Wine From Outer Space

Wine From Outer Space is intoxicating, unearthly and surprising. It's also where I write about whatever I choose, and that's nice.

08 February 2006

Weird Science, or, the Continuing Curious Case of Mr. Deutsch

An update on the NASA flap I posted yesterday--George Deutsch, one of the presidential appointees to NASA's public affairs department (and the one apparently feared that the Big Bang theory left no room for an intelligent designer of the cosmos)--resigned.

NASA officials would not comment on Mr. Deutsch's departure, thought it's possible that reports confirming Deutsch lied on his resume (he did not, in fact, graduate from Texas A&M) helped move him out the door.

The puzzling thing is that NASA apparently declined to conduct a cursory examination into Mr. Deutsch's history--they did not even bother to verify that he graduated. Presidential backing or not, it's strange that such a young man with limited professional experience and no science background whatsoever was allowed to join the agency's ranks. Granted, having the President of the United States recommend you for a job is probably a pretty powerful thing. But it's not like there isn't precedent when it comes to presidential appointees being woefully out of their depth: Michael Brown, former head of FEMA, got the same "thumbs up" from Bush and slid right into the top slot at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The more I see of the business world, the more I'm convinced that it really is all about who you know.

07 February 2006

She Blinded Me with Science

An interesting news story is flying just above the American media radar this week. While the lion's share of news coverage is dedicated to SuperBowl XL and the commercials that appeared during the game's broadcast, some scientists at NASA are trying to get their message through a political filter in tact and uncensored.

Last week, a story in the New York Times appeared about Dr. James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr. Hansen claimed that the Bush administration was attempting to muzzle him with regards to some dire climactic data that the doctor was trying to impart to the public. Dr. Hansen said that NASA's public affairs staff was going through his upcoming lecture materials and scholarly papers in an effort to control, soften or otherwise nullify any gloomy message about the current state of the natural environment. Members of the public affairs department have also reviewed Dr. Hansen's website postings and requests from journalists for interviews. NASA's deputy assistant administrator for public affairs ("deputy assistant" is a wonderful bureaucratic designation), Dean Acosta, said that this sort of procedure is routine for all NASA employees. Furthermore, according to Acosta, requests for interviews coming from the media are reviewed by public affairs officers to ensure coordination and a proper flow of information.

Acosta's primary complaint about Dr. Hansen is that NASA scientists should dispense only the meat and potatoes of science--that is, just the facts. It is not the role of NASA scientists to make policy statements. What did Dr. Hansen say that so riled the public affairs department at NASA? That emissions of greenhouse gasses must be drastically reduced in order to maintain a stable climate.

Whether or not Dr. Hansen is delivering a "policy message" is hardly the concern. Here is a scientist who has worked for nearly 30 years at NASA, who has statistical data to demonstrate that the burning of fossil fuels adversely affects the climate; in short, a qualified expert who has something important and immediate to tell us about the world in which we live. The deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, however, apparently has the power to control the volume, gravity and range of this message.

In a country where science and math are already so devalued a currency as to make Confederate dollars seem like crisp new fifties, one of America's most recognized and arguably most inspiring scientific organizations is being diluted by calls of bureaucratic foul and any apparent findings or data that do not correlate with the "message" put forth by the Bush administration.

That is not to say that these presidential appointees in NASA aren't interested in promoting information about the sciences--quite the contrary. In fact, directives came down from NASA headquarters in early 2004 that all press releases related to earth sciences should make some reference to president Bush's call for a return to the Moon and to Mars. In other words, if the scientific "information" recalls Bush's glorious vision of exploring the same satellite we visited 35 years ago, then open the flood gates; if the subject matter is anything else, or worse, detrimental to the current administration's policies, then keep it under your hat.

Some policy makers and administrators at NASA are appointed by the White House, and Dr. Hansen and other functionaries within the public affairs department at NASA claim that these appointees have threatened "dire consequences" if he did not cease his pleas for swift action regarding the decrease in greenhouse gasses. A follow-up story in the New York Times states that "more than a dozen public-affairs officials, along with half a dozen agency scientists, spoke of growing efforts by political appointees to control the flow of scientific information."

I read on another blog today about the curious case of George Deutsch, a presidential appointee at NASA's headquarters. Deutsch seems to be overly concerned about making sure that every scientific proclamation about the cosmos allow some room for the notion of so-called Intelligent Design theory, especially considering he's in the employ of one of the largest science concerns in the country. From the Times (Feb. 4, 2006):

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen's public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

The memo also noted that The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual specified the phrasing "Big Bang theory." Mr. Acosta, Mr. Deutsch's boss, said in an interview yesterday that for that reason, it should be used in all NASA documents.

The Deutsch memo was provided by an official at NASA headquarters who said he was upset with the effort to justify changes to descriptions of science by referring to politically charged issues like intelligent design. Senior NASA officials did not dispute the message's authenticity.

Meh. I particularly enjoy the time and effort this cog devoted to worrying about religion having a place in the Einstein presentations for middle school students. Were those public schools, I wonder? I thought the Republicans were supposed to favor the laissez-faire approach to governmental administration, but Deutsch seemed to be pretty engaged in this seemingly fringe NASA activity. Get 'em while they're young, Mr. Deutsch.

I'm admittedly biased toward this administration. I don't think very highly of this president in terms of his ability to make sound decisions, think on his feet or possess even a tenuous grasp of the intricacies related to domestic and/or foreign policy. Some would say I ask too much of a president; the leader of the free world need not be a Rhodes Scholar or a policy savant. Perhaps, but he or she should be able to pronounce words like "nuclear." Nevertheless, I would have ranked Bush's term a success if he was at least able to keep us out of a war. Well. Wherefore art thou, silver lining? Oh yeah, preservation of democracy--by any means necessary.

01 February 2006

The State of the Union is Strong

The first president to issue a State of the Union address was George Washington. Thomas Jefferson did not give any sort of speech, but instead delivered copies of his Sate of the Union to the House and the Senate in 1801. The next State of the Union address didn't come for another 112 years, when it was delivered by Woodrow Wilson.

It has now become a common annual occurrence for the president to present the State of the Union to both houses of government and, thanks to broadcasting media, to the citizens as well. There have been few such addresses that contained any substance, either forceful in legislative scope or inspirational in stylistic oratory.

I don't know whether a president has ever provided a State of the Union in which the message was dire, or that the "state of the union" was weak or tenuous. It would seem like a bad move to do so. Obviously a positive tone is more appealing, even when the current political or economic situation seems otherwise.

President Bush delivered his State of the Union last night, and his assessment is that the state of our union is strong. Not only that, it will become stronger! Perhaps the next president will tell us that the state of our union is "really, really super-strong."

I'm neither a policy wonk nor a Beltway insider, but from where I sit I question the status of our union. Gulf coast states ravaged by Katrina are still struggling to regain basic services. The current trade deficit and national debt are staggering, and projections suggest they will worsen. Prolonged occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a grim toll on American lives, and funding these ongoing operations further strains an already lean economy. The Hamas party taking the victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections and developments in Iran's nuclear program have raised additional questions as to our role in the Middle East, while North Korea's nuclear program seems to be moving along without much diplomatic intercession. Investigations into alleged torture programs on the part of the CIA and US military are ongoing. Estimates of a military force stretched too thin, coupled with a dropoff in enlistment rates, have some officials concerned about the ability of our armed forces to adequately provide security for our nation. The passage of a budget-cutting bill that would trim some $40 billion from areas like Medicaid and student loans begs the question of where American funding priorities lie.

My dissatisfaction with the entire notion of the State of the Union address rests, I think, in the gulf between what the president says should happen and what legislative measures actually achieve. It is important to set goals, but goals are really only valuable if they are met, or at least attempted. Bush's proposal to wean America's reliance on Middle Eastern oil imports by 75%--a figure to supposedly be realized in 2025--seems pointless. A better goal would be to cut our reliance on all petroleum fuels by 75%, though that too seems highly unlikely. Noting that only a fifth of our oil imports come from the Middle East, Bush's "oil intervention" seems that much more a piece for popular consumption than a measure that will markedly affect our environment or economy.

We face a growing crisis in terms of our groaning national debt, deplorable education and health care systems and a constantly eroding environment. Serious, concerted steps must be taken now to deal with all of these problems which will each take more than one or two presidential terms to correct. Worse, American policy only seems to move swiftly if quick money is to be made in pursuing any particular agenda, and none of these challenges suggest a fat pot of gold or a menu of no-bid contracts.

The time and energy that speechwriters, political strategists and polling bodies invest in these Sate of the Union addresses (and the various "analyses" provided afterward by the media) would be much better served by building a house in which we all can live rather than drawing a picture of a house in which it would be nice to live.

Lovesong of Walter E. Tuttle

My very first job that paid any money worth reporting to the Internal Revenue Service was at the Allenberry Playhouse. The name suggests a single building, but it was more accurately a campus of sorts situated in Boiling Springs, PA. Allenberry was really a kind of resort that consisted, among other things, of the theater (or "playhouse" if you don't want to sound so snooty), two restaurants and a variety of buildings providing lodging. Amid the trees, along the Yellow Breeches river, it was quite a charming locale. It always reminded me of the sort of Americana resorts that people must have frequented in the late 50s and early 60s; what I imagined the Catskills to be but without the bad stand-up comedians.

I worked in one of the restaurants, called the Carriage House. Maybe it was the Carriage Room. Anyway, I handled prep work and salad bar: a step above the lowly dishwasher position but sadly outside the glorious limelight of line cook. Weekdays were usually tolerable in terms of stress and pace, but it got crazy on the weekends. The restuarant had a bar, and the bar closed at 2 am, which meant I usually didn't leave until 2:30 at the earliest. On weekends we would have the head chef, three line cooks, three prep people, the dishwasher and the wait staff (which probably consisted of about five people, plus a hostess and a bartender).

The other prep guys I worked with most often during my time there were Tawn and Walt. Tawn was a pretty laid-back guy who, true to the spirit of the kind of work in which we were engaged did just enough to stay out of serious trouble. My other partner in the trenches on the prep/salad bar front was Walt--Walter E. Tuttle. One of the line cooks, Mark, exclusively called Walt his full name. It was fun to say, and Walt was a unique individual.

One of Walt's passions was Michael Jordan. Apparently there was a videotape of highlights of Jordan's basketball abilities called "Come Fly With Me," because Walt consistently used this phrase before striking the Jordanesqe air-jam pose, complete with extended tongue. It was an interesting juxtaposition, because Walt, even at that age of 17 or so, was 6'1", probably 120 pounds with bright red hair fashioned into an Army crew-cut. He had slightly bucked teeth, a pronounced Adams apple and bugged-out eyes. He was a funny guy and really a great value in a stress-pot situation that a kitchen can become; he was Mark the line cook's foil and sometimes butt of jokes, but Walt was good-natured and probably used to this sort of treatment, so he took it all in stride.

Another of Walt's passions was spanking the salmon. I mean it. I'm not talking about a euphemism for masturbation; he spanked the salmon. That is to say, when pulling out what we'd need from the walk-in refrigerator, he would take you aside conspiratorially. Walt would grab a sealed plank of smoked salmon and, describing the aesthetic benefits of a girl's tight ass, slowly make circles with his open palm on the face of the packaged fish. Peppering his soliloquy with sharp slaps to the salmon, Walt underscored his desire for admirable female glutes. The end of his bizarre diatribe always ended with a wavering, open-faced hand raised high above the package, which he would bring down with full force and punctuate with an "Ohhhh yeah!" It was almost like a trademark finishing move from a pro wrestler. This was Walt's gimmick. After the move, he repeatedly nodded his head in appreciation for this surrogate . . . whatever it was . . . and laugh, extending his same salmon-smacking hand to you, ready to receive a congratulatory high-five.

I never thought much of Walt's salmon fetish. It was weird, sure, but it provided all of us with a much-needed laugh during those long shifts. It might sound like the nakings of a serial killer: cornered in a confined space with this guy who becomes increasingly violent and vociferous with a packaged fish product. He was harmless though, and one of the things I miss about working in a restaurant is the sort of weirdo characters you meet, like Walter E. Tuttle.