Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pie in the Sky Science

Here's a question for you.

Say you were a large government agency, charged with, amongst other things, public safety in a specific area of regulation - and that responsibility applies to millions of Americans on a daily basis. And say you conducted a survey of professionals in that field in order to determine if the type of survey you were conducting was a good way to gather information (No, really). And let's say that survey of survey techniques cost the taxpayers $11 million dollars. And then, say, something funny happens - you get real data from your expensive test.

And the results are universally bad - indicating a major systemic danger to the public, one that is getting worse. Every single response (from thousands of professionals - the absolute experts in the field) says the system is breaking down. The results also indicate that you really aren't living up to your responsibility. The results strongly indicate that if something isn't done pretty damned quick, there are going to be some catastrophic consequences.

So here's the question: Do you A) take immediate action to correct the situation and live up to your charter? or do you B) cover that shit up and pretend it never happened?

I'll bet you can guess the correct answer. See because the part I left out is that you have friends in the industry you're supposed to be regulating, in fact you're in bed with this industry right up to your eyeballs, and if you choose Option A), well those friends are going to take a serious hit in the wallet. And, really, what kind of friend would you be if you placed public safety over the financial bottom lines of your buddies?

NASA yesterday released partial results of a massive air-safety survey of airline pilots who repeatedly complained about fatigue, problems with air-traffic controllers, airport security, and the layouts of runways and taxiways. The results have been 'redacted' - which is a government term for 'deliberately rendered unreadable through the removal of critical references and specific information, because, really, that Freedom of Information Act just plain bites and the people who paid for this information really have no need to know anything about it."

You can find the actual survey data here. NASA was forced to release the information through the FOIA. They weren't happy about it. They sullenly followed the letter of the law, but did it in a manner that violates the very spirit of public disclosure. Good luck figuring it out, it's about 10,000 pages of raw data fields exported from the NASA database in PDF format. The data has been deliberately disassociated from the original survey questions in order to prevent analysis. All references to the original data fields have been removed - i.e. it mostly 10,000 pages of numeric tables without any description of what those numbers mean. Additionally, most of the pilot's statements have been edited in a manner that can best be described as ludicrous: for example, entire paragraphs have been removed leaving only the word 'fatigue.'

"NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters ... that the agency had no plans to study the database for trends. He said NASA conducted the survey only to determine whether gathering information from pilots in such a way was worthwhile."

And apparently, if the results show that NASA is not doing its job correctly then by Griffin's definition the survey isn't worth bothering with. I love the fact that Griffin said his agency has no intention of studying the database for trends. $11 million this database cost us, solely in order to determine if it was worth doing, which according to Griffin it was not. Oh well.

Silly me, I thought NASA was an agency dedicated to science. Apparently though, they have adopted the creationism model of scientific investigation, i.e. Step 1) Determine the results you desire FIRST, 2) conduct the investigation, 3) throw out any data that does not directly support Step (1). When confronted with the conflicting data, pretend it doesn't matter because that's not what you were looking for in the first place.

Really, is it any wonder why nearly forty years after men first set foot upon Earth's moon, we're still trapped in Low Earth Orbit? Or that we've lost two manned spacecraft due to utter stupidity and a complete inability to face unpleasant truths? Or that we've decided to throw away the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the single greatest scientific instruments ever fielded in the entire history of mankind? Or...oh screw it, I could go on all day and I've got other things to do today.

Personally, I think we ought round up Micheal Griffin's family, wife, kids, grandkids, and etc. Then strap these people into some bargain airline seats and let them fly around the country until Mike retires. If he's good with their safety, I guess I'm good with it.


  1. NASA has evidently decided to take a leaf from the Bush's EPA strategy.

    This really makes me sad. I remember a time (not so very long ago) when I thought NASA was the Cat's Pyjamas. Now I look at them through the same cynical lenses that see FEMA, the CIA and the EPA.


  2. Yeah, I've long since lost any and all admiration I once held for NASA.

    Most people don't realize that the first "A" in the acronym stands for Aeronautics - and that they are deeply involved in national transportation safety and administration - most think they only build crappy spaceships and exploding mars probes. The problem is that the very contractors that build the probes and ships are the same dipshits NASA is supposed to be regulating. Seriously, talk about putting cylons in charge of guarding the defense mainframe.

    NASA has long since given up control of the organization to the bean counters, lawyers, and professional bureaucrats. Astronauts and engineers are looked upon with disdain. And worse, in my not so humble opinion, is the fact that there isn't a professional dreamer in the lot - not a single soul with any kind of vision. If it was up to me, I'd fire the whole damned bunch and put Bob Zubrin in charge - then we'd have a fucking space program.

    The shuttle program and, worse, the ISS are nothing more than money pits. The ISS is a joke, nothing more than a giant sucking chest wound. We've spent in the neighborhood of 60 billion for what? So 3 rocket jocks can live in LEO for a couple of months? For fuck's sake, we did that with Skylab 30 years ago - for one hell of a lot less money. We should have been on Mars twenty years ago, hell we should be on our way to Saturn's moons by now. Instead we can't even keep a pitiful fleet of shitty-ass shuttles flying. We're completely risk adverse. I absolutely hate the spirit and opportunity probes. Hate them. It should be us up there, not some fucking toaster.

    Arrggh! I don't want to think about it.

  3. Yay! No more bug-eating bitch-girl!

    You hate Spirit and Opportunity? Are you high?

    Leaving aside for the moment the idea that we should have manned exploration of Mars by now, I have to say the teams that designed and build those toasters have my complete respect and admiration. The challenges they faced, and the fact that those little guys lasted so long speak to real American innovation and can-do spirit.

    You can say what you want about NASA and the beurocratic asstards that run it, but the teams that built those little robots are the shit.

    Check this out, if you're interested:


    /end rant.

  4. Oh I like the probes themselves, and by extension the scientists and the engineers who built them. I admire quality workmanship, and I'd say that we've gotten real science from those machines. And I follow the pictures and the incoming data religiously (or as close to religion as I ever get).

    HOWEVER - I hate the idea. I hate the idea that we send machines to do our job. I hate the fact that we've given our dreams over to machines. I hate the idea that we can't touch another world with our own hands. I hate that we're doing it for the science, and only the science, and not for the shear grandeur of human exploration. I hate the idea that there are no footprints on Mars, or the moons of Jupiter. I hate the fact that I can't see the light of cities gleaming like jewels in the dark crescent of the moon. I hate the idea that our children believe that the fate of the human race is to experience the universe through a computer screens and remote imaging like some idiot video game. I hate the idea that our children are being taught to believe that exploration should be safe and sanitary and to look closer to home.

    I want, and have wanted, my whole life, to go out there - whatever the risk. I wanted to have my children on Mars, or the Moon at the very least. I hate the idea that my son will have have to spend his whole life on this little blue ball. There's a whole fucking universe out there - that's his birthright, out there.

    Those probes, while they bring an alien world into our homes, do little more than the Scifi channel to inspire a lust for exploration, the burning desire in our children to go, to push the edge of human exploration, or human endurance, of humanity itself. It's not sex, it's little more than porn. It's something we can point at and say, "well, see, we do exploration" without risk, without passion, with real commitment, without life.

    We're smothering under the weight of those that are afraid, afraid of themselves, afraid of the vast universe, afraid of what we'll find, afraid of passion, afraid of destiny, afraid of the unknown.

    Spirit and Opportunity? We could have built Orion by now and owned our solar system (and not that stupid step backward Aries/Orion POS that NASA jerking off over right now - the real Orion, old bang bang herself. Robot Probes? We could be living on Mars by now, we could be mining the asteroids and building O'Neil habs. We could be beaming limitless power down from the sky - and that alone would have done more to end war, poverty, famine, economic hardship, and global warming than the trillions we've spent on Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the current fiasco.

    So, yeah, while I admire the engineering and the tickle of science and the bright shiny pictures - I hate the limited future those probes represent. To me those probes represent everything we could have done, and didn't.

    1. Re-reading some of your old blog posts, and dude, that was friggin' eloquent.

  5. I hit you link that says "here". I couldn't even figure out which part I might want to look at, so I just went back to reading your post.

    When I got to the part telling me they were pdf's with thousands of pages, I was right happy I hadn't bothered.
    From Dr. Strangelove-
    President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.

  6. Yeah, okay, I'm still your bug-eating bitch-girl.


  7. Nathan, yeah, I spent a couple hours digging through the tables, wondering if I could import them into an Access Database and thereby reconnect the information - no. The rows and columns have been randomized, in fact NASA clearly states that the data structure has been scrambled so no one can extract usable information.

    Janiece - I knew you'd see things my way :)

  8. Don't get too smug or I'll train the Hairy Eyeball northward.

  9. I've been married for 16 years to a women at least as mean as you - I'm immune.

    (whoa! what was that cold chill I just felt?)

  10. Becky may be at least as mean as me, but her ire is mitigated by her affection for the father of her son.

    I'm under no such constraints, you see. Bwahahahaha!

    ::Slowly swings Hairy Eyeball™ from Brookly™ to Palmer::

  11. Hey! All the snow just melted! Thanks, Hairy Eyeball!

  12. My work here is done.

    ::Saunters off, swinging my walking stick::

  13. Jim - have you read "Riding Rockets"? Well worth a read on exactly how NASA went to the dogs. The "I" part of the ISS was supposed to save us money, but the Russkies build such crap that it cost us more in kludges than if we'd gone it alone.

  14. John, no I haven't read it. Somebody recommended it to me a while back, but I've got at least two dozen non-fiction books on my 'to read' list that I hadn't gotten to yet. I'll bump it up a notch or two.


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