How Did We Give Up On Space?

America no longer has a space launch vehicle that can carry astronauts to orbit. Eventually, we hope there will be a commercial program that can do so, but the commercial efforts lately have simply demonstrated what happens when profit is more important than safety.

People complain about the NASA budget, without realizing how much space exploration has given us, and without understanding just how miniscule that budget is as a percentage of the total U.S. budget. Last year it was 0.5%, half of what it was when we were regularly launch shuttles. We spend 20% of our current budget on defense programs.

Eventually, we’ll need those resources that are out in space. It’s the one place where we can’t destroy our ecology. A single average nickel-iron asteroid could provide all the metals the world needs for five years or more. All without strip mining. The resources on the Moon and asteroids are the key to colonizing space, the key to expanding the human species out away from this single planet, which is all too fragile.

Right now, our species is still growing at a rate that the planet can’t sustain. If I had to guess, I don’t think the planet can support more than four billion people for more than a couple hundred years, and we have twice that number.

Before space exploration, most of our technological growth spurts were caused by wars. Space presented us with the first peaceful challenge that gave our technology a kick in the butt. Most of the electronics you take for granted, every day, owe their existence to devices developed to support NASA programs.

We need a focus. Without one, we become a nation that panics over a couple of Ebola patients. Space exploration is the closest thing we’ve ever found to a “moral equivalent to war.” It’s a shame we seem to be so willing to let other nations lead the way in a field we were leading for so long.

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Assasin’s Creed: Unplayable

UbiSoft has done something I though impossible. They’ve made a bigger mess of launching Assassin’s Creed Unity than Sony did launching Star Wars. I can’t play the game at all, because it blows up playing the opening cut scene. It takes real talent to build a game that can’t even run a MPEG without blowing up. Other bugs have been well documented, including embarrassing graphics glitches, the main character falling through the scenery, sluggish loads, and frame rates that make the game unplayable for many who get past that first cut scene.

Gamers may yell a lot, but we’re actually pretty forgiving. We’re even willing to pre-order games when we love a particular franchise, because we want to make sure the game gets delivered. UbiSoft may put a stop to that practice single-handedly. I know I will never pre-play for a game again after this, especially since I discovered that Steam has a no refund policy. I spent $90 on a bunch of digital crap. But even I would have shut up pretty quickly if UbiSoft had acknowledged that they screwed up, got their priorities wrong and were working hard to fix the problems. Instead, the second patch, the one they released after the release day patch didn’t seem to fix anything, was a patch to fix the micropayment system. They were more worried about being able to tell the stock market that they had micro payments than delivering a functioning game.

Now we’re told there are more patches coming, but as far as I can tell, the first cut scene fatality isn’t even on the list.

How come none of us heard anything about these problems from the press? Because Ubisoft made everyone sign non-disclosures that kept them from publishing reviews until 12 hours after the game was released. That alone should have set of the alarm bells of our so-called game press. But apparently the various sites that should have been telling us about these problems were more worried about losing ad revenue by pissing off Ubisoft than in keeping their readers informed.

I think Ubisoft knew they were delivering a clunker and came up with this strategy in order to rip off the gaming public. After all, the click through agreements always say that we can’t expect the software to be fit for any particular purpose.

So, what should we do?

* Stop pre-paying for games. All that will do is encourage this kind of behavior. Distribution is pretty much all digital, so you should never have to worry about not being able to get your copy.

* Refuse to buy a game where the press has agreed to delay reviews. Complain bitterly to the game sites you read about the part they played in this mess.

* Stop buying any Ubisoft title until they have fixed all the bugs in ACU. I doubt I’ll even buy another AC title after this mess.

* If your copy won’t run, Call your State Attorney Generals office and complain. As far as I’m concerned, Ubisoft and other companies that deliver non-functional software are committing fraud. They should be taken to court. Maybe the fear of large jury awards might give the CEOs pause.

It’s clear that laws and law enforcement are lagging badly behind technology and what it enables. That means we have to watch out for ourselves and push our institutions, kicking and screaming, into the digital age.

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How The Daily Show Got It Wrong About Opiates

There seems to be a growing movement that wants to ban all opiates, regardless of the harm it would do to chronic pain patients. Since I’ve been a chronic pain patient for the past fifteen years, I feel I’m a bit better qualified than the Daily Show to say whether or not narcotics help me.

Treating pain is difficult. Doctors have no objective way to tell if someone is in pain, or how bad the pain is – no pain-meter. If they had one, it would be far easier to determine who is simply trying to feed an addiction and who is trying to manage debilitating pain. Doctors have to rely on what their patients tell them.

I’ve been a chronic pain patient for almost a third of my life, now. I’m fortunate. My pain can be controlled, mostly, by a pump that is implanted in my abdomen that delivers a narcotic to my spine. For the last fifteen years, that medication has made my life bearable. Without it I’m sure I would be dead by now. Medication delivered by a pump to the spine is 300 times more effective than oral narcotics, and, at least in my case, resistance has grown slowly. If I was still on oral meds, I’d be taking handfuls of tablets and I would be at risk of not waking up some day.

A study done many years ago, with eleven thousand pain patients, established that it’s hard to get addicted if you simply follow your doctor’s instructions. Out of those eleven thousand patients, fewer than ten became addicted.

An addict is looking for a high, which requires taking the drug differently than pain control does. A pain patient wants, more than anything, to stay ahead of the pain, which means keeping a relatively constant dose of pain mediation in the body. An addict wants the high, which means taking a bunch of meds at the same time, in order to get that feeling of euphoria.

If you know anything about addicts, you know that addiction is a mental illness. An addict that can’t get high one way, will simply find another. We need to research the best ways to treat addiction, and use those treatments, instead of demonizing medications. Otherwise, we’ll wind up making pain patients live in an unimaginable hell, while those bent on self-destruction will simply find another way to pursue their goal.

And if we want to help addicts avoid temptation, perhaps we should start with the legal drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. Of those, only the peddlers of nicotine have been held responsible and they weren’t penalized because they sold an addictive drug. They got sued because the addictive drug was coupled with carcinogens.

Ironically, we control morphine more closely than we control Vicodin and similar drugs, when they can be more dangerous, because they includes NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. The NSAIDs, which are drugs like Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen, can do serious damage to your liver.

There are a lot of problems with the way we treat pain. We need a lot more research on pain, how to measure it, and how to treat it without the harmful side-effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. But decisions about what drugs should or should not be available, should be made based on all the facts.

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Mentoring for FIRST Robotics – Non-Guilty Pleasure.

For the last six months, I’ve been mentoring over at Walpole High School for the robotics team, the Walpole Robo Rebels. It’s been a great experience.

FIRST, usfirst.org, is an organization that believes we need to teach our kids how to deal with real world challenges, but that we can let them have fun while doing so. They started up the First Robotic Challenge, or FRC, back in the mid-1990s.

The FRC program challenges the students to build a robot designed to play a game, in only six weeks. The game is different every year, and is revealed at the start of the 6-week build season. The game is about 3-minutes long and is typically played with several other robots built by other FRC teams.

These robots aren’t little toy robots. The dimensions vary a bit from year to year, but not by a lot. This year the robots were allowed to weigh up to 120 lbs and stand up to five feet high. They race around the game field at speeds up to 16 mph.

The point is to give the students a challenge that is seemingly impossible, and then help them meet it. That’s where the mentoring comes in.

The Walpole High School program is run by Dustin Scott with lots of help from Fred Hink and Paula Fontaine. We’re fortunate to have a great mentoring crew of almost a dozen individuals. Most of us have engineering backgrounds, but that’s not a requirement. Running an effective FIRST program is a big job and the more hands you have, the better.

This is my rookie year, and I’ve probably learned more from the other mentors and the students than I’ve taught. But I’ve made some great connections with some of the students and made fast friends among the other mentors.

This is more than just sitting around trying to build a robot and eating pizza. It requires a lot of commitment by the students, the parents, and the mentors. We all give up a lot of time. The students have to put in at least ten hours a week in the computer lab if they want to go to the tournaments. The mentors often put in as much or more time.

This year, the hard work paid off. We have a good solid robot which has been nicknamed the “Ten-ton Hamster Wheel of Doom” by the announcer at our first event.

Things didn’t go smoothly. By the time the six-week build season ran out, we weren’t entirely done. We had a robot that could move around and pick up the 24″ diameter balls that are this year’s game pieces, but we couldn’t shoot the balls over the 5″ truss in the middle of the field, or up through the high goal at the end of the field.

For the two weeks between the end of the build season and our first event at WPI, we worked on building a shooter mechanism that would have the required punch, fit in the space required, and not exceed our weight limitations.

For most of our first day at WPI, we didn’t have a shooter. But we still did reasonably well. We finally got the shooter working that night, but didn’t have a lot of time to tune it. Then, during a practice match, someone inadvertently dry-fired the shooter, and it imploded. We left WPI ranked 25 out of the 50-some robots with a record of 5-7-0. We also won the Industrial Design Award sponsored by GM.

One of the great things about the events is that you get to meet the other teams and see how they’ve gone about solving the same problems you’ve had to face. We discovered that several teams had found a way to use pneumatic cylinders to drive their shooters. While we went home with a broken mess of metal and plastic, we also went home with a new idea about how to build a shooter that would work.

In the two weeks before our next match, we built a brand new shooter, tested it, and mounted it on the robot. (Even though the robots are bagged between events, there is a rule that lets you unbag the robot and work on it for up to six hours in the week before your next event.)

Our second event was at Northeastern University where the new shooter served us well. This time, we qualified for the finals and weren’t knocked out until the semi-finals. We were ranked 5th with a record of 10-7-0. Here, we won the Excellence in Engineering Award sponsored by Delphi.

Unexpectedly, we qualified for the New England FRC Region Championship. We had to scramble, but we got all our arrangements made and took our ‘Hamster Wheel of Doom’ to Boston University, where the event was hosted.

By this time, the kids were really pumped. We hadn’t really expected to do quite this well this season, and at this event, they got to see, and in some cases meet, Woodie Flowers and Dean Kamen, the heart and soul of the FIRST program.

We did really well, rising to rank 2 by the end of the qualification matches. Sadly, we got knocked out in the quarterfinals, but we ended up with a record of 9-4-1. We also won the Gracious Professionalism Award sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.

Because we did so well at New England, we got invited to the World Championship in St. Louis. No one, at the beginning of the season would have predicted we’d go so far. We were down to the last $3000 dollars in the bank. We seriously considered not going, but, as one parent put it, if we weren’t going to go to the World Championship when we were invited, what message did that send to the kids? So we undertook the Herculean task of raising nearly $25,000 in three days along with making travel arrangements, finding a nurse, and the dozens of other things that had to get done.

I’m delighted to say that the team is going. We’re sending four mentors and over a dozen kids to St. Louis. We’d have loved to send everyone, but there are limits to what even this team can accomplish.

I’m really proud to have been part of this program this year and I intend to do the same thing next year. These young people are going to be the movers and shakers of their generation. They are the ones that will deal with the problems we’ve left them. I feel like it’s our responsibility to help them however we can.

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GOP Learning Disabilty

Apparently, the GOP can’t learn from its own mistakes. Instead of admitting that they screwed up, the ultra-conservatives in the party are doubling down and trying to spin the whole fiasco as if it was Obama’s fault.

It is the job of the Congress to pass a budget and pay our bills, not to extort the President. When you are unhappy with a law, in a democracy, you try to persuade people to vote for you and then you repeal the law. This is high-school civics, not rocket science. (Of course, this is the same party that blamed short falls in state budgets on teachers and other public employees, rather than on tax cuts for the wealthy and pork barrel spending.)

Actually, it’s unfair to those with real learning disabilities to compare them to the GOP. Those with real disabilities don’t have a choice, the GOP does. Instead of trying to recruit candidates that actually give a damn about the country, the post-tea-party GOP has been backing anyone who mouthed the party line and preached defund-the-government craziness. Now the GOP has learned that the people they backed really believe the crazy talk.

There is a simple recipe for restoring good will. All the GOP has to do is to really start looking out for actual Americans, not just the one or two percent who are the biggest campaign donors. That means reaching out to the moderates, to the people of color, and even evil progressives. They have to be fiscally conservative, not just when Democrats are in power, but even when their own Administrations are making bone-headed decisions. They also have to realize that the world is changing and no amount of shrill language will stop it.

Most immigrants are quite conservative, but the GOP has alienated them with barely concealed bigotry. Why should anyone of color trust a party that opposes such a moderate president simply because of his skin color.

Has the GOP ever hated anyone as much as Barak Obama, the first Black President in U.S. History? Has there ever been a time when a political party has been so determined to block everything a President proposes, not because they disagree, but simply because of who he is? The GOP has repeatedly defeated bills based on their own ideas, just to keep Obama from accomplishing anything. They apparently forget that those bills were meant to help Americans.

Additionally, the GOP has forgotten two thousand years of history that teach us all that commingling politics and religion is a good way to destroy a country. Our country was founded on the principle of separation of Church and State. There may be people who are Christian than any other domination, but that does not, and should not, make America a Christian nation. Look at Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where war has waged intermittently for over two thousand years over questions of religion, some of them incomprehensibly minor to outside observers.

It’s also ironic that the GOP is trying so hard to destroy public education, the great homogenizing influence in our society. The shared experience of public high school should be something that educates our children, not just about reading, writing and arithmetic, but also about accepting others that are different. By supporting the implicit segregation that voucher programs encourage, the GOP ensures the very class warfare that they keep whining about. More resources for public education would be a great boon for our economy and help use regain some of the technical leadership we’ve lost. Instead, the GOP continues to be the lap dog of the very wealthy who whine over every penny of taxes and live sheltered lives in gated communities while the rest of the country goes to hell.

Last, but not least, you’d think that the conservatives in this country would be the first to stand up for protecting our environment and working to mitigate the effects of global warming. The wanton destruction our actions have been wreaking on the environment adds on to a tab that must be paid, either now in dollars, or later – in lives. But again, the GOP has lost it’s way and can see no farther than the next fund raiser, next quarterly report, and next election.

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