Category Archives: politics

A Breath of Fresh Air

It some ways it was certainly unusual. But mostly its normalcy made it a breath of fresh air. For more than an hour President Joe Biden delivered a report to Congress, the nation, and the world on the state of the state one hundred days into his administration. He laid out the achievements already accomplished, the programs now under way, and the proposals he is sending to Congress for enactment into law.

One way the speech was unusual was that there were two women behind the president. Presiding over the joint session of Congress were Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is President of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was a historic first. Another way was that the chamber, which normally holds 1,600 people for these events, was limited to 200 by pandemic protocols. The audience members were socially distanced and most were masked.

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Helicoptering on Mars – Really

A team of very smart humans flew a helicopter by remote control off the surface of Mars on April 19, 2021. It is easier to type that sentence than it is to truly appreciate the accomplishment.

The Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, weighs just four pounds. It is a proof of concept demonstration. That means it’s mission is just to prove that it works. It did. And it was the first time humans have achieved powered and controlled flight on another planet.

Ingenuity hitched a ride on the Perseverance rover. I wrote about Perseverance after it landed. Nicknamed “Percy,” it has a detailed science mission to look for signs of life on Mars. But first it was tasked with dropping Ingenuity, “Ginny,” onto the Martian surface, backing away and watching while the Ingenuity team tried to make their little drone fly.

This short video, taken by Perseverance, shows the entire first flight:

In this video captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2021.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Mars is the closest planet to Earth, and has entranced humans since the beginning of recorded history. It is behind a paywall, but if you have access the Washington Post has produced a wonderful overview of the history of Mars exploration and the plans for this mission, known as Mars 2020.

The challenge for Ingenuity is that the atmosphere on Mars is only one percent the density of that of Earth. Strange at it seems, most of our airplanes effectively pull themselves through the atmosphere like a corkscrew pulls a cork out of a bottle. On Mars there is very little atmosphere to grab hold of. That produced a design for Ginny that meant a very low weight craft with relatively big rotors spinning at very high speeds. And of course the fact that radio signals take many minutes to get from Earth to Mars meant that Ginny, like Percy, has to be fed instructions but is then on its own to execute them. We humans find out if the task was achieved minutes or even hours later.

This was an amazing feat and in so many ways a tonic for the times in which we live. There are those who question the value of this kind of scientific research and exploration. Surveys show many people perceive the cost to be high. But in fact, the NASA budget is a tiny fraction of the military’s budget. The military budget just for its new Space Force and Space Command is higher. The debate is heated, but a majority of Americans favor continued funding for NASA.

Studies show that for every dollar spent on NASA, more than $8 is added to the economy. And you had only to watch the control room crew as the data came in documenting Ginny’s first flight on another planet to see how this research is exciting new generations of explorers. When I was a child watching the Mercury astronauts I saw images almost exclusively of white men wearing white shirts and narrow black ties. We now know that behind the scenes there were crucial if unsung members of the team kept hidden from the cameras. Today’s teams represent men and women across all demographics. If the United States is to remain competitive and really matter in the 21st century we need to do more to encourage all young people to pursue scientific careers.

Now that the helicopter concept has been proven, scientists and engineers planning future missions to Mars and elsewhere have access to a treasure trove of research as they explore the use of flying vehicles on their missions. There are, for example, many locations on Mars that are inaccessible by rover but are of great interest to planetary scientists. There is also an upcoming mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan has an atmosphere denser than that of Mars. There is already a helicopter named Dragonfly planned for that mission which is now scheduled to launch in 2026, arriving in 2034.

Even while waiting for Ginny to finish her testing, Percy is working. The MOXIE technology demonstration aboard Perseverance successfully extracted oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere—a critical component for life support so humans can breath on the Red Planet and produce rocket fuel for the trip home.

The continuing plan for Mars 2020 is for Ingenuity to make several more test flights over the next few weeks, each one pushing the helicopter to fly higher and further away. A second flight was made on April 22nd, a third on April 25th. As often happens with technology demonstrations, it may well be pushed beyond its limits and crash on the surface. In any event, by the end of April it will be left behind as Perseverance leaves the scene to begin it’s own exploration of the Martian surface, which will include the collection of samples for retrieval on later flights.

You read that right. The Mars 2020 mission will be collecting samples of Mars to be picked up by later flights. Stay tuned.

Update – Ingenuity Tests Extended

After a successful fourth flight, NASA announced it would extend the test flight program for Ingenuity for another 30 days. Ginny’s mission was slated to end at the end of April. Now NASA plans to test the chopper’s ability to be a “scout” for future exploration by the Perseverance rover and future missions.

Perseverance will be farther from Ingenuity during the new flight phase, but the team thinks that the pair will still be able to communicate effectively. Additionally, Perseverance will not take the time to document the flights Ingenuity makes during its extended mission.  NASA will continue to provide updates on Ingenuity’s progress here.

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Infrastructure for the 21st century

I long for the days when I could have a rational discussion with someone I disagree on the serious issues of the day without that person spouting a stream of totally unsubstantiated falsehoods. In other words lies. I’m pointing my finger at you, Republicans, almost without exception.

Discussions with Democrats are also often frustrating. But that is because the Democrats include a wide range of differing views and the disagreements are generally over strategy. I’m thinking of you Joe Manchin. Not over the role of government in attempting to solve problems or denying that problems even exist. And Democrats are not inclined to interrupt a serious discussion with a rude critique of your mother’s footwear. I still remember being told, “Your mother wears army boots.” I was on the first grade playground at recess at the time.

Republicans will call you every name in the book at the drop of a hat. They will insult your relatives, living and dead. And charge you with a wide variety of crimes without the slightest bit of evidence. They also live in an alternate universe where up is down, down is up, and things you can see right before your own eyes are somehow not true. They revere the framers who wrote our Constitution, except when they ignore it.

Republican hypocrisy knows no bounds:

  • Senate rules are sacrosanct unless they need to be broken to thwart a Democratic proposal.
  • Deficits are bad but only if there is a Democrat in the White House.
  • The purpose of the federal government is to “provide for the common defense,” quoting the magnificent preamble to our Constitution, ignoring the fact that the phrase is part of a list and imminently following are the words, “promote the general welfare.”
  • Infrastructure means roads. That’s it. Roads.

Let’s put the debt debate aside for now except for to state that the evidence is clear, economics is an art, not a science. We really don’t understand what it is going on. Starting with Ronald Reagan, Republican, yes, Republican presidents have greatly increased the national debt by cutting taxes and increasing defense spending. Yet the inflation that was predicted by my college economics teacher (we used Paul Samuelson’s Principles of Economics) did not really appear. Go figure. For more right now I refer you to a great piece by John Oliver.

What this means is, while we should be watchful, and Fed Chairman Jerome Powell seems to be, we do not have to be afraid of some Covid related economic stimulus. Republicans opposed the latest round of Covid economic payments even when Donald Trump asked for them. We also do not need to be afraid of a big infrastructure program. The Republicans are outraged at the infrastructure program, arguing that it will increase the debt and complaining that Democrats are extending the traditional definition of infrastructure.

Republicans don’t seem to have a problem with repairing the nation’s highways and bridges. Republican Dwight Eisenhower signed the legislation that created the Interstate Highway System in 1956 after all. But Republicans like highways that connect towns in rural America. Transportation projects that benefit urban areas do not get their approval. I take the New Jersey Transit train under the Hudson to Manhattan and always wonder if the crumbling tunnel, built in 1910, is going to cave in on the 200,000 people who use it every day. In 2012 the tunnel was inundated with millions of gallons of salt water during Super Storm Sandy. The water left behind corrosive chlorides, which continue to damage the already aged concrete and wiring. A Republican New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, and a Republican President, Donald Trump, each killed a project to build a replacement.

But where the Republicans most throw up the roadblocks is where it comes to infrastructure they claim is outside of the “traditional” definition of the word. I disagree. But I also don’t care. We do not live in a stagnant word. We can be respectful of our traditions but should not be afraid to change them for the public good.

So I am on board with what some analysts are calling “Social Infrastructure”:

Social infrastructure can be broadly defined as the construction and maintenance of facilities that support social services. Types of social infrastructure include healthcare (hospitals), education (schools and universities), public facilities (community housing and prisons) and transportation (railways and roads).

Aberdeen Standard Investments

I do not understand why people cannot see that the nation depends on the health of its people, and the safety, and quality of its schools. We also need a 21st century power grid and high-speed rail would be nice. Child care for working parents is an economic necessity. In an information driven society, broadband connections for the entire population are essential. Faced with tremendous world-wide competition education, research and development are all that stands between America and second-class status.

The public seems to understand this even if the Republicans do not. A Quinnipiac University National Poll finds the Infrastructure Plan is popular with the public:


Q46 Do you support or oppose President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan?

—–

Support

Oppose

DK/NA

Total

44%

38

19

Republicans

14%

71

14

Democrats

81%

5

15


And even more popular if corporate taxes fund it as President Biden has proposed:

Q47 As you may know, President Biden has proposed funding his infrastructure plan by raising taxes on corporations. If it was funded by raising taxes on corporations, would you support or oppose President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan?

—–

Support

Oppose

DK/NA

Total

53%

39

9

Republicans

22%

70

8

Democrats

92%

6

2

Last but not least, expenditures on infrastructure, traditional and 21st century alike, have a large multiplier factor. Put simply, they pay off many times over. The benefits spread throughout the economy. The Eisenhower creation of the Interstate Highway System is credited with creating the long post-war expansion of the American economy. Studies show tax cuts for rich people and fiscal policies which benefit Wall Street do not have this positive effect. The proposed infrastructure projects should be seen as an investment in America’s future.

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Biden Meets the Press

For weeks the right-wing bobble heads on cable complained that President Joe Biden had not yet held a news conference. As if he didn’t have a few other things on his plate as he worked to clean up the mess his predecessor had left behind. This week he did face the press in a formal setting and, of course, the bobble heads complained about his performance.

I’m old enough to remember when reporters asked presidents questions and filed stories based on the answers they received. Today reporters ask questions and the stories are made up of the opinions of people I have never heard of speaking with great authority about things which have nothing to do with the answers.

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Trump Trial #2 – sine die

US Senate

And so it is over. The second trial of Donald J. Trump, the only president to have been impeached twice, has adjourned. And Trump is now also the only president to have been found not guilty twice by the U.S. Senate. In the final tally, 57 senators, including 7 Republicans, found Trump guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors for inciting the mob that went on to breach and vandalize the Capitol, and to injure and kill law enforcement personnel. Forty-three senators found Trump not guilty. A supermajority of 67 being constitutionally required for conviction, the result was not guilty.

But only a handful of Trump’s most loyal supporters rushed to the cameras to proclaim that their leader had been exonerated by what goes down as the most bipartisan impeachment in history. The senators, and the world, saw the video of senators and members of the House fleeing for their lives during the attack on January 6th. They saw the Vice-President, Mike Pence, and his family being ushered away from the senate chamber by the Secret Service. They viewed Trump’s tweet of rage following Pence’s refusal to attempt an unconstitutional coup by rejecting of the voter’s will saying, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” They heard testimony that Trump had sent that tweet moments after receiving word that the Vice-President’s life was at risk.

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The Second Trial of Donald Trump

Been there. Done that.

It seems like just yesterday the Senate tried Donald J. Trump for High Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was in January, 2020. He was acquitted.

This time it is different. The House of Representatives sent over only a single charge, accusing Trump of inciting insurrection in a speech to supporters before the deadly attack on the Capitol. They voted for impeachment without hearings or witnesses, using only the former president’s own words against him. And unlike the first time, where the impeachment was passed on a party-line vote, this time ten Republican members of the House stood with their Democratic collogues.

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Joe Biden’s Day

There is much to say about all the players who participated in the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th President of the United States. But we’ll save that for another day. For this was Joe Biden’s Day. And I want to let him speak in his own words.

“This is America’s day,” Biden said. “This is democracy’s day.” What struck me first and foremost was how normal it all seemed. A new President. A new administration. Words meant to soothe a bruised nation. Words meant to call us to arms to face the challenges ahead. And above all, words not about him, but words about us.

Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.

After four plus years of having every White House utterance a statement of, by, and for Donald Trump, this was a breath of fresh air. Coming two weeks to the day when a mob of insurrectionists stormed the very same platform in front of the Capitol in an attempt to nullify the voters will this was remarkable.

From now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries.

Biden pulled no punches in listing the challenges; the Covid pandemic, the climate crisis, political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism. And then he hit his main theme, a call for unity.

I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.

This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together.

As I read those words it is tough to keep the cynic in me down. So many times we have heard these calls for unity and cooperation only to see the hopes dashed on the rocks of bipartisanship. But this is Biden’s Day so let’s give him his due and hope he can pull it off.

We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life: There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.

I hope the naysayers and obstructionists will take heed and just give it a try. Bipartisanship does not mean you get your way. It means you compromise. You horse-trade. You win some and lose some. But you move forward and get things done. For decades we have for the most part failed to do this. If anyone can get us moving again, it will be Joe Biden, a man of faith, a man with empathy for others, a man who sees the difference between the truth and the lies, a man who has been in the Senate and worked with representatives of both parties for longer than most of us have been alive.

Folks, this is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And this is certain, I promise you: We will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.

Now we all face the test. How will we respond to Biden’s call?

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