kind of commitment of resources that the Apollo missions had, which had a far shorter gestation period from drawing board to reality. 

The first Mars mission is not slated until 2030; that may seem far away and plenty of time to get it right, but one still suspects that the propulsion and crew survival requirements to achieve that goal may never be acquired in any our lifetimes—unless some Einstein emerges with the necessary technological discovery to make it so. The current “plan” to reach Mars is to employ a vehicle powered by a nuclear thermal rocket, which heats a liquid substance (like Hydrogen) by way of a nuclear reactor, and thrust is created by the expanding gas. Naturally, there would be concerns if an “accident” occurs using this already outdated technology. 

In the meantime, most of the testing done has been in flight abort procedures, clearly an indication of the concern for crew safety in the wake of the shuttle disasters, the lack of funding and the need to avoid a public relations catastrophe that could end support for the program altogether.

In the meantime, several private enterprises have taken over where the Space Shuttle left off, but given that the first successful unmanned launch of a stripped-down Orion cost $370 million, one suspects that the “for profit” goal of these entities is a pipedream. One gets the impression that these projects are the fantasies of billionaires and celebrities. There have been a few “successful” launches of booster rockets, but nothing that achieved beyond suborbital heights. Two recent disasters—the explosion on lift-off of an unmanned rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp, and the deadly crash of the Virgin Galactic  prototype SpaceShipTwo—blamed on what was called “pilot error”—demonstrates that despite all of its shortcomings today, NASA still is the best answer to fulfilling the space travel dream.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth going “underground” seems to have similar “challenges.” The collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct during California’s Bay Area Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989—in which it was initially believed that 200 people driving during rush hour were crushed under the top level of the bridge, although the actual number was around 20—caused some concerns elsewhere. I happened to be in San Francisco that day for a visit, and when I returned to Sacramento a little more than an hour later I learned that the earthquake had struck; I returned the next week to view the destruction of rows of beachfront houses in the Marina District.

In Seattle, there were fears that the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a similarly double-decked bridge, might collapse during an earthquake. Since moving here in 1991, I’ve experienced two earthquakes that were strong enough to actually notice for a second or two, but there are always the warnings that a “big one” is on the way, someday—much like the “someday” that Mount Rainier will blow its top, and send a tsunami of lava, mud and water cascading in a mad rush down the valley all the way to Elliot Bay. 

The second of these tremors occurred in 2001; I remember standing in a parking lot and feeling the earth move beneath my feet ever so slightly (I was in a rickety old apartment room for the first—now that one kind of made me think about moving elsewhere). The Nisqually earthquake actually was that closer-to-home wake-up call, because the viaduct did sustain damage, and cost millions in repairs. It was subsequently espoused by the experts that the viaduct needed to be shut down sooner rather than later, and thus began the investigation into a way to replace it, so as not to cause disruptions in traffic in one of the most traffic-congested cities in the country.

It was eventually decided to build a “hybrid” system to replace the viaduct, with both a tunnel and surface level, although not without considerable controversy. This was warranted, although more about its cost and who would pay for it rather than the actual construction difficulties. There was no reference to Boston’s “Big Dig” tunnel project, which itself was not without considerable pain before, during and after its construction. Planning for it had begun in 1982 to untangle part of the city’s antiquated streets alignment, but actual work did not begin until 1991. It was set to be completed by 1998, but it wasn’t officially opened for business until the end of 2007, at double its original cost.

The Big Dig was not only plagued with delays and cost overruns, but by taking shortcuts in its construction. The acquisition of cheap—meaning shoddy—material, even shoddier work that led to arrests for fraud, dangerous working conditions, hundreds of leaks, improperly placed lighting that will cost millions more to replace, and even falling ceilings, one of which led to a death and millions in lawsuits, added-up to one gigantic headache.

One wonders if Seattle and the state were paying any attention. The viaduct project hasn’t even gotten past the “dig” phase, as the Japanese-made digging machine, nicknamed “Bertha,” sits idle, out of commission, and who knows when it is going to be operational again. Bertha  first stalled because it could not cut through what was thought to be a giant boulder that engineers were surprised to encounter (subsequently it was discovered to be a steel pipe), and now the contraption’s blades are stuck, overheated after being clogged with the wet sand and earth; the company that built it apparently didn’t take this possibility into consideration, especially given the difficulty in accessing the front of Bertha in order to repair it.

Perhaps as should have been expected, there are now reports of leaks and ground sinkage. Who knows what problems have not been reported, and those to come. At present, the claim is that the project will be “only” two years overdue, but that seems to be an extremely optimistic assumption. 

It is not that these tunnel projects are not useful if done properly. Seattle’s bus tunnel was completed without a great deal of controversy, and it kept dozens of bus routes from clogging city streets—or keeping automobiles from clogging bus traffic. But that tunnel was not built under or adjacent to a body of water, requiring massive and expensive reinforcement. This is in contrast to the Channel Tunnel, running 23 miles underneath the English Channel, connecting Britain with France. It was dug 150 to 250 beneath the sea bed, protected by a thick layer of ancient chalk and rock. There have been problems with the Tunnel, of course, but mainly electrical fires and shorts that have caused occasional shutdowns.

Whether up or down, perhaps it is not fair to question human ingenuity too harshly, but is fair to say that the more “complicated” the technology, the less reliable it seems to be in many cases. It doesn’t make one particularly “hopeful” that all the “smart” people will have all the answers to fix the problems that have been wrought—let alone fulfill someone’s space travel fantasy. The American Society of Civil Engineers tells us that it will cost $2 trillion to repair or replace old and decomposing infrastructure just to keep the country afloat, and we have hardly even started on that project.