Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shuttle Landed at Edwards!

So this morning I arrived at my desk at UCLA and popped open a web browser to see a CNN article that said that the Shuttle Endeavour would be landing at Edwards Air Force base today at 4:25 pm Pacific time. As it was only about 10:30 am when I got in, I briefly entertained the idea of driving the 2 hours up to Edwards to see the landing. The shuttles are scheduled to be retired from service in 2010, and Edwards landings don't happen all that often, maybe once a year, so this could possibly be the last shuttle landing in California ever. I spent 20 minutes looking around online and reading about viewing locations, before I went to and found that CNN had got the times wrong: It would be landing at 4:25 EASTERN time, 1:25 pm pacific. Thanks CNN. And yes it was their mistake, not me misreading the numbers, as I had kept that browser page open and compared it with the NASA site. Serves me right for trusting CNN on details. Oh well.

I did get a shuttle-related treat anyway, though. I had heard anecdotally that you can hear the double-sonic booms from the Shuttle as it passes over the L.A. area on its way to Edwards. But I'd never heard it firsthand in L.A.. I remember back in college, when I worked at EarthKAM, wondering if we'd hear the booms in San Diego, but we never did. I guessed, at the time, that the shuttle was simply to high and too far away from our location on the ground to be able to hear it unless you are right under it. I know it also depends on whether the shuttle is approaching Edwards on an ascending (south to north) or descending (north to south) section of its orbit, as it will be coming in farther north if it's on a descending track.

Anyway, I expected I might be able to hear a soft double-boom if I went outside at the right time. So at 1:15 pm, when the NASA TV announcer said the shuttle was at an altitude of 20 miles and only 137 miles from the Edwards runway (which put the shuttle right over the coast, right around Oxnard) I walked outside onto the roof and listened. I waited for about 5 minutes, figuring that it would take less time than that for the shuttle to pass the area on its way to Edwards, as it was going about Mach 2.5 (~2000 mph). I waited and looked upward, listening. Nothing. A tad disappointed but not too surprised, I walked back toward the door, and was about 2 steps from going back in side when. . .


It was unmistakable, and much louder than I had been expecting! I walked down the hall to see if my friend had heard it from his office, but he wasn't there. I then thought to call my friend Phil, who lives in Downey to the southeast. He had the same idea, apparently, as my phone was ringing and I answered to hear his voice: "My house just shook!". Next came a text message from Regan, who was in the valley. She had heard the booms, which she said were so lound it sounded "like a bomb went off". Curious, I texted my sister and called my mom, who both reported hearing the booms clearly all the way in San Diego. Apparently, everyone else in the Southern CA area heard it as well, according to the OC Register and LAist.

From the timing and from listening to the NASA TV broadcast, I gather the shuttle was somewhere between 15 and 18 miles (80,000 ft and 95,000 ft) in altitude when I heard the boom. So, since sound travels around 700 mph at sea level (~11.5 miles per minute), it makes some sense that Endeavour's shock wave took a couple of minutes to reach me. As the shuttle flew right over L.A., I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I could hear it. . . but I am impressed that my family in San Diego, another 150 miles south, could hear it so clearly!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Obama Elected

I'm so glad the election is over. After nearly 2 years of hearing about this presidential campaign, it's finally over. We're getting a new president. A smart, inspiring, reasonable, Democratic president. I'm so glad! I have so much more hope for our country now! I think our standing in world politics, our reliance on science and reason for policy decisions instead of religion and tradition, our dedication to the Constitution, and our civic progress will all improve under Obama!

And, though Obama has been reluctant to play the race card throughout his campaign, all the emotion that comes with the fact that he will be our first African American President has come pouring out in me and in many others now that he has won. To think that, if we were living 150 years ago in this country, he would probably be a slave. To think that, if we were living just ~40 years ago in some parts of our country, he would have been a second-class citizen, with all the discrimination and "separate-but-equal" treatment that comes with it. And come January 20, he will be our president. Seeing Jesse Jackson's tears of joy as he stood among the huge crowd at Grant Park nearly moved ME to tears. Free at last.

I did not vote for Obama just because he was black. And I don't think most voters did either. If Americans were going to vote for a candidate because he was black, they had their chance with Jesse Jackson in 1984, and Al Sharpton in 2000. No, I voted for Obama because I agree with his policies, his positions on the issues, and I admire his background in relying on intellect and reason and dedication to the constitution. But, all that said, for the rest of my life I am going to be able to say that I helped elect the first black President in U.S. history. And yeah, I'm pretty proud of that.

John McCain's concession speech was excellent. It reminded me that I really do like that guy. He's probably my favorite Republican politician. And, if he had been running his campaign supporting the same ideals he had espoused for much of his career, I think I would have felt more sympathetic to his cause. But his switch to the more conservative of the far right side of his party, his changing positions on issues (like the Bush tax cuts) where I agreed with his former position but not his latter one, and his choice of a right-wing veep candidate, all heralded his loss. Of course, a huge reason why the country voted as it did is due to the economic crisis, and there's plenty of blame to go around for that crisis amongst the Democrats, the Republicans, and Wall Street. McCain just happened to be running for the party with a sitting administration. Well, he's a good man and I know he has more good work to do in the Senate.

As for California, I'm mostly happy with the results of our ballot measures. I'm especially happy that both Prop 1A (the high speed rail initiative), and Measure R (the L.A. County public transit initiative) have passed. As a result of those, my city and state are going to get a new, expanded, modern transit system that will help give people more travel options, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce our emission of smog and greenhouse gases, and demonstrate California's leadership in civic progress. I already believed that California is a great state, but I now also believe that Los Angeles has a chance to become a great (not just big) metropolis! And with a Obama in the White House, and a hugely Democratic Congress, where Pelosi has hinted that she will try to make infrastructure funding a major part of the next stimulus package, I'm confident we'll actually get the federal fund matching we need to complete these projects.

Despite these other victories, I feel a huge bitterness that Prop 8 appears to have passed. I am genuinely surprised, first of all. I knew it would be somewhat close, but I did not actually believe it would pass. I had more faith in the awareness of the people in this state than was warranted, apparently. I've already explained why Prop 8 is unfair, wrong, and completely analagous to the racist "separate but equal" Jim Crow Laws that survived until the 1960's, so I won't go into all that again. (Except to point out that California's Supreme Court was the first in the nation to strike down the ban on interracial marriage as unconstitutional in 1948, and I was glad to see the Court repeat its wisdom back in May, despite the stupidity and bigotry of the voters.)

All I'll say is this: Those who voted for this initiative (apparently a majority of this state) are, in my eyes, as equally bigoted as those who supported the ban on interacial marriage that became law in California in 1850 and lasted until almost 100 years later. You do not get a pass on this just because your church told you to do it and you were too indoctrinated to think for yourselves and realize it was wrong. And when homosexuals finally are granted the same rights as heterosexuals, hopefully some time in the not-so-distant future, your legacy will be that you opposed equal rights, opposed equal treatment under the law, and supported discriminatory policies that were along the same lines as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and Japanese Internment camps. Shame on you. You made a horrible mistake. And I won't be letting you forget it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Yes on Measure R!

It's a political season. What can I say?

I already posted about prop 8 a few days ago. Now I'd like to talk about another important proposal on the ballot for L.A. County. It may seem more logistical in nature than the civil rights being addressed in Prop 8, but I think it can potentially be just as important to Southern California's future.

Measure R is a 0.5% sales tax increase for L.A. County. It would increase our sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, and generate about $40 Billion over the next 30 years. Unlike other sources of public transit funding, this money would be forbidden to be used for anything other than public transit in L.A. County, and a committee of retired judges from throughout the county would provide oversight to make sure the funds were not being diverted by the county OR the state of California to other projects (which has been a problem with public transit funds in the past).
Click here for the short, impartial summary of what Measure R provides over at
Or here for Metro's information guide on Measure R.

Ridership of each of the metro rail lines and of bus services has increased by around 10% in the past year. That is a major increase, likely originally caused by the rise in gas prices over the past year. Those figures are based on comparing September 2007 ridership numbers to September 2008, after gas prices had already started to go down again; so it's possible that people have established some gas-saving habits that they are now wary of changing. This is encouraging news, at least to me. Driving our cars less will help to solve so many problems: environmental, economical, geopolitical, you name it!

Measure R would do too many things for me to talk about in this post, though the highlights include finally building a subway under the uber-congested Wilshire Boulevard to UCLA, where 70,000 people arrive and leave every day. There's also the extension of the Gold Line at both ends (one into East L.A., the other through the San Gabriel Valley), the extension of the Exposition light rail (which is currently being built from Downtown L.A. to Culver City) all the way to Santa Monica, the building of Green Line connection to LAX, and various highway, bridge, rail, bus, bike and traffic light improvement projects throughout the county.

Instead of just listing all the things that Measure R would do, however, I thought I'd address the three main arguments against it I've heard made by a variety of people and organizations.


Arguments against Measure R:
1.) "It unfairly puts the tax burden on the poor and lower class, while many of the benefits will go to the middle and upper classes! "

Measure R is a sales tax increase, which means that anyone in the county who purchases goods and services incurring sales tax will be contributing to this transportation fund. Now, let's think about those poor people in the lower classes: what are they spending their money on? At the most basic level of subsistence, they are paying for food, rent, and transportation. Well, there is no sales tax on food if it is purchased at grocery stores and markets, no sales tax on rent, and improving transportation access for all is exactly what Measure R is trying to do. Many of the poor and lower class take the bus because it is cheaper than driving, and Measure R includes a statute that will freeze the current fares for a few years longer than was originally planned (without R, the fares will go up in 2010), and keep the bus and rail fares for seniors, students, and the disabled from increasing before 2015.

Now let's think about the middle and upper classes; what are they buying? Meals out at restaurants (where sales tax IS incurred), electronics, flat-panel TV's, cellphones, maybe a new car, etc. They are contributing more to the transit fund because they are participating more in the sales economy, and that's because they can afford to spend more money on sales taxable items. A sales tax does not affect everyone equally across the board: it draws more money from those who can afford to pay more.

And, what's more, how does Measure R benefit only the middle and upper class? This is a claim I've seen made by a few organizations, chief among them the Bus Rider's Union (BRU), which is so pro bus that they oppose any contribution to public transit that is not a bus system. They are vehemently anti-rail, and anti-Measure R because: "The MTA funds rail projects (subways cost about $350 million a mile to build) that serve development interests and a more white, more affluent ridership not low-income, transit-dependent riders that are Latino, black or Asian-Pacific Islander, and more than 60% of them are women." --BRU and Strategy Center website

Ok, first of all, I posit that whatever members of the bus rider's union wrote that sentence have never set foot on the metro rail system. I've been on the blue line every week or so, riding between Downtown L.A. and Long Beach. If you're going to characterize the people on that train as "white and affluent", you're blind. I am usually one of only two or three "white" people in my train car, while the other 50 - 80 or so people are decidedly not.

It's true that trains are usually built along corridors that serve development interests, but that's usually because those corridors have already naturally grown to have high population density, and the rail would best serve the population by traveling in that particular area. This is the case for Wilshire Blvd, where the subway will be expanded.

Also, if you are in the upper class of L.A. ("white and affluent"), you have probably never set foot on a bus or rail line, and 65% of the funding appropriation in Measure R is for mass transit (buses and rail). Another 20% is highway expansions and improvements such as car pool lanes, and 15% goes to the individual cities to be used for light synchronizations and road maintenance. So only 35% of the funding in R is going to benefit the upper class who drive their cars on the freeways instead of using rail or bus. I wouldn't call that primarily benefiting the middle and upper class. Besides, buses need to travel on the roads and highways just like personal cars do, and so bus-riders would also benefit from that 35% as well.

2.)"We should have increased income tax, gasoline taxes or traffic congestion fees to fund the MTA, not a sales tax!"

Why not an income tax increase? Because income tax is a state revenue. One of the major plusses about Measure R is that it ensures that California doesn't raid these public transit funds to cover budget shortfalls due to mismanagement. The state has done this in the past, but Measure R money would be safe, as it can legally only be used for public transit in L.A. county. If we decided to raise money for L.A. public transit by raising the state income tax, there would be nothing that we could do to prevent the state from dipping into that L.A. transit money for use elsewhere in the state. And why should people in Eureka be paying extra income tax for public transit in L.A. county, anyway?

Why not a gas tax increase, vehicle registration fee increase, or congestion fee? Each of those things would be great if they could actually happen. I challenge someone to try and get a measure to increase those fees or taxes on the ballot. My prediction: it will not happen. Most of the people in this county drive, and everyone is looking for the cheapest gas price they can find. I highly doubt that people who are so worried about having cheaper gas are going to vote to increase their gas price. People tend to see sales tax as the most egalitarian of the types of tax: Everybody pays. To quote the L.A. Times editorial:

"We'd rather see these projects funded by motorists, via higher vehicle registration fees or gas taxes. That would properly place the burden of relieving our traffic and smog problems on those who cause them. Sales taxes, by contrast, hurt low-income people the most and do nothing to discourage driving. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only politically tenable course. Tax increases require a two-thirds vote for approval, and polls show that the sales tax is the only funding source that comes close to reaching that level of public acceptance."--L.A. Times

So, if we want this public transit funding, the sales tax is the most likely way to get it. If we reject Measure R, it's unlikely that the same plan with a different funding source will be approved. This is an opportunity we shouldn't miss. And, besides, this is a city that has up-to-now embraced the car and the freeway system. We can't simply quit our cars cold turkey! For many people there currently is no bus or rail service that offers convenient service to or from their area, and driving really is the only option. Those people should not be penalized with higher car expenses when the current transit system is unable to meet their needs.

3.) "It doesn't proportion the funding equally according to population! Region X has Y percent of the population of L.A. County, but only gets Z percent of the funding!" or "It doesn't do anything for the San Gabriel Valley!" or "It doesn't do anything for Long Beach!"

First of all, as a general philosophy: devoting money to public transportation corridors is a strategic endeavor. It involves evaluating the population density, concentration of residential areas, concentration of businesses providing jobs for those residents, and then finding the bus or rail route that will provide the highest ridership at the lowest cost. At any given time a sizable portion of the money needs to go into the highest priority transit corridor. The benefits then reach throughout the county, as the reason those corridors have such high population density is due to people from other parts of the county commuting in there to go to work. Even if a commuter from suburbia will never take public transit, the traffic on the freeway they're driving on will improve as other people do opt to use the bus or rail line.

Hence, the decision of where to distribute the rail lines and transit corridors has to be based on population density and need, not spread throughout the county equally. Still, I'll argue that most parts of the county, including the San Gabriel Valley, would be getting plenty if Measure R passes.

You can see for yourself what projects will be funded, according to region, here:

The San Gabriel Valley (SGV) leadership has decided to take a stand and demand some pork from the county. They have their hearts set on an extension of the Gold Line all the way to Ontario Airport. Since Measure R does not include enough funding appropriation to do this, they are taking stances against it. Never mind that the Wilshire subway project will serve an area with far greater population density, to which many SGV residents need to commute anyway. Never mind that the Gold Line currently has the lowest ridership numbers of any of the metro rail lines, and has consistently been below ridership projections since it was completed. Never mind that the SGV will lose the opportunity for lots of other project funding if Measure R fails. Never mind that Measure R ACTUALLY INCLUDES funding for the "Foothill Extension" of the Gold Line, which will extend it from Sierra Madre all the way to Montclair, AND funding for the completion and maintenance of the "East Side Extension of the Gold Line, which is on time to open next year. They want an even higher priority for the Gold Line. This is unreasonable, greedy, and parochial.

Let's look at what the SGV will lose if R does not pass (you can check these for yourself in the Measure R info section of MTA's website), and thanks to Ken Alpern who summarized these points in a comment on the Bottleneck Blog:

-- Improvements to the 10, 60, 210, 605, 710 and freeways

-- The Alameda Corridor East grade separations, which would gets lots of trucks off the 60 and 10 freeways while keep SGV residents from having to stop at rail crossings as often.

-- Foothill Gold Line extension toward Clairemont

-- Eastside Gold Line extension BEYOND the Atlantic station (which will open next year), to stations farther east.

-- The Downtown Light Rail Connector which will allow Gold-line trains to connect directly to the Blue Line

-- Improved Metrolink service for the SGV area

-- Local bus service funding for the individual cities

-- The Wilshire subway extension to UCLA, which will have SGV residents as its second-highest ridership constituency

Regarding that last point about the subway: 22% of the people expected to ride the Subway to the Sea are residents of the San Gabriel Valley. They are the next highest constituency of projected riders after west side residents, who will make up only 36% of the ridership. Those figures are based on a ridership study done by the MTA to determine which parts of the county will benefit from a Wilshire Subway. It's on page 25 of the linked presentation:

Public transit project funding should not be appropriated according to population size. It is population DENSITY that matters. East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) are a large percentage of L.A. County, it's true. But they are spread out over an enormous area compared to West L.A., downtown, and even the San Fernando Valley. We would have to build many more rail lines, branching out in many directions, in order to provide improved access for most of the SGV. The reason the MTA is targeting projects like the "Subway to the Sea" under Wilshire Blvd, or a Green line LAX connector, or the downtown light rail connector, is that those projects would help far more people than the Gold line extension to Ontario, and so they are of higher priority.

The L.A. Times, the L.A. Daily News and the South Bay Daily Breeze newspapers have all published editorials in support of Measure R, while the Long Beach Press Telegram and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune oppose it.

I was so annoyed at the Long Beach Press Telegram's editorial that I left a comment about it on their website. For one thing, their opposition to Measure R seems hypocritical: Two previous countywide half-cent sales tax increases passed in the 1980's and 1990's, respectively. The funds generated from them went to build the blue line from downtown to Long Beach and the red line from downtown to North Hollywood, respectively. That means that, back in the 1980's, West siders were apparently happy to vote for a countywide sales tax increase that gave Long Beach a great public transit rail line. . . and now the Press Telegram is urging its readers not to return the favor? Sure, Long Beach has it's rail line, thanks to the residents of the rest of the county; why should it bother helping out other parts of the county now?

4.) "Now is not the time for a tax increase!"

Yes, the economy is bad. But it turns out that big investment in public infrastructure projects during hard economic times is probably not such a bad idea. Paul Krugman, who just won the Nobel Prize in Economics, says that now is a good time to invest in infrastructure. He says "The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling." We have plenty of old roads and bridges in L.A. and throughout the country that need repair. A good dose of government spending ala the New Deal and Works Projects Administration might be just what the doctor ordered. The Golden Gate Bridge was financed by a bond measure during the great depression, and there it is still benefitting the Bay area some 80 years later. And a sales tax increase is better than a bond measure because we won't have to pay double the cost in interest.

A good public transit system is a sound investment that will improve the lives of people in this city for decades, even centuries to come. Keep in mind that the first train of the London "tube" subway system began operating in 1863, and now that city, which is arguably just as sprawled out area-wise as Los Angeles, has one of the best public transit systems on Earth.

Wrapping things up:

What bothers me most about the opposition to R is this "try again next election" mentality. How much do you want to bet that whatever other distribution of funds is proposed at the next election, there will be just as many communities crying out that it is unfair? Sure, there are details in this measure that I don't think are perfect. But it's a comprehensive public transit measure, chalk full of language and details. OF COURSE some people are going to have problems with someparts of it. Sure, we could reject it this time and hope they put together another plan next election, but it's likely that another group of people will dislike some details about THAT plan, so maybe they'll say "try again next election". And this goes on until suddenly 10 more years have gone by and we're still arguing over the details when we could have had a new rail line built by then.

This passing the buck on to the next election is one of the reasons why, 20 years after the subway to the sea was first conceived, construction has still not begun. Sure, we can keep passing on good public transit for this city because we don't like this or that detail in the bill, while L.A. County's population continues to grow (expected 30% rise by 2030), and our roads get more and more congested, and commute times get longer and longer, and less and less tourists will want to come here because there is no easy way to get around town.

Or we can take some responsibility for our future and make a commitment to better public transit, and a better county for our children and our grandchildren; and we don't have to wait until the "next election". We can do this now.

So, if you live in L.A. County, when you have your ballot in front of you ask yourself this: Do you want Los Angeles to have a great public transit system like other great cities do? (Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., London, Paris) Then why would you vote no on R? If it's because of some minor detail in the plan, ask yourself if that minor detail is important enough to delay these great projects even further into the future; to keep this city chained to it's car-based, smog-creating, oil-guzzling, time-wasting freeway infrastructure even longer. Let's quit wasting time and do the right thing.

Vote yes on Measure R!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rocket Launch

Uh, I guess I might have over-hyped the rocket launch last night. Sorry about that.

Reg and I went to the park with Lucy and watched the launch. Even though it was only an hour and a half after sunset, I guess it was still too late for the rocket to enter sunlight during its climb into orbit, so the exhaust trail was not lit up by sunlight, as it was in my photos from the launch a few years ago.

Still, the rocket's red/orange flame was clearly visible as it rose southward in the night sky. It was brighter than most other lights, save nearby planes, and you could see it blink momentarily as it dropped it's first stage.

Didn't really get a good picture, sort of just looks like a red dot rising in the sky. But it was still fun to watch!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rocket Launch Tomorrow night!

Rocket launch tomorrow night out of Vandenberg! These tend to be lovely spectacles when they happen close to twilight, and this one should be visible for "at least 200 miles", weather permitting. IE: if you live somewhere in Southern CA, you will probably be able to see this if you have a clear view to the West. Actually, just based on the geometry of a typical Delta II rocket launch and a spherical Earth, the above map shows the range of visibility (the farther from the rocket you are, the lower over the horizon it appears).

Once the rocket climbs into sunlight, the exhaust plume and trail tend to be very visible! You can see pictures from a previous twilight launch a few years ago here:



If you're in Southern CA, just be outside looking Northwest (toward Vandenberg) at 7:28 pm on Friday (tomorrow) 10/24! The rocket should come from the Northwest and head pretty much due South.

Oh, and you can check for updates on this particular launch at the following website, which will have a launch video webcast starting 30 minutes prior to launch:

And this is a great website with lots of info on all-things-space for the Southern California community:

(P.S.: These launches do sometimes scrub at the last minute, so if you're not seeing anything within 10 minutes or so of being out there, you might want to check the above update website to see if it was canceled.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No on Proposition 8!

When I was in High School, I remember distinctly taking the position that, if I could do one thing right in my life, it would be to never in any way get involved in politics. sigh.

The coming election is an important one. In addition to the president, the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for re-election, 1/3 of the U.S. Senate is as well, and there are a variety of state propositions and county and citywide measures that will appear on our ballots.

I've been reviewing the propositions that will be put before California voters. Some are matters of logistical progress: Prop 1A is the high-speed train bond measure I discussed in a previous entry, Prop 7 and Prop 10 have to do with solar and wind energy. Others are the usual suspects: Prop 4 is the latest of many attempt to force doctors to notify parents 48 before a female minor has an abortion, a proposition that has appeared in at least the last two state elections, was voted down, but seems likely to pass this time, based on polls taken a few months ago, due to the inclusion of parental waivers.

Such propositions have a flavor of business-as-usual to them. They are either interesting ideas that need to be analyzed to see whether they are the best way forward, or old standbys on which I had formed on opinion long ago.

But there is one proposition on the ballot this year that gets to the core of the freedom and equality on which U.S. citizens often pride themselves: Proposition 8. This is important.

My friend Molly already wrote a great blog on her reasons for opposing proposition 8. All are good points. My own reason for opposing it is simple: it takes the right to marry away from a group of people. That is wrong. Inherently wrong. Disgustingly wrong. I feel as if the "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws that civil-rights era leaders of the 1960's fought to overcome are being completely forgotten by everyone who has been convinced to support this ban on gay marriage.

Prop 8 seeks to add the following words to our state Constitution: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." It's quite simple: the ONLY thing this proposition does is take a right away from a group of people because of their sexual orientation. That's it. It takes a right available to the heterosexual population away from the homosexual population. No matter what argument anyone who has been convinced to vote yes on the proposition makes, that fact will remain. Insert the word "white" in front of the words man and woman in the proposed language, and any cosmetic differences between this and the divisive Jim Crow laws fades into transparency.

It's bad enough that there are enough homophobic people in this state that Prop 8 has made it onto the ballot, what's infinitely worse is that, at the current rate, the proposition actually has a chance of passing.

It's interesting that recent polls show prop 8 gaining ground since the earlier polls this summer all showed it was likely to be rejected. It seems the "Yes on 8" community has struck a nerve with their recent TV advertising campaign. They use a form of fear-mongering and misdirection that is really working on some people.

The yes-on-8 ads, funded largely by the Mormon Church and the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization), allege that, unless we ban gay marriage, students as young as Kindergarteners will be taught that men can marry men in public school. Apparently this actually happened in Massachussetts for a class of 2nd graders.

Here's why this argument is misleading:

-Prop 8 has absolutely nothing to do with education. I already wrote above the entirety of what prop 8 proposes: to take away the right of gay people to marry. It only ads those 14 words to the constitution. Nothing about education. At all.

-If students are learning about gay marriage in elementary school, it is due to ambiguities in the state health education standards. The statute to which the yes-on-8 ads are referring is California Education Code Section 51890-51891, which lists the expected topics of instruction for school districts that want a state-funded health curriculum. Among the topics is the following:

"For the purposes of this chapter, "comprehensive health
education programs" are defined as all educational programs offered
in kindergarten and grades 1 to 12, inclusive, in the public school
system, including in-class and out-of-class activities designed to
ensure that:
(1) Pupils will receive instruction to aid them in making
decisions in matters of personal, family, and community health, to
include the following subjects:
(A) The use of health care services and products.
. . .
(D) Family health and child development, including the legal and
financial aspects and responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.

What this basically means is that, if a school district wants state funding for its health-education curriculum, it must, at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade, discuss the legal and financial aspects of marriage. The Code says nothing about exactly which grade marriage is to be discussed in. The issue of what topics are to be taught at which grade level is addressed in the Standards for Health Education, which doesn't mention anything about teaching marriage until it gets to high school:

"High School
As a result of health instruction in high school, all students will demonstrate the ability to:
. . .
HS.1.G.3 Discuss the characteristics of healthy relationships, dating, committed relationships, and marriage.
. . .
HS.1.G.10 Recognize that there are individual differences in growth and development, body image, gender roles, and sexual orientation. "

So, according to this, marriage and sexual orientation are to be discussed in high-school "careers and family studies"-type classes.

Here's the rub: though the standards clearly say that students should learn about marriage and sexual orientation in High School, they seem to also leave open the option to discuss marriage in earlier grades. It seems to be the prerogative of the school district:

"Section 51933

51933. (a) School districts may provide comprehensive sexual health education, consisting of age-appropriate instruction, in any kindergarten to grade 12, inclusive, using instructors trained in the appropriate courses. (b) A school district that elects to offer comprehensive sexual health education pursuant to subdivision (a), whether taught by school district personnel or outside consultants, shall satisfy all of the following criteria:
. . .
(7) Instruction and materials shall teach respect for marriage and committed relationships.
(8) Commencing in grade 7, instruction and materials shall teach that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only certain way to prevent unintended pregnancy, teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and provide information about the value of abstinence while also providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
. . ."

"Age appropriate instruction" seems to be up for interpretation. I included number (8) to show that some of the curriculum standards DO state clearly at what grade the instruction is to begin (in the case of birth control, it clearly states that it can be taught starting in grade 7). This does not seem to be the case for marriage, and leaves some leeway about when it can be discussed.

-Now, what does all of this have to do with gay marriage? Well, obviously, if gay marriage remains legal in this state, then it should be discussed and addressed whenever the school decides it is time to instruct the children about marriage. Those who oppose gay marriage probably wouldn't want their kids learning about it at a young age in public school.

The reason the fear-mongering ads of the "yes-on-8" campaign are misleading, however, is this: the age at which certain topics are taught to public school students is a matter that can be addressed by revising state school standards and codes. One could petition to make these laws more clear about only addressing the topic of marriage in junior high or high school, for example. Putting a "Beginning in grade 7. . ." before the bit about marriage in the Standards above would do it. One could also pull their child out of the class. One could discuss the interpretation of the state codes with the school district. All of these are better options for clearing this up then just taking the right to marry away from an entire population of people.

But no, the yes-on-8 campaign wants you to believe that the best way to solve this ambiguity in our state health education code is to eliminate the right of gay people to marry entirely. It's not right to take a civil right away from a whole population just because some people don't want their kids hearing about it in school. This is not the right way to address the problem of what kids learn and when.

And then there's a more fundamental issue: Why did this argument convince some people, who would otherwise have been content to leave well enough alone and let homosexuals continue to marry, that they should now remove that right entirely? Before these recent ads started running, polls were showing that prop 8 was likely to fail. After the school-ads, polls show it likely to pass. So some people who previously were against prop 8 suddenly were for it. If you are ok with it being legal for gay people to marry, why would you want to keep it a secret from your children? Say your child asks you if two men can get married; what are you going to do, lie to them? You can teach your children anything you like in your home and your church, but if you expect the public school system to preach inequality, I have little sympathy for you.


Underneath all the fear-mongering and obfuscation of the "yes-on-8" campaign, the primary motivations for passing this ban are religious. Well, marriage in the sense that we are talking about is NOT a religious institution. It is a civil one. And there are real differences between marriage and domestic partnership.

In the end, this issue is much simpler than everyone is making it out to be. Heterosexual couples enjoy the right to marry. Homosexual couples now do as well. Prop 8 would take that right away from them. It would be the first time I know of that an entire demographic would be stripped of their civil rights in a constitutional amendment in this state.

History does not look back fondly on those who support taking rights away from people. Think of how we regard those who espoused the "separate but equal" doctrine in the '60's. We think of them as racists. Those who vote Yes on prop 8 this November 4 will join their prejudiced predecessors in attempting to ensure that certain people do not get the civil rights and equal treatment under the law that is supposed to be guaranteed to all men and women in this country and in this state. Shame on them. They should be smarter than this. Don't let fear mongering and religious dogma cloud your judgment. Vote no on prop 8!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Race across London

I've heard people compare Los Angeles to London in that both cities are sprawled out over a large area. While London has had a metro-rail system for over 150 years now, the rail system of Los Angeles can not compete, and probably won't for quite some time.

Anyhow, a friend told me about this show, Top Gear, which typically does car reviews. In this particular episode, 4 guys race across London using 4 different modes of transportation: car, bicycle, public transit (bus and rail), and a speed boat up the Thames river.

It's tremendous fun to watch, only about 23 minutes. Can you guess the order in which they cross the finish line?

Scroll down to find out who won.

Bicycle, then boat, then public transit, then car.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

SCUBA Cylinder Explosions

So, we got a new compressor at the aquarium to fill our SCUBA cylinders with between dives. Unlike the old one, this compressor has some better safety features. For one, it only fills the cylinders when the door is closed and the cylinders are encased in a thick steel compartment; the idea being that, if a rupture were to occur, the extra metal would minimze the damage to the surrounding dive locker, where there are typically lots of people walking around. The process of loading a tank into the compressor and heaving the door shut before the compressor can start filling the tank reminded me of how the Ghostbusters would load their ghost trap into their "containment system" in the movie.

Anyway, I got curious about just how often SCUBA cylinder ruptures occur, and found some information on the website of Luxfer, on of the biggest manufacturers of SCUBA cylinders in the world.

Here is one of their charts, listing 13 SCUBA cylinder ruptures/
explosions since 1988, the most recent in 2007.

It is unclear to me whether this is a list of only SLC (sustained-load-
cracking) ruptures, or all SCUBA cylinder ruptures worldwide. Either
way, it appears that many of them are due to a specific alloy of
aluminum (6351) that is more susceptible to SLC than other alloys of
aluminum or steel. Luxfer stopped making these tanks in 1988 (in the
U.S.) and in 1990 (in Australia), afterwhich they switched to 6061,
which is apparently not susceptible to SLC.

Still, statistically speaking the risk is low. . . but if you google
around for any of the events on the list, you're likely to find
personal accounts and photos of the aftermath of the explosions. On
the couple I looked at, the scuba-shop people filling the tanks
noticed no defects on the tanks whatsoever. In one case, the cylinder
exploded after being placed in a water-tank to be filled, but BEFORE
the staff member even opened the compressor valve to fill the tank
(IE: it exploded when it was not being filled, at least, according to
the account at this web site, near the bottom of the page).

Note that the energy contained in the compressed air of a SCUBA cylinder, relative to atmospheric pressure around it, is equivalent to the energy of about 2 hand grenades, according to the link above.

Not sure how reliable that account was, but, anyway, with the number
of cylinders we have being using in the dive locker, and the fact that
the fill station is right next to where divers and tour groups walk
all day long, I'm happy to have the new ghost-buster containment system.

Of course, a person is MUCH MUCH more likely to be injured or killed by driving a car, getting hit by lightning, having a coconut fall on his head, or getting crushed by a vending machine than being injured or killed by an exploding scuba tank. . . but I see no problem in mitigating risk, especially since the most likely time a tank would rupture is during the filling process.

Finally, for fun, I'd like you to use your current state of mind
thinking about exploding 3000 psi scuba cylinder to reflect on the
idea of a new "air car" that will be powered by an on-board compressed
air tank holding air at 4500 psi. . . situated right next to a fuel
tank. . . in a car that can drive up to 90 mph. All in the name of
saving energy. (Because I'm sure air compressors that can fill tanks
up to 4500 psi are highly energy efficient, right? ;) )

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Subway, The Earthquake, and the iPhone

I was about 100 feet under downtown Los Angeles, when the earthquake hit.

On Tuesdays I commute from North Hollywood station all the way down to Long Beach to volunteer at the aquarium, using the Red line (L.A.'s only completely subterranean heavy rail) and the Blue line (a light rail that is only underground breifly at its northernmost station).

I think we were somewhere between Vermont/Santa Monica and 7th/Metro (where I disembarked) at the time of the quake. The reason I am unsure exactly where on the route we were at 11:42 am is because I DIDN'T FEEL THE EARTHQUAKE AT ALL. No one in my train car did, as far as I can recall. I do remember that, at one of the red line stops, the train was stopped for longer than usual (maybe 30 seconds), and the conductor said something inaudible over the speaker, but I didn't know what it was, and it didn't seem to matter much since we were moving again pretty quick, so I assumed it was some random delay. No one around me was reacting to anything (several were sleeping), so I think it's not just me on the train that didn't feel it.

(I am actually curious at why I didn't feel the quake on the red line. Was it simply because the regular vibrations felt when riding the train masked the vibrations from the quake? The red line feels (to me) like it has shocks cushioning between the wheel chassis and the car somehow, making it a smooth ride. Did those shocks (if they exist) damp out the jolt of the quake as well? I dunno.)

After disembarking the red line at 7th/Metro, I went up the stairs to wait for the Blue Line. This station is a double-decker subway station, with the red line at the lower level and the blue line at the upper level, but both still underground. After waiting 3 or 4 minutes, someone came on the station loudspeaker and said "(something inaudible) We are running all trains as normal, but (something inaudible) there may be some delays. We appreciate your patience and apologize for any inconvenience."

I was playing a stupid game on my phone, so I wasn't really paying attention, and figured there was some random reason why the trains might be delayed. This didn't seem all that unusual, so I just waited as normal.

The blue line train showed up only a few minutes or so later than expected. I strolled onboard, still blissfully unaware that anything had happened. It was now around 11:55 or so. Once people had mostly sat down and had gotten quiet, the conductor for this train came on the loudspeaker:

"This train will be departing for Long Beach. Because of the earthquake, we will not be traveling faster than 15 miles per hour. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

Earthquake? There was an earthquake? Huh.

I pulled out my shiny new iphone, which of course gets no reception underground, and opened the web browser. As soon as we emerged from underground and were approaching Pico station, I went to On the top of the CNN front page was an alert in big red letters: "5.4 Earthquake rocks Los Angeles. Details soon."

Yeesh, I thought, talk about alarmist reporting! Here CNN is warning the nation of a natural disaster possibly destroying L.A., and here I am coming out from beneath downtown L.A. and I didn't even feel the darn thing. I then browsed over to the USGS web site and found out that it was indeed a 5.4 quake, whose epicenter was near Chino Hills, about 30 miles east-southeast of downtown. I figured, well, maybe it was too far away for us to feel it. Right then I get a text message from my sister in SAN DIEGO. "Did you feel the earthquake?", she asked. I responded that I hadn't, and she immediately replied that the room she was in (a classroom in a larger building) was "rockin' and rollin'". In San Diego. 113 miles from the epicenter! Everyone else I talked to that day definitely felt the earthquake. In a weird way, I feel sort of left out.

The main impact it had on my day was that the blue line was forced to run much slower, I guess as a safety precaution in case of aftershocks. We were going 15 mph most of the 30 or so miles to Long Beach. I could hear chatter on the speakers, which sounded like communications between the conductor and higher authorities. By the time we were street-running in Long Beach, it sounded like the conductor was given approval to take the train up to 45 mph, but at that point it was moot for me, since we were stopping at stoplights and such anyway. The 53 minute scheduled ride between 7th/Metro and the Long Beach Transit Mall instead took about 1 hr 40 minutes. Luckily I could call the aquarium and let them know I would be late so someone could cover for the first part of my volunteer shift.

While I was checking out news sites for more quake info, some guy sat down next to me, having just boarded at Pico. I asked him if he felt the quake. "Oh yeah," he said. Then he noticed that the train was going really slow, and I told him that it was for safety. He realized that, at this rate, he was not going to make to where he was going by using the train, so I used my iPhone and the MTA website to figure out an alternate route for him to take, using a bus that was scheduled to stop at the next blue line station we'd be stopping at in just a few minutes! Worked out kind of well, and he walked off the train saying "I need to get me one of those!". So I guess these things aren't just toys afterall.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mass Transit: California and Los Angeles

EDIT: Thought I'd quickly add a cool link I found with information about metropolitan rail systems around the world. Has info on their history and the present day states of the system. Did you know that the first Metro rail system was the London Tube, which started operation in 1863? (!!)

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I'd talk a bit about transit issues specific to California and Los Angeles, in particular.

As for state-wide service, check this out: A high-speed rail (220 MPH trains!) system that will eventually extend from San Diego through Riverside and Los Angeles and San Francisco all the way to Sacramento. A trip from downtown L.A. to San Diego would cost $35 and take 1 hour and 20 minutes. A trip between L.A. and San Francisco would cost $55 and take 2 hours and 40 minutes. And we can vote to approve it in November's election! I'm glad that California government is taking the lead in trying to make this state more European in dealing with high gas prices and making long-range high speed rail transit more commonplace than it is today. I only hope the rest of the population will see the benefits that such systems can bring to their children and their grandchildren, instead of leaving their descendants to deal with the rising national debt we are incurring, and the environmental impacts we are causing, by continuing to rely on personal transport and fossil fuels.

In Los Angeles, public transit is a challenge. The city is a sprawl, with a huge number of people living in the San Fernando Valley, the west side, Santa Monica, Hollywood, East L.A., Pasadena, South Central, the South Bay, Long Beach, etc. L.A. Metro has a very difficult problem ahead of them: they are trying to expand and improve their network of rail and bus lines across a huge urban and suburban sprawl. Subways and trains are fast, reliable, and can keep to their schedules without having to worry about traffic throughout the day. Everyone would love a train that goes straight from their house to their job, but obviously we can only have so many rail lines. They are expensive to build, especially in areas where the region to be developed into a rail line is privately owned.

The regions that are too far from a rail station (most of the county) are served by buses. I can say from experience that the local versions of these buses are simply not worth it if you have access to a car. You will waste 15 to 20 minutes waiting at the bus stop (they are rarely able to hold to the schedule), and they make so many stops that you could almost always make the trip much faster in your car. And if you are only traveling ~5 miles or so, the distance over which you’d likely want to use a local bus, it’d be much easier to use a car.

Over longer distances, the “rapid” lines become quite useful. These are usually larger, articulating buses that make fewer stops along their route, allowing them to get you from one place to another much faster than a local bus. I use a rapid line to get from UCLA to my condo in Sherman Oaks.

L.A. Metro really is trying to make improvements and expand service. But of course, we only notice the little problems, and take the good things about the service for granted. The fact that the buses are not able to arrive and depart on the scheduled timetable does not really surprise me: the buses are subject to the same traffic fluctuations and stoplights that cars are. We can’t expect the buses to arrive within minutes of the time on the schedule; especially when it’s near the end of that bus’ route.

What I would love to see is something like Chicago has. A way for people to tell how long until the next bus arrives at the bus stop. Something that is accessible by cellphone would be great. Anything accessible online would work as well. If I could know how long before the bus will actually arrive at the bus stop BEFORE I leave my house or office, I could save a lot of time that I am currently wasting waiting at the bus stop, not knowing whether or not I have time to sit down and work on my laptop, or whether there is a bus coming within a couple of minutes.

The rail system in L.A. is actually very effective (see map above), but if you don't live near a rail station, it is useless to you. The entire west side of L.A. is not served by a rail system. The purple line (a subway) currently goes from downtown to Wilshire and Western, and it will eventually be extended all the way to Santa Monica. That will be great when it's finished, as it will take lots of car congestion off of Wilshire, Santa Monica Blvd., and I-10. But that is probably 10-15 years out. . . and I can not imagine having to deal with all the legal issues and property owners underneath and along Wilshire Blvd.

The MTA has a long term plan, and it is moving in the right direction, but I hope that the recent rises in gas cost will inspire some political motivation to inject even more money into the transit system here. This could be an even greater city if public transit were fast, affordable, and efficient. I don't expect that people will be able to live here easily without cars anytime soon, but reducing car usage by a large amount (as in, the ability to commute to work without using your car) would be a significant and attainable goal.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rising gas prices and public transit

I thought I’d spend a couple of blog posts talking (mainly to myself, I know, but it’s therapeutic) about public transit in general, and mass transit in Los Angeles in particular.

First, in general: It seems to me that one of the major economic problems the U.S. will be facing over the next few decades is the increasing cost of petroleum. I’ve seen many websites (some alarmist, others more reliable and practical) proclaiming that we are nearing the age of global peak oil. That is, within my lifetime (and probably within the next 30 or so years) we will reach a point at which humanity is producing oil for consumption at the highest possible rate, and after which the oil production rate will fall lower and lower. This time, called “Hubbert’s Peak” corresponds to the point at which we have used half of the crude oil that is accessible to humanity.

The fact that Hubbert’s peak exists for oil should not be surprising. It exists for any non-renewable resource. Crude oil is produced by processes of biological decay and geological compression that take thousands to millions of years, and we humans are using the energy from oil in much less time than it takes the Earth to produce more of it. Hence, on the timescale of human society, oil is non-renewable.

In his book “Out of Gas”, Caltech Physicist David Goodstein points out that we don’t have to wait until we are literally out of oil for a crisis to erupt. That’s because, as soon as we’ve hit Hubbert’s peak, and the rate of oil production begins to forever decrease, oil prices will be forced to continuously rise as the supply of oil decreases. In the 1970’s, oil production within the United States hit Hubbert’s Peak. OPEC realized this and, due to a variety of economic and political motivations, reduced the amount of oil they were willing to sell to the U.S.. The result was the Gas Crisis, with people waiting in long lines to get the small amount of gasoline available to them. We weren’t out of oil. . . availability just decreased for a time. And, when our car-based, consumer lifestyle continues to increase (along with our population), a small decrease in the availability of oil can mean real problems for the every day consumer.

Average gas prices in the U.S. have gone from the lowest (adjusted for inflation) real cost per gallon ever in 1999, to the highest real cost per gallon ever, right now. (See the plot above, collected from the U.S. Energy Information Administration) Though some types of governmental incentives and fiscal policies might cause the prices to go down by a few tens of cents at some point (the temporary band-aid of a "gas tax holiday" supported by McCain and Clinton), they will not be decreasing by half. Gradually, our gasoline prices will be increasing for the foreseeable future. Some people, including myself, think this might actually turn out to be a good thing. Check out this op-ed piece in the L.A. Times: The Joy of $8 Gas.

However, though it may be great that rising gas prices will encourage more people to use public transit, there needs to be a useful transit system available for them in order for the switch to work. This is where the U.S. gets hit in its weak spot. Use of trains and public transportation in metropolitan areas was high in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century. But after the economic prosperity that came about after World War 2 and during the Cold War, and with the (temporary) availability of cheap oil, U.S. society changed. People moved away from the centers of big cities, and created the suburbs. This was possible because roads could be built out into suburban or rural areas, and people could afford to drive their own cars to wherever they pleased without the governments having to invest public funds. The federal government began investing much more in the interstate highway system, and much less in the train systems. Even state and city governments put more of their tax revenue into maintaining more and more roads, leaving less money to maintain (let alone expand) public transit systems. The U.S. became a car country.

Now we are finally seeing some of the error in our ways. If gas prices keep going up at the current rates, it will become economically unfeasible for many lower middle class families to use their cars to commute to work. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if our society were used to using a good public transit system. But we are not used to public transit. We are used to the convenience of personal transit. And most U.S. cities do not have a good public transit system, though it is improving.

Robert Reich, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, sometimes gives commentaries on NPR. One of his recent suggestions (on the June 4 podcast) was for the federal government to enact some fiscal policy and inject a real economic stimulus package that amounts to more than giving each American $600 to put in the bank. Instead, Congress should vote to imbue a great deal more money into public transportation. Gasoline is not going to get cheaper, and hybrid cars are great but will only solve the economic problem for the upper middle class people who can afford to buy them.

A better public transit system, one that allows people to conduct their daily lives without having to use their cars as often as they do now, is the right solution. It will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce our production of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming, and give relief to those who find it more difficult to pay for gas.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ISS animation

My advisor forwarded this animation to me today. It shows the completed and planned construction of the International Space Station in cool 3D animation, along with dates and flight #'s of the completed construction.

It's pretty awesome to see that, after all the criticism and obstacles, this international manned orbiting laboratory is getting close to being finished!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back from Utah

So I was at a conference in Midway, Utah, for the past week. Stayed at a lovely resort called "Zermatt", with a very Swiss theme. It was a good conference overall. I got some good comments on the poster I was presenting from other space scientists specializing in the ionosphere and the magnetosphere. The resort was nice. . . it was mainly meant to be a place for skiing tourists to stay, but it didn't actually have ski slopes. . . Still, there was a putt-putt course (called the "executive putting green"), a nice pool, and right across the street there was a hot spring called "the Crater". I actually got to go SCUBA diving in this thing, which was basically a deep, water-filled cave filled with 95 deg F water. Kinda fun.

The "Midway Bear" depicted above in the statue that greets guests of the resort, was actually a guy who would dress up as a bear and play the accordian at town parades to entertain the children. That was a disappointingly reasonable story for a statue with such outlandish comic potential, I thought. Oh well.

Oh, and check out the creepy rabbit painting from my hotel room. I don't know why it freaks me out . .. but it does.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Science and the Manned Space Program

It's great to hear that the Japanese laboratory component of the International Space Station, "Kibo", is being successfully installed. I remember being most impressed when I learned about that module years ago at JSC. They have a full-sized lab (like the U.S. lab, "Destiny"), but also a separate storage shed and an external palette for experiments exposed to space, with a dedicated small robotic arm! Seeing the perennial space station news pop up on cnn, it got me thinking about manned space flight and its importance.

When I worked in Houston, the International Space Station was talked about with the sort of starry-eyed optimism that had drawn me to NASA and space exploration in the first place. Everyone at JSC was proud of their association with the manned spaceflight program, and this drove them to work hard to be able to contribute. Every little job was a real addition to the body of work that went into keeping the station and shuttle programs operating.

When I came to UCLA and got into space physics, I found that the feelings of most scientists toward manned spaceflight was very different. Most saw the current manned space program as a waste of resources. Tens of billions of dollars spent on the ISS over a decade now ($25.6 billion from 1994 - 2005 according to NASA's site) and about $2 billion per year expected from now until 2017 when we are slated to stop funding ISS altogether. And that cost does not even include the budget for the Space Shuttle, even though the shuttle's primary mission has been constructing and servicing the ISS for a while now. For all that money and manpower, there have been very few significant scientific results to show for it. In contrast, NASA's unmanned space program, sending missions at usually a few hundred million dollars a pop, but rarely more than several billion over the lifetime of a mission. Missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers, learning amazing things about the surface conditions of Mars, Cassini-Huygens exploring Saturn, it's magnetosphere, and its moons, SOHO keeping a watchful eye on the Sun, Voyagers 1 and 2, which are still transmitting after nearly 30 years from beyond the termination shock of our solar system, and dozens of other Earth-orbitting and interplanetary spacecraft. Such unmanned explorations of the Earth, the Sun, the other planets, and the space in between delivered observations that have vastly contributed to our understanding of the larger environment in which we live, and at an annual cost much lower than the cost of the space shuttle and ISS programs. So many more scientific results, for a fraction of the cost. Seems like a no-brainer which program is more scientifically valuable: not the one where people continuously orbit the Earth only ~200 miles up.

Of course, there is likely some bias built into the criticisms of the manned space program, at least those coming from space scientists. Most space physicists are funded in some way by NASA, and so more money for manned spaceflight means less money available for useful scientific programs that don't involve astronauts. After Bush announced his new "Vision for Space Exploration" a few years ago, NASA went through a major re-structuring, and funds were shifted around, often away from science programs into manned spaceflight engineering and operations costs.

There is science being done on the space station, of course, though not as much as was originally envisioned. You can see a list of experiments that have been carried out on station ever since it first launched here. But the big question, of course, is "is it worth it?".

I think it is, personally. If the space station were never built, would there be more money available for non-manned space missions? Maybe. But maybe not. Many people are really only interested in a space program if there are humans going up into it, and all of these people in the U.S. can vote. The members of congress who approve the President's budget know that. Without a manned component, I am not convinced that NASA would get nearly as much funding as it currently does. It's not as easy to excite the voting public with data from magnetometers and spectrometers as it is to talk to floating astronauts in space. As much as some scientists and engineers might not like to admit it, there are non-scientific benefits to having a manned space program.

Take Apollo, for instance. We actually got a lot of interesting scientific results from our trips to the moon. I just learned last week that the first thing deployed after Apollo 11 touched down was not the American flag, it was the Solar Wind Composition Experiment, a sheet of special foil hanging from a pole, which collected ions flowing in the solar wind. It was of course returned to the Earth by the astronauts, giving scientists a better insight into the composition of the charged gas that exists in interplanetary space.

We still have ~80 lbs of moon rocks sitting in a lab at Johnson Space Center, from which cosmochemists often request samples for scientific research. (. . . and some unscrupulous NASA Co-ops try to steal and sell.) Analysis of these samples gives us information about the age and composition of the Moon AND the Earth, and tells us more about the nature and origin of the solar system. The "sub-satellites" deployed in lunar orbit by Apollo 15 and 16 yielded interesting observations of the gravitational and magnetic fields of the moon. The lunar seismometers that were deployed provided interesting information about the interior structure of the Moon, and remain the only successful seismographic experiment conducted on the surface of any body other than Earth. The Laser Retroreflector experiment is still used to this very day to montior the Earth-Moon distance, revealing interesting things about the interior structure of the Moon, the slow recession of the Moon away from the Earth, and the consistency of Newton's Universal law of Gravitation. These are just a few examples.

So, the scientific merit of the Apollo program is not really in question. And yet, would we have launched men to walk on the Moon for purely scientific reasons? Hard to say if we would have, but we certainly didn't. Apollo was really a cold-war program. A demonstration of U.S. technical prowess in the aftermath of Sputnik. If we could put people on the Moon, what level of accuracy might we obtain in launching nuclear missiles over the Iron Curtain? If any country was interested in militarizing space, the U.S. would not want to be left vulnerable. Without the Soviet Union as a looming menace, I'd bet that the Apollo program would not have happened.

And so we're left with this interesting viewpoint: Useful scientific results from a program with unscientific motivations. Science was just along for the ride. And yet how many young children were inspired to become scientists because of the purely political pictures of a human stepping onto another world for the first time? The same scientists who criticize manned spaceflight for its lack of efficiency in producing scientific results were likely inspired to go into space science by the idea of going into space themselves, seeing the Earth from afar.

And what about the scientific results that came from the Gemini and Mercury missions? These missions were necessary in developing the ability to put people in space and safely bring them back. What scientifically useful results in space science did these programs bring about? Virtually none. But the Apollo program would not have been possible without them. Today, as we look to the many successes (and the 50% failure rate) of sending robotic spacecraft to do science at Mars, we still dream of sending people there to explore on foot. I've heard it said that the amazing results obtained by the MER rovers could have been obtained much more quickly in situ if astronauts were walking on Mars instead. Do we WANT to send people to the Moon and other planets? My bet is that if you ask the citizens in this country, and many others, the overwhelming response would be yes. Sending people to Mars will likely require several years of interplanetary space travel, round trip. People are spending long stints on the ISS, and returning a larger and larger data set about the logistical requirements and biological side affects of keeping people in space for long periods of time. So, is the ISS not worth the cost, because it is not returning as much science as the unmanned spacecraft on the nature of the Sun, the Earth, the other planets, and interplanetary space, even though it is providing invaluable data and experience in human survivability in space and international cooperation?

And what about the space shuttle? It, too, has cost far more than was originally thought to maintain and launch. It turns out that having a re-usable manned spacecraft doesn't really save you that much money, because of all the maintanence required to keep it safe. But it, too, has contributed to our exploration and understanding of space. Take Hubble, for example. That orbitting telescope has been monumental in its opening our eyes to the distant reaches of our own solar system and the rest of the Universe. And yet, it was broken and myopic when it was first launched. But we have been able to fix and improve the telescope, extending it's life far longer than would have been possible otherwise, by sending humans up on the shuttle to service it.

Of course, my opinion should be obvious by now. Of course it is worth the cost. The ISS is teaching us how to deal with other countries in a huge project to do something that has never been done before, and requires more resources than any one nation is able to muster alone. This is invaluable experience that can be applied to future manned missions to the Moon, to Mars, to Near Earth Asteroids, or whatever we choose to do. The unmanned space program is far superior in terms of delivering broad scientific results, it's true. But that does not mean the manned program is useless. The two should work hand-in-hand when possible, and stick to what each is good at when practical. Both need to exist for our exploration and understanding of space to be useful. The investment in time, money, and sometimes even lives, is an investment in the future of humanity.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ft. Lauderdale


I just got back from Florida. I was in Ft. Lauderdale for the Joint Assembly of the American Geophysical Union. The conference went well. I gave a talk about the rotation rate of the Earth's plasmasphere, which seemed to stimulate some interest as I got lots of questions. I talked about research with a bunch of people doing interesting work. In my spare time, I did a bit of diving, a bit of relaxing on the beach, and a bit of hanging out with friends, old and new.

Pics and videos here.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Underwater Presentations

A dive buddy and fellow volunteer of mine who works in cinematography shot some video of me doing an underwater presentation at the Long Beach Aquarium the other day. For those of you who haven't seen me do this, I thought I'd share. This is what I do every week at the Aquarium of the Pacific.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Powerful Video

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to have been born in what happens to be the richest country on the planet at this time in history. I gripe about my "problems": Maybe I had a hard time getting a data analysis computer code to work, or maybe I get annoyed that a product I purchased doesn't work the way it is supposed to. But it usually does not take long for me to notice something that reminds me: I really have no right whatsoever to complain. One of those reminders of how undeservingly lucky I am showed up on a web page I was looking at this morning.

I was browsing, and found a YouTube video that held my attention. This is a CBS News report from 1975. It shows the last rescue flight leaving from Da Nang airport at the end of the Vietnam War. Apparently, the president of World Airways had been flying humanitarian missions, using his airliner planes to help evacuate south vietnamese to Saigon as the North Vietnamese troops marched into city after city. In the case detailed in this news report, a plane intended to evacuate women and children refugees was rushed on the Da Nang runway by mostly enlisted south vietnamese male soldiers, desperate to escape with their lives. They climbed aboard the plane, pushing each other out of the way in their panic. After the plane took off, they found that only 5 out of the 200-some people were women. Another world airways airline flying alongside informed the pilots that the bottom cargo doors were open during the flight (which was restricted to 10,000 ft altitude because they were unable to properly close the stairway door, which was damaged by the mob) and that those open cargo bays were filled with people.

I do not have problems. I am no more deserving of happiness than the refugees shown in this video, and yet, by pure chance, it is unlikely I'll ever have to endure one tenth of the fear and suffering that many of these people had been through in the ordeal that led them to be so desperate to escape.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Flickr has added video!

Many of my friends (especially the bridge kids who check our group MySpace page) know that I am ga-ga over Flickr. It's a hand-dandy photosharing site that brings me endless enjoyment as well as the ability to quickly and easily upload and share photos with friends and family. For a long time, however, I was frustrated that Flickr did not allow you to also upload those little videos you can take with your point and shoot camera. Sure, you can throw them up onto YouTube easily enough. . . but wouldn't it be nice just to have photos and videos of the same subject matter side-by-side, organized in a way similar to iPhoto on the mac?

Yes. .. yes it would be nice. So Flickr did it! Just today they added the ability to upload video. You can tag, geotag, and comment on the vids just like the pics, and all the world is in harmony now.

check out my videos on flickr!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Back from Baja

BajaMarch2008 - 35, originally uploaded by davidagalvan.

Reg and I went to Bahia de Los Angeles last week with our friends Tim and Julie. Tim knows the area really well, and led us to various islands for kayaking, fishing, and snorkeling. It was lots of fun! Check out some photos at my flickr site! For now, it's back to work!

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I arrived in Antarctica on Friday, January 4th. My advisor, Mark Moldwin, and I have come here to repair and re-deploy a magnetometer that is based at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAISD). We successfully fixed the electronics box, and have been ready to go to WAISD to redeploy it since last Friday, Jan 11. Since then the weather at WAISD has been bad enough that every flight since then has been cancelled. Mark has commitments he must return to back in the U.S., and we are running out of time to get out to WAISD and get back to McMurdo, before then flying up to Christchurch, New Zealand, and on to Los Angeles.

At this point, we are just hoping to get a day or two worth of time at WAISD to re-connect the electronics box to the power, GPS, Iridium and sensor cables. If we don’t have time to raise all the elements of the magnetometer site, another trip down in a year may be required. We’re hoping it won’t come to that, not because I wouldn’t love to come down here again, but because of the extra cost of an additional trip just to dig out and raise the magnetometer site.

Here at McMurdo, the largest research station on the continent, life is similar to living at a typical university. There is a population of around 1000 people during these summer months, which drops down to about 200 during the southern winter. The sun, of course, never sets here. It just goes round and round in the sky, ranging from ~30 degrees above the horizon and due north at local noon, to about 10 degrees above the horizon and due south at midnight. I had my “Snowcraft Training” course, which involved learning to make a Kinsey (snow-cave), snow-block walls, setting up Scott Tents, using a high frequency (HF) radio to communicate with receivers up to 1000 miles away (we actually got to talk to people at the South Pole, just from our camp site!), and of course spending a night out on the ice shelf.

Mark and I have done several short hikes around “town”. It really is beautiful terrain when the weather is good. There isn’t all that much wildlife right around the station; I haven’t seen any penguins yet. Though an adelie penguin delayed our landing by being out on the ice runway when were supposed to be landing. We had to circle a couple of times while the airfield staff chased it away. I have seen probably 100 weddell seals from a distance, lying out on the ice shelf near melt pool and cracks in the ice. And there is the occasional skua scavenger bird (resembles a brown seagull) hoping to steal food from the people here in town.

It’s the height of summer down here, so the temperature hovers around 30 F, though it’s in the teens or single digits when you factor in windchill. The wind really does make all the difference here. The extreme cold weather gear (ECW) given us by the U.S. Antarctic Program is great though!