Monday, January 29, 2007

This afternoon I received a check from my publisher. It was for signing my contract. Given that it was just for giving them two initials and a word in my scribbly handwriting, it's a huge amount when you consider the per word rate. Heh. Even when you don't think about it that way, it was still quite a lot of money. My wife was very happy.
Mike Griffin, head of NASA, gave an excellent speach on why we go to space: Space Exploration: Real Reasons and Acceptable Reasons

If you ask why we're going back to the moon and, later, beyond, you can get a variety of answers. The President, quite correctly said that we do it for purposes of scientific discovery, economic benefit and national security. I've given speeches on each of those topics, and I think these reasons can be clearly shown to be true. And Presidential Science Advisor Jack Marburger has said that questions about space exploration come down to whether or not we want to bring the solar system within mankind's sphere of economic influence. I think that is extraordinarily well put.

These reasons have in common the fact that they can be discussed within the circles of public policy making. They can be debated on their merits, on logical principles. They can be justified. They are what I am going to call tonight "Acceptable Reasons." You can attach whatever importance you want to any of those factors, and some citizens will weight some factors more and some will weight them less, but most of us would agree that they are, indeed, relevant factors.

But who talks like that? Who talks about doing something for purposes of scientific or economic gain or national security other than in policy circles? If anybody asked Lindberg why he crossed the Atlantic – and many did –he never indicated that he personally flew the Atlantic to win the Orteig prize. His backers might have done it in part for that, but Lindberg did it for other reasons.

If you ask Burt Rutan why he designed and built Voyager, and why Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager flew it around the world, it wasn't for any money involved, it was because it was one of the last unconquered feats in aviation. If you ask Burt and his backer Paul Allen why they developed a vehicle to win the X-Prize, it wasn't for the money. They spent twice as much as they made.

I think we all know why people do some of these things. They are well-captured in many famous phrases. When Sir George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he said "Because it is there." He didn't say that it was for economic gain.
We know these reasons, and tonight I will call them "Real Reasons". Real Reasons are intuitive and compelling to all of us, but they're not immediately logical. They're exactly the opposite of Acceptable Reasons, which are eminently logical but neither intuitive nor emotionally compelling. The Real Reasons we do things like exploring space involve competitiveness, curiosity and monument building. So let's talk about them. . . . .

Real Reasons are not amenable to cost/benefit analysis. I'm reminded of the famous quote "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," by the character Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde's play "Lady Windermere's Fan." It's one of my favorites. Well, in today's America it's smart, it's popular, it's clever to be a cynic. And a certain amount of it is appropriate; a healthy skepticism of bold claims is necessary. But too much skepticism causes us to deny a part of what we are.

Real Reasons are old fashioned. How many of us grew up reading Tom Swift, or Jack Armstrong, All American Boy? Or other similar books stories? Not great literature, for sure, but they exemplified many of the values I think we like to see in people: inventiveness, competitiveness, boldness, and a sense of good feeling about what it was to be an American, in very simplistic ways but ones which hit close to home.

To read those books was to understand, even as a child, that achievement is to be valued, and is not something to be set aside. So, how do we talk about our achievers today? Other than in the field of sports, we talk about today's achievers as "geeks" and "workaholics". People are advised to lead "balanced lives". I don't know about you, but I haven't led a balanced life. But people who want to accomplish something are not balanced. And they are geeks, and workaholics. I think we owe our country to people who were like that. I don't know that one could say that folks like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led balanced lives. Any rational cost/benefit analysis would tell you to stay out of a quarrel with the mother country, and let other people deal with it! Who today would talk about pledging "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" to a cause? Today we are uncomfortable with such value discussions, and I think it's a shame.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, January 08, 2007

I received my contract from Quarto (my publisher in London) today about 5:50 PM. They sent it by DHL. It is for my book, 100 Characters From the Bible, scheduled for publication in the Autumn of 2007. It will be published in the US by Reader's Digest Books.

To my surprise, I get paid quite a bit just for signing the contract. I am then required to deliver the book in three parts: 1/3 by February 15, 1/3 by March 30, and the final 1/3 by May 15, 2007. I will be busy between now and then, obviously. I get paid at each step along the way, which is pleasant indeed.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Pessimism is easy because pain always gets our attention, while comfort goes unnoticed and unremarked. If you do your job well, and nothing goes wrong, no one will say a word. Make one little mistake and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you dribbled a bit of ketchup on your shirt at lunch, that’s all anyone will see despite the fact that most of your clothing is stain free. Animals are the same. Monkeys groom one another, focusing their attention only on the fleas and other parasites.

Despite all the things wrong in the world, the problems are small compared to the successes. Being an optimist is not unrealistic as we look at the United States and the world today.

Despite the current focus on the conflict in Iraq, war is becoming increasingly rare in the world. Consider that the casualty rate in the current war in Iraq is miniscule by historical standards. Our grand children may not even remember it, any more than most of us remember the Philippine-American War of 1899-1913 in which 4324 US soldiers and at least 16,000 Filipino soldiers died, while 1 million Filipino civilians were killed.

The last large war in the world is one that most people probably haven’t even heard of: the Second Congo War which lasted from 1998 until 2003 and resulted in 3.8 million deaths. Despite a formal end to the war in July 2003 and an agreement by the former belligerents to create a government of national unity, the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains weak and much of its eastern region continues to suffer from violent conflict. In 2004, an estimated one thousand people died every day from violence and disruptions to basic social services and food supply. Oddly, we rarely read about any of this in the newspapers nor are we likely to hear that the UN has issued any condemnations or pronouncements.

We have to go back ten years in order to find a comparable big war: the one between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988. 1.5 million people died from that conflict. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and fought there for ten years, from 1979 to 1989, one million people died. 2.4 million died in the Vietnam War between 1957 and 1975—not counting the 1.5 million deaths from genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. Only 50,000 of those deaths were Americans. It took only three years, from 1950 to 1953 for three million people to die in the Korean War. Again, only about 50,000 of those were American.
And yet, as bad as all those deaths were, we have to remember that even in the times of the bloodiest conflicts, the overwhelming majority of people in the world were not at war and were not being killed. According to the CIA World Fact Book, there are 8.67 deaths per 1,000 people world wide annually. That works out to .86 percent. Therefore, less than one percent of the human race dies each year from all causes—and most of those deaths are obviously due to old age.

Meanwhile, human life spans have increased in the last fifty years world wide and the reason for the rising world population is due directly to the good news that ever fewer people are dying. Birth rates have actually radically declined in the last century. The incidence of disease and starvation have dropped precipitously. Many diseases that once killed millions are now easily treatable. Some have even been eradicated.

Air pollution in the United States has declined by 29 per cent over the last thirty years, even while the population grew from 212 million to 300 million and the economy grew by 160 per cent. In southern California, the incidence of first stage smog alerts went from an average of 100 a year in the 1970s to none in the 21st century, despite a booming economy and enormous population growth.

And the economy of the world has continued an upward trend. Global output rose by 4.4% in 2005, led by China (9.3%), India (7.6%), and Russia (5.9%). The United States economy has grown at an average rate of 3.5 per cent per year, while the current unemployment rate is lower than it has been for thirty-five out of the last thirty-eight years.

The UN uses a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living. An index ranking of .800 and above is considered “high.” In 1975 20 nations had a “high” Human Development Index. In 2004, 63 countries were rated as high. What’s interesting to notice is that extreme poverty is a rare occurrence outside of Africa. And even Africa is better off today than it was 30 years ago.

Noticing the bad things in the world is a good idea. We can’t fix the problems if we pretend they’re not there. But we need to be careful not to let our concern with current problems lead us to lose perspective and to forget the remarkable progress made, miss the good things in life, or to forget the problems solved.